‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper


By the time Jane and I had our first session indoors as opposed to in a door-way she had began to rediscover what it means to be a person. To live on the street is to live outside of the Law-inthe-Name-of-the-Father. This Law is Jacques Lacan’s (1965-1966) term for that which enables a person to be able to constitute herself in-an-existence via the field of the Other – a symbolic position and identification.

As stated above the homeless group do not structure themselves along the same lines as most other groups of people (Harper and Klein, 1997). In homeless groups there is a lack of what Freud (1921) referred to as vertical identification up onto a leader or ideal. Rather, it is a group structured both through horizontal identifications with other members and through identifying with being a ‘no-body’. That is, a body which is without attributes (‘object a’) and thus depersonalised. The object (a) is in the place of the leader/ideal and as such the individual is identified with that which is placed outside the Law. To have a body means having access to a symbolic body so as to be able to represent his/her body to him/herself and others through the discourse of the Other.

The group is essentially in a flight-fight state. The activity of the police and/ or a hostile public creates a common external enemy from which they can shelter collectively. Yet internally they take flight from the world of shelter within ordinary human ties, where emotional ups and downs take place and where terrible losses sometimes occur. This is acted out continually in the way people appear, disappear, and then die. The group enables the members to lose their personal identity and to treat themselves and one another as ‘things,’ as opposed to persons. The physical violence is permitted as a direct consequence of this depersonalisation process. By literally ‘defacing’ someone through cannibalism or through knocking their teeth out you reinforce the sense of their not being a person.

As a theme, death was never far away from their minds. The group represents a state of living on the edge, of dropping out, of throwing in the towel. For the pubic there is a dual reaction: on the one hand, the homeless represent to them a wish to be free of the painful vagaries of attachments, on the other hand, they represent people’s worst fears of losing everything and everyone. Hence the faint whisper of those who walk by – “There but for the grace of God go I.’

The ‘space’ provided by our meetings allowed Jane’s personal story to unfold, soon centring itself on her existence of loss. It could be said that Jane was seeking an opportunity for some necessary bereavement work, and it would be this work that played a significant part in rediscovering herself as a person, a person with an inner world of attachments and social ties to others.

This process of exploring the losses in their life seemed to begin with our first peek-a-boo encounter, in Freud’s term’s the ‘fort-da’ game. The absent (lost) – present (found) was soon transferred to her brother with her search for him culminating not only in a reunion but a symbolisation of a lost identity. ‘Absent – present’ (fort-da) can now be re-presented via the spoken word, that is, symbolically.

Her reported memory of the encounter with Andrew’s corpse in the morgue signalled her previous attempt to personalise a body-in-pieces. This memory allowed for more open mourning in the place of being haunted by what she had seen, and from this memory she was able to verbalise other previous losses in her life. Once started, her bereavement work had the releasing effect of awakening hope in her internal world – the hope of having an internal world. She made steps towards recovering her attachments – to her son and his future child and to her mother.

These were recoveries of the capacity for identifications and reparation, which reflected in Jane’s comments about the death of Princess Diana – she sees this loss from the side of the ‘mother’ (who loses a child to feed and friends to please).

In the final week we spent together Jane organised a collection amongst the homeless group to buy me a farewell present. We agreed to have lunch together on my last day. She never arrived.