‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper

A body-in-pieces

What happens when the individual inhabits a “dwelling” that is constructed with words of hate, lies, deception; unspoken realities which return to haunt, disturb and unsettle the individual’s (daily) perception? These are perceptions that cast an evil and fearful shadow over what it means to be in the world. It is like a kind of “spook house” that offers no solid foundation to anchor the individual’s daily habitation. What the individual inhabits is a ‘bad space’ that fails to contain the repetition of some unspoken drive resulting in a passage to act with an effect of a dropping from the stage of language (self representation). The person is an outsider as the social bond of language is broken. In place of the social bond are shame and a subject who all to often comes to identify as a no-body – a body-in-pieces, without a name.

To be shamed is to be without a hide (covering, skin) and in extreme cases there is a loss of one’s habitat. In fact homeless captures something of the etymology of the word shame. Shame is related to the word hide – to conceal and skin – and comes from the Greek ‘keuthein’ cover. If we link ‘hide’ – cover, skin, flog (to skin), keep secret, place of concealment – with habit – ‘what one has’ – from Latin habitus then ‘how on is’ is a homeless person is one in which – one’s ‘state’ or ‘condition.’ Subsequently this developed along the lines of both ‘outward condition or appearance,’ hence ‘clothing,’ and ‘inner condition,’ ‘usual way of behaving.’ (Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origin 1990:270). The habit of the monk speaks of the man and his daily practice.

The subject is left naked and exposed. The subject is no longer able to connect with themselves or others. Instead the subject dies of shame, as do all marginalized people in the process of dehumanisation, but at the same time what is traumatic and not representable insists and repeats.

The subject is unable to reconstitute him or herself in existence through his/her traditional identification and following Merleau-Ponty’s one can argue that when the social-bond is broken the subject is not an embedded and embodied consciousness that is inextricably bound up with the world.

With homelessness there is a disruption of the subjects relationship with the world, the temporal dimension of his/her being-in-the-world. There is a breaking down of the boundaries of the body that maintain coming together and moving away. These boundaries are no longer fluid and flexible and instead there is nothing to ground the person, as there is a break in the subject’s relation to the world. The subject’s perception is now unbound and unable to ‘bracketed out’ the intimate ’embrace’ of the real. The inter-subjective bond is broken with the result that the subject is no longer a living and actively interpretative body/being-in-the-world.

The subject becomes ‘real’ as there is a going beyond and breaking down of the symbolic body. The individual finds him or herself falling into a ‘black hole’ of nothingness, what Winnicott calls the state of endlessly falling and Bion refers to as nameless dread. For Lacan it is being caught between the jaws of a crocodile without a little stick to stop the mouth closing. It is like a bucket with no bottom through which the individual drops out only to endlessly repeat and return to the same nightmare.

The homeless person becomes an object, cast off, dropped and undergoes a disorientation in which s/he enters a foreign and strange world marked by invasiveness. This lack of meaning and attributes is categorized by an experience of “depersonalisation.” This de-realisation and depersonalisation is the inability to think with the body as an ego and produces pure affects.

In extreme cases this would be having no (mental or physical) space which functions as a sanctuary. There is no safe place in which to dwell, but instead a never ending project of attempting to create a secure “dwelling” whilst at the same time living in a state of insecurity.

The subject in a sense exists in to be is a state which is outside of oneself, as perhaps we all do, but there is no illusionary ‘safe inner world’ within which to dwell: called home. Instead the person is only too aware of their non existence, what Lacan calls the fading of the subject (gap in meaning).

The taken for granted habits of western culture do not offer comfort. Instead there are no habits to contain that which is unthought and which bring about secure attachments. The individual may feel isolated, alone, afraid and desperate. In some situations there may be an inability to engage with others and a lack of social skills. The individual is left feeling raw, vulnerable, highly sensitive and troubled by the smallest crises. When things go wrong (small events) it is experienced as an attack as there is no psychic skin to cover and protect them from intrusion.

Daily events and everyday taken for granted task impinge and demand responses (resources), which the individual does not have to give. The individual is left depleted and reminded of what was never taught (basic skills in how to take care of oneself). There is a heightened sense of embarrassment and shame about this lack of basic skills and not knowing how or being able to play the game (fit into society).

When things go wrong a crisis may transpire due to the re-activating of past traumas. The individual may feel overwhelmed and ill prepared for the demands placed upon him/her, demands that to others may seem trivial. The effect of not being able to respond to the demand and re-living past trauma results in the person being unable to think, digest and process the experience. The person is unable to put feelings into words and integrate experiences into a conceptual map of the world. Without a map the future is always other. The effect of these daily stresses is an enfeeblement and disturbance of the mental capacities.

We could posit that these individuals, may of whom have suffered gross privation, deprivation and abuse, try to create some kind of lifestyle that functions as a sanctuary, a place of oblivion (possibly drug/alcohol induced) where there is no intrusion. In an attempt to protect this constructed sanctuary the person will attempt to avoid situations, which take the person out of the context, they are familiar with. When the sanctuary breaks down there is a trauma as the outside world is felt to be intrusive and violent.

Outside the social bond On the streets there are lies, deception and many games are at play. What is true, a scam and deception is often unknown? One response to this is to come up with a list of observable scenarios (games) at play. For example:

  1. Unbearable boredom and engagements in dramas (i.e. fights) in order to break the spell (mood).
  2. The making of demands in a public forum, needing an audience.
  3. Wanting immediate help and then throwing a tantrum when this is not forthcoming.
  4. Refusing or feeling unable to take responsibility for their lives and sometimes then blaming others for this. For example “Ain’t it awful…no body can help…I’ve been let down again…I don’t know what to do…I’m going to kill myself”
  5. Trapped individuals who do not feel they have a choice. Some individuals find themselves trapped, on the one hand they desperately want to change there life (i.e. give up alcohol, or drugs) are in immense psychical pain, but they do not have the resources to be able to sustain living with these extreme levels of psychic pain without alcohol.
  6. Self-defeating behaviour, which repeats itself.
  7. A desperate needs to be accepted and belong even if the individual fails. “If I fuck up again and again will you still accept me.”
  8. Individuals trying to get it together to go into detox so as to give there body a break before going back onto alcohol. Once off drugs/alcohol a whole set of old problems and past conflicts re-emerge. As a client put it, “once off alcohol I see my life for what it is, hopeless and empty. No close relationships, belonging to no one and with no future.”

But what does it mean to live outside the law in a homeless and, possibly, intoxicated state? One possible hypothesis, as argued by Richard Klein and myself, is that the homeless group do not structure themselves along the same lines as most other groups of people. According to Freud groups can be seen to be made up of horizontal and vertical identifications. Horizontal identifications are emotional ties between members of the group based on ego-to-ego identifications, while vertical identifications can be understood as an emotional tie to the leader and/or to an idea based on identification with the leader. The leader is put in the place of the individual’s ego ideal and exerts authority over the individual who is compliant to the will of the leader.

In homeless groups there is a lack of vertical identifications and as such the individual is placed outside the law. In the place of an ideal, as incarnated by a leader, there is nobody. The homeless live outside the traditional social ties that bind people together, yet at the same time are bound together by a common identification with the nothing: an object that is nobody, which is in the place of the leader/ideal.

It is a body that is outside the symbolic and can be seen as identification with a lost object. No- Body (person) fills this empty space. The individual comes to identify with this lost object (empty space). It