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Since the sixteenth century—roughly the end of feudalism and emergence of capitalism in Europe— modern societies have had to deal with the problem of people whose basic needs are met neither by market forces (employment) nor by kinship (informal support). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, taking care of abandoned mothers and assisting returning soldiers became the founding tasks of the welfare state. But social alternatives were invented to accommodate excess populations well before then. Abeyance, a term borrowed from historical sociology, refers to solutions to this longstanding problem of a mismatch between productive positions available in a society and numbers of potential claimants of those positions.
The alternatives devised to absorb surplus people and neutralize the potential mischief of idle hands were varied. They included state-sponsored projects (frontier settlements, public works, compulsory education), breakaway religious orders (the Franciscans, wandering clerics, the Beguines), and countercultural movements (alternative communities). All of these provided sustenance and industry—that is, they furnished the functional equivalents of work— and, if necessary, lodging. And they did so for people who would otherwise have posed a substantial burden to kin or may have threatened social order.
As social inventions, abeyance mechanisms are full-service operations. They address not only where people will spend the night, but also what they will do when the sun comes up. Shelter is only part of the equation. To be part of abeyance is to be subject to the social contract of general reciprocity and the social control of organized work, including performing jobs that require no special talent. During the Great Depression, this could mean building roads, cutting trails, or doing construction. More recently, “workfare” programs, making no pretense of training participants for gainful employment elsewhere, have put public assistance recipients to work picking up litter or filing paperwork. But the “make work” practice is an old one. In the Middle Ages, monks could be hired to perform surrogate penances for busy sinners who could afford their catered services.
Public shelter, however, falls short of such provisions. Specifically, overnight lodging fails to meet the usual requirement of surrogate labor, while performing the “integration and surveillance” role that theorists usually expect of abeyance mechanisms. Such lodging fulfill the warehouse function but fail to put their charges to productive work. At best, then, shelters are partial abeyance mechanisms and for that reason are subject to distinctive problems of demoralization.
Abeyance And The Problem Of Homelessness
An abeyance perspective serves to reframe the problem of homelessness. History suggests that short of mass incarceration or a police state, means (formal or informal) will invariably be found to support redundant populations without overt repression. Whether this will mean a haphazard mix of market and state forces (as was true in traditional skid rows), recourse to religious agencies (charitable missions with an avowed interest in moral reformation), or formal bureaucracies of relief will depend on a host of local and temporal contingencies. The durable question is how people with insufficient resources to purchase housing on the market, who are unable or disinclined to turn to friends or family, will be accommodated—and under what circumstances the terms of their accommodation will include public shelter. This question and its answer not only resituate shelter as part of larger social mechanisms but also may throw into relief historical developments whose “reabsorptive” capacity preempted homelessness and made shelters unnecessary. Two examples are illustrative.
Historically, the last two prolonged periods of redundancy and homelessness this country experienced, the Progressive Era (1890-1915) and the Great Depression (1929-1941), were solved by the domestic mobilization for world war. Mass homelessness resurfaced in the wake of demobilization after World War I and likely would have done so again in the late 1940s but for Congressional passage of the G.I. Bill. Photos from the latter period show armories being put to use as the functional equivalent of dormitories for ex-service men—not layabouts in warehouse shelters—who were now newly enrolled students or freshly hired workers. And land giveaways and other concessions have long been used by governments to stave off the potential trouble posed by returning soldiers, such as those who made up the core of the “tramp problem” in the 1870s.
The second example is cross-cultural in nature. Because abeyance mechanisms must be assessed in relation to local economies and social formations, similar cultural practices should not be mistaken for solutions to similar problems. Throughout Latin America, illegal “land invasions” in rural areas and, more recently, takeovers of abandoned urban properties are providing housing for a low-waged proletariat. Although technically illegal, these takeovers function as informal, state-sanctioned abeyance mechanisms by increasing the “social wage.” In the United States, where the economics of both wage labor and state subsidies differ markedly, their counterparts—rough-hewn shanty settlements found in some cities—provide shelter for the street-dwelling homeless, not the working poor. At the same time, turning a blind official eye to housing codes may count as abeyance in intent. Locally, lax enforcement of occupancy standards, even in public housing, betray official understanding that what the market fails to ensure by the usual rules may need to be supplied by bending them. Culture also plays a role in shaping how abeyance mechanisms operate. Closely documented studies of the practice of “doubling up” (living with family or friends) in U.S. cities show that both its meaning and utility vary markedly across ethnic groups in housing-strapped areas.
Reframing homelessness as part of the standing problem of redundant people lacking sufficient resources (money or kin) to manage subsistence to consider “regular access to a conventional dwelling” (sociologist Peter Rossi’s formula for what homeless people lack) as something more akin to work than residence. Homelessness could then be analyzed in ways analogous to those used by economists in measuring “regular access to a conventional job.” Just as the official “unemployment” rate is understood to be but a weak index of the true extent of joblessness, so are “literal” homeless rates (people on the street or in shelters) poor indicators of genuine residential instability. Students of homelessness must learn to take account of the “absorptive” capacities of institutions not designed for the homeless and of informal practices (such as doubling up) in the same way that labor economists have learned to examine alternative “employments” in military service, prisons, hospitals, and the informal economy.
This will also mean tracking the institutional hybrids other than shelters—functional equivalents of yesterday’s almshouses, bridewells, asylums, workhouses, city homes, and police stations—that are pressed into service to lodge the otherwise homeless poor.
- Hopper, K., & Baumohl, J. (1994). Held in abeyance. American Behavioral Scientist 37, 522-552.
- Jusserand, J. J. (1920). English wayfaring as a way of life in the Middle Ages (rev. ed.). London: Ernest Benn.
- Mizruchi, E. (1987). Regulating society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Modell, J. (1989). Mo one’s own: From youth to adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Ringenbach, P. T. (1973). Tramps and reformers, 1873-1916. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Rossi, P. H. (1986). Down and out in America.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Waddell, H. (1961). The wandering scholars. New York: Doubleday. (Originally published 1927)
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