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Concerns for the visible and invisible homeless and the causes of their estrangement from society have been actively with us from biblical times to the present day. We have come to know that our understanding of “hidden” homelessness, and its personal and social pain and suffering, is anchored in our ways of “seeing” each other. Our cultural perspectives, religious and ethical norms, and the support community’s philosophy of life need to be acknowledged because these become the light we turn on in the process of interpreting what we see. How we see shapes how we talk about and then how we act on social problems.
An interdisciplinary partnership illuminates how our many perspectives impact both (1) informal observations, such as those made by family members and that are reported in the social network, and (2) formal observations, such as scientific qualitative and quantitative data made by trained observers and reported in official government population reports, the news media, and research studies. Sociologist Serge Paugam writes, “The living conditions and experiences of ‘the poor’ must be analyzed in this light of interdependence, which varies throughout history and in different sociocultural contexts” (Paugam 1999, 44).
The people whose homelessness is not seen are called the “hidden homeless.” First among the reasons for the persistent undercount of the hidden homeless is that some hidden homeless are not on the streets and are by historical and contemporary definitions not roofless. The poor that we have with us always are often intergenerationally cohabiting or doubled and tripled up with friends and other families. Social geographers and environmental planners field argue that the hidden homeless are further undocumented by their reluctance to believe that they are homeless and that they are at risk of becoming shelterless and so fail to register with formal social service agencies as homeless. Also under-counted are unseen rural people sleeping in “the woods, country paths, open fields, isolated hedges, ditches, and barns” (Cloke, Milbourne, and Widdowfield 2001b, 64). Medical anthropologist Hans Baer provides us with a widely accepted definition of homelessness as the condition in which people literally do not have “a permanent home and address” (Baer et al. 1997,66).
Pain And Suffering
As is often the case in the social sciences, a look at the simplest case often provides the best clues for the most difficult situation. A good way to gain insight into our aversion to social pain is to leave the complicated nature of urban life and to look at rural homelessness. In rural areas, where there are fewer social relief agencies and low-income housing alternatives, and where one is exposed to the criticism of local gossips, there would be few reasons for a homeless person to come forward and request services. However, when people do know that local resources exist and that they are likely to get them and not be humiliated, they do come forward. Rural resources remain inadequate largely due to widespread understandings of the country as an ideal setting not beset by personal and social failures. Also at fault is a lack of ethnographic studies that help officers in their “struggle to present informed discourses of the scale and scope of rural homelessness, let alone generate innovative policy responses” (Cloke, Milbourne, and Widdowfield 2001b, 105). Seeing The Unseen
The mythology of the rural area as “purified space” and as “anti-urban utopia” prevents local authorities and people from making the connections between housing, homelessness, and rural policy problems (Cloke, Milbourne, and Widdowfield 2001a, 2000b). Doubling and tripling up is attributed to being a good family member or a good friend; rarely do people name the situation as one of homelessness. To admit to a lack of housing is to admit to a lack of rural goodness and wholesomeness where needs are met.
In order not to expose a contradiction in a widely held philosophy of care in a romantic, mutually supportive rural network, the needy person is as likely to cover up homelessness and an inability to secure long-term, affordable shelter, as is the local authority.
Failing to name the reasons for a lack of housing, such as the loss of rooms for rent in exchange for the higher incomes of bed-and-breakfast tourism, and the inability of commuters to move to affordable housing in the city, maintains the mythic façade.
Speaking The Unspoken
Rural geographer Mark Lawrence argues that we insist “on primarily viewing homelessness as an occupation of particular spaces rather than as a sign of overall processes” (Lawrence 1995, 305). Examining the mythology of rural homelessness challenges us to name the process by which rural invisibility becomes visible and to speak what is not said about other hidden homeless life issues. Speaking the truth challenges us to respond to real human suffering with real solutions. Immigrants are often not seen as homeless or are thought to be voluntarily homeless. Reexamining the reasons immigrants leave or even flee their homelands gives us a more complex picture of poverty, natural disasters, and political oppressions. One reason we “do not see” the economic reasons immigrants have for living in overcrowded dormitories and doubled and tripled up in single-family apartments is our mythology of the United States as a land of milk and honey, where everyone’s dreams come true. In fact, we overlook immigrants’ hidden homelessness in their real-life spaces because our economy depends on their marginality. Writes sociologist Roger Waldinger: “Had there been no immigration, New York would have suffered an even more severe decline. As in Los Angeles, the arrival of the new immigrants provided a direct stimulus to the local economy. With a growing immigrant labor force, wage pressure eased up” (Waldinger 1989, 223).
