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Administrative Evil in Action? Unmasking the Harms of the Administration Homeless Criminalization Laws

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hannah Lebovits
February 19, 2024

The modern homelessness crisis is now in its fifth decade in the United States, following the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness in the 1980s, the drug and imprisonment crises that began in the 1990s and the eviction and redevelopment efforts which continue to displace thousands of Americans each year. Yet, despite immense efforts to coordinate and distribute goods and services with the intention of making homelessness brief, rare and nonrecurring, there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans who lack reliable shelter. Indeed, the most recent Point-In-Time count (2023) revealed a startling 12 percent one-year increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. To respond to this concern, local, state and federal agencies have prioritized a number of policy and administrative solutions including increasing the number of available homes and vouchers, reducing barriers to service take-up and even offering more targeted services for specific homeless sub-populations.

Still, with many homeless individuals living in unsheltered environments, cities and states across the United States have also turned to criminalization and law enforcement efforts to reduce the visibility of homelessness and encourage people to remain off of the streets. Camping bans, panhandling bans, citations for charitable giving and unlicensed service provision and private park services are some of the most common ways that local and state governments seek to disincentivize homeless individuals from spending time in public places. These laws are often passed as public health, safety and welfare efforts, yet with many cities already banning violent behavior and criminal exchanges of goods and services, its difficult to see these additional efforts as anything more than targeting homeless individuals. These laws have administrative components, as well, as they are often connected to citizen communication systems (such as 311 and 911), they involve specific public personnel (both managers and street-level bureaucrats), they require collaborative efforts across departments and social service sectors and the costs associated with these policies can including hiring personnel, designing communications systems, compliance and even the costs of jailing individuals for various periods of time. Still, while these efforts to limit, deter or generally use the stick of law enforcement to impact the crisis are not successful, as is evident by the continued rise in homelessness, they remain incredibly popular and are frequently passed.

With so much time, effort and money dedicated to these ordinances, and little research about the efficacy of the criminalization approach, we must wonder why these policies continue to be designed and implemented. I believe that the language of administrative evil can enable us to better understand this phenomenon. In their groundbreaking 1998 book, “Unmasking Administrative Evil”, Guy Adams and Danny Balfour expertly described, analyzed and made visible the ways in which individuals within administrative systems can be directly involved in the production of harm, yet remain unaware of their involvement due to the design of the techno-rational administrative system. Although we often think of evil as a pre-modern concept or something deeply deviant, Adams and Balfour explained that evil is actually even more powerfully industrialized within our modern-day administrative systems due to our ability to cultivate distance and scientifically-rational reasonings with which we convince ourselves of a higher moral goodness than the commitment to avoid harm. In the decades since their book was published, it has been reprinted several times and its lessons have been deeply internalized by the field.

In practice, it is easy to see administrative evil in complex stories of governmental neglect, public sector efforts to avoid accountability, decades of citizen complaints and individual harm—such as Ashley Nickel’s work on the Flint water crisis. But administrative evil can also occur within efforts that are popular and widely spread across governmental networks, through the use of dehumanization and the maintenance of moral inversions—the reframing of deeply unethical and immoral actions as truly virtuous—which can be latched on to by any number of actors and agencies. As Guy and Adams note, within the modern administrative state dehumanization efforts and moral inversions are so powerful not because of banality of evil that Hannah Arendt so masterfully describes, rather because they are supported by the esteem of professional expertise and the language of data, standardization and the ethic of getting the job done.

Within the homelessness research landscapes I frequent, I encounter the rhetorical devices that dehumanize homeless individuals regularly, including the pathologizing of homelessness as its own form of deviancy and the framing of individuals as criminals. Further, this landscape is rife with moral inversions as the focus of so much of the data collected on this population enables professional to paint a picture of a social group that is both dangerous to others as well as to themselves. As such, I would posit that the criminalization efforts described above are not simply costly and inefficient responses to the issue of homelessness but rather containers for administrative evil. Following in the footsteps of Adams, Balfour and Nickels, the question then is—how can we unmask it?

Here, too, we can learn from the public administration scholarship and its focus on centering social equity. As Susan Gooden describes in her work on racial equity and the centrality of race in our understanding of a socially equitable public sector, there are three important steps to identifying socially inequitable systems: naming, blaming and claiming. First, we must admit to the harm that is done to homeless individuals through these criminalization efforts. We must engage with the results of these ordinances and the harm that has been done to homeless individuals and their possessions as a result of these efforts. Second, we must identify the roots of this administrative evil, including the ideologies that promote it as well as the scientific techno-rational study of homelessness and the policies connected to this vulnerable state. Lastly, we must claim this is our own—as an administrative concern, rather than simply a political or a social one—and take active steps to end the harm enabled by these policies and restore justice to people who experience homelessness.

Author: Hannah Lebovits, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at University of Texas-Arlington. She studies the relationship between governance, spatial structures and social equity. @HannahLebovits

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One Response to Administrative Evil in Action? Unmasking the Harms of the Administration Homeless Criminalization Laws

  1. Melvin J Dubnick Reply

    February 19, 2024 at 6:03 pm

    The thesis of Adams and Balfour’s Unmasking Administrative Evil took hold in 1998 and became deeply rooted in the field. As I pointed out in a critical review of the first edition of UAE,* the widespread acceptance of that thesis is the unfortunate but inevitable result of a notable characteristic of contemporary PA scholarship: its tendency to be argumentative and rhetorical.**

    In the case of UAE the “argument” is clearly stated as a critique of the “culture of technical rationality” that underpins the actions of modern bureaucracy; the rhetoric takes the form of case studies presented in narratives designed to support and reinforce the basic warrants of the argument. The UAE approach has proven so attractive that it has generated a literature of cases (both in later editions of UAE and via journal articles by other authors) that are typically regarded as confirming the basic thesis. Alas, in almost all instances such case study presentations are little more than exercises in tautological argumentation.

    So what began as an interesting but logically and empirically flawed argument has now emerged as an ideological tool in the hands of analysts who ought to know better as social scientists. There is no denying that certain historical “developments” and “events” have stood out as unfathomable and incomprehensible at the time of their occurrence, and describing them as “evil” is a common and understandable reaction. Historically, it has been the task of scholars — from theologians and philosophers to psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and even students of bureaucracy — to make sense of so-called evil. Sense-making, in this regard, takes many forms and each effort should be judged on the basis of its credibility, especially if our goal is to deal with the sources and consequences of what is initially regarded as evil.*** As typically applied by Professor Lebovits and others, the UAE thesis fails to advance our efforts to accomplish either objective.

    *Dubnick, Melvin J. “The Case for Administrative Evil: A Critique.” Public Administration Review 60, no. 5 (2000): 464-474.

    **See Hood, Christopher, and Michael Jackson. “Keys for Locks in Administrative Argument.” Administration and Society 25, no. 4 (1994): 467-488.

    ***See Dubnick, Melvin J., and Jonathan B. Justice. “Accountability and the Evil of Administrative Ethics.” Administration & Society 38, no. 2 (2006): 236-267.

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