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Theorising Homelessness

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1 Theorising Homelessness
Peter Somerville University of Lincoln

2 The meaning of homelessness
Homelessness is a multidimensional ideological construct (Somerville, 1992) Homelessness cannot be sufficiently explained in terms of either the actions of individuals or of forces outside those individuals Homelessness is not a ‘social fact’ – it cannot be understood independently of our experience of it Homelessness is not just a ‘social problem’ Homelessness is constructed by all of us, not just by powerful ‘others’ Homelessness is a cultural phenomenon as well as a structural one

3 McNaughton’s theory of homelessness
The significance of capital The link between low capital and edgework, and the ‘duality of edges’ The nature of human agency Divestment and integrative passages – routes into and out of homelessness The unintended consequences of welfare interventions – counterproductivity, stigma, institutional discrimination A theory of complex behaviour? Misled by structure/culture dualism?

4 Ethnographic approaches
Studies of homeless people in their own settings and in relationship to others Ravenhill (2008) Gowan (2010) Cloke et al (2010)

5 Ravenhill (2008) Interviews with 150 homeless people over a period of ten years The importance of relationships Becoming homeless is a process of learning how to be homeless The concept of homeless culture – abjection, identity change, institutionalisation, intensity of relationship, hierarchy inversion; and associated subcultures The homeless industry – links the homeless culture to mainstream society, facing both ways Exiting from homelessness involves a different learning process, especially recognition of the caring ‘other’ at the ‘breaking point’, plus relevant organised practical long-term assistance

6 Gowan (2010) San Francisco: ‘Homelessness is all about being deprived of claim to place’ (p80) Subcultures of homeless people: ‘hustlers’, ‘recyclers’ and ‘dumpster divers’ The wickedness and hypocrisy of US homeless policy – ethnic cleansing for those who can work and shelterisation for those who cannot

7 Cloke et al (2010) The emotional and spiritual dimensions of homelessness – postsecularism and the ethic of kindness The performative and affective geographies of homelessness Subcultures of homeless people: ‘pissheads’, ‘junkies’ and ‘straightheads’ ‘Service without strings’ plus continuity of care – the key to successful rehabilitation The importance of place-based cultures for understanding homelessness

8 Conclusion The importance of spirituality – hope and purpose, signalled by unconditional care giving at key points, is the key to ‘salvation’, i.e. rehabilitation Ethnographic approaches offer the greatest promise for increased understanding of homelessness, especially those that make innovations in gathering and telling stories


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