Women, unmarried mothers, and divorcees are another misread population that is continuously on the verge of homelessness. Against the stereotype of mother-daughter relations, “one may expect mothers to take in their homeless daughters and children, they rarely do” (Goldberg 1997, 96). Relatives have their limits even when they may know that women head the majority of homeless families. Working against mothers are popular concepts of, and official govern to be self-sufficient. The widespread encouragement of marriage as a solution to poverty largely disregards marriage disruptions that almost always leave the mother unable to take on expanded labor market responsibilities. Divorce is a worldwide poverty indicator. Sithembiso Nyoni, Zimbabwe’s Deputy Minister for Public Construction and National Housing reports: “When there is a divorce, you find that the woman is thrown out of the home together with the children, unless of course, the woman is educated and well-off and contests this through the courts” (Nyoni 2003, 11-13). She found that for reasons of pride, not only do women hide their poverty, they hide their homelessness also.
Children make up a growing population of hidden homeless. Adolescence is a stressful time of life, especially for homosexual youth, whose sexual identities may put them at risk in their family and friendship networks, causing hidden homelessness. The public expectation of seeing youth on street corners and in public places like parking lots and train stations further shields their problems. Runaway youth are often escaping abusive parents who have rejected them for a host of reasons. Youth also escape from many kinds of substitute parental care and are perhaps the most hidden of all, as social welfare agencies race to keep track of their wards. Too often they are further victimized and hidden from view in detention centers, houses of prostitution, and drug dens.
Community Medicine— Not Just Medicine
Ronald Paul Hill, professor of business administration and social responsibility, details the movement of the hidden homeless to homeless status—from being cared for by family and friends to receiving care from a “shadow community” (Hill 2001, 9). Alternative communities spring up in situations requiring human responses to the disruption of normative systems, thereby attesting to the profound sense of responsibility humans have to care for one another. Shadow communities may range from a loose collection of unsheltered individuals on the street to large and complicated social networks, such as food, electric, and banking cooperatives.
Still largely unidentified in the literature is the shadowing role of the medical community that has attempted to fill the gaps that exist between a strict sense of medical care and the healing of the whole individual. As the idea and practice of community medicine takes hold in the United States, we are seeing the medical community apply its knowledge of the human body to social problems, therein advancing our thinking about the causes of homelessness and treatment of homeless people as members of a social body.
Amending Social Norms
The suffering body of homeless people requires society to amend social norms, just as the suffering physical body requires the sufferer to amend its activities. Anthropologist and nurse Janice Morse writes that in order to maintain integrity of self, one “endures” (Morse 2000, 2). The sufferer calls forth a comforting response from the other. The housed hidden homeless are frequently not available for comforting and intervention by local help agencies such as the Health Visitors (Britain) or Visiting Nurse Services (United States). Professional caregivers often find that social and personal boundaries, such as historic myths and prejudices that create unresponsiveness, pride, and denial, acerbating uneducated definitions of the situation, are difficult to negotiate.
However, when helping professionals and academic researchers cross boundaries, they are able to hear the stories of patients and social sufferers and see the structural, social, and personal violence hidden in the context of everyday life. This awareness often brings a moral obligation to end violence of all types. Nurse Kathy Carlson encourages her peers to question and change social norms that produce cruel life situations. She believes that medical workers are agents in “reframing the paradigm” of authority structures that keep some people in abusive systems. “The social attitude of violence is no longer acceptable. We’ve had enough. Partnership was once a social norm—it could be again” (Carlson 1992, 225).
Naming The Values That Construct The Social Body
Like the human body, society has a body, made up of many bodies. When the social body is sick, it goes through healing, and sometimes the mourning processes of member loss. For example, even the most understanding of families goes through a normal sense of loss and mourning when a family member who was assumed to be heterosexual discloses homosexuality (Harrison, 203). The loss is a social one that responds to expected roles and norms.
Unlike non-understanding families that push the individual into hidden forms of homelessness, understanding families choose love relations instead of violent acts of exclusion as they negotiate cultural and social constructs, creating out of their loss a new found identity and normality. In doing so, their loved ones do not need to be hidden in a shadowy world of unsatisfactory care but are able to thrive in the light that illuminates their humanity.
Rethinking And Remaking The Social Body
Zimbabwe’s Sithembiso Nyoni credits Habitat for Humanity and NGOs, nongovernmental organizations associated with the United Nations, with bringing the many plights of the hidden homeless, especially women and children, to worldwide attention.
Zimbabwe’s consulting of specialists in empowering housing strategies produced a simple yet varied housing plan that allowed each cottage to be adapted to both family needs and a woman-run business.
Put into interdisciplinary dialogue, recent medical contributions to the philosophy of care shed light on our understanding of the sheltered but hidden homeless and their descent to the street and public shelters. Janet Younger, professor of nursing, argues that the “suffering that accompanies adversity is compounded by a suffering of a second type: the loss of community and the sense of connectedness it entails” (1995, 3). Healing requires a transformation of the situation through “finding a voice for suffering” (Younger 1995, 57). Acting as moral beings, nurses and doctors, professors and students, journalists and foreign aid officials, you and I are capable of addressing the social suffering that affects the suffering body. As we saw in Zimbabwe, when officials and the global society take the suffering of the hidden homeless seriously and talk about their pain, seeking ways to end it, creative solutions materialize.
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- Younger, J. B. (1995). The alienation of the sufferer. Advances in Nursing Science, 17(4), 53-72.
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