‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper

Who are the homeless?

Homeless people are caught up in many different representations and no doubt this paper will offer yet another representation. One view is that homelessness is one of the biggest problems facing humanity at the turn of the century. Millions of people worldwide find themselves seeking refuge due to war, environmental disasters, poverty and bad homes (The New Internationalist 1996:18). In London one perception is that the big issues facing the homeless are mental health and psychological problems, substance abuse and/ or the results of previous experiences of institutional care (child care, psychiatric, prison and armed forces) (Just Ask, 1998:6).

Another perception is that of living “on the edge” (margins) of society, indulging in excessive and hedonistic life styles. Unlike the damage goods scenario in the first description living on the edge has a glamour attached to it. In fact many films, not only Hollywood, there is use this kind of representation when trying to catch the margins of existence. In this context these individuals are represented as playing with different forms of intoxication, which in turn bring about different (trance-like) states of consciousness and loss of bodily control: the cult of Bacchus/Dionysus and god (half man and bull) of divine intoxication.

It is some times seen as a savage and poetic cult in opposition to prudence and overcome by the excessive of a joyful/painful driven existence. The Bacchic ritual endeavouring to produce enthusiasm, that giddy state of being inspired and possessed (from the Greek entheos) through having the divine enter ones being. It is a pursuit that involves an act of courage and embrace, even if there is a savage sacrifice of reason.

Finally, the most common representation of the homeless is that of binary opposites, namely, a representation that privileges a particular life style and recruits individuals into a set of unexamined assumptions about having a home, job and family. Having a home, job and family seem to be aspirations so thoroughly built into everyday taken-for-granted, that it results in what Barthes refers to as the “naturalisation” of the symbolic order. The taken-for-granted manner in which these narratives and conversations take place designates and reifies having a home, job and family to the status of the unquestioned natural order of things and obliterates any (repressed) anguishing similarities there may between the marginalized group and the group representing dominant norms /ideology.

So saying homelessness as a word has existed as a predicate giving reference to something Other than itself. The word homelessness does not define what homelessness is, but rather what it is not to have a normal home. The category of homelessness functions as an enigmatic signifier of alterity, an otherness that may be our own that we want to suggest belongs elsewhere.

As if well known there exists in everyday taken-for-granted social interactions and the everyday structure of language a “truth status” attached to playing out socially ascribed roles. The homeless individual is under pressure to conform and engage in activities, which will elicit his recognition in others, within a particular discourse. Like most marginalised the homeless have suffered abuse, prejudice and discrimination of all forms throughout history due to not being able to conform and putting into question the taken for granted.

From the above we can conclude that many homeless living out a tale told by another, and in this respect can be understood as a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet at the same time it is a life style, to be explained below, which is an attempt to escape from someone else’s prescription and attempt to find a voice (story) without it being subsumed into a normative structure and subject to the tyranny of being classified and pathologised. However, homelessness is not a catchall category and is particular to each individual’s subjective experience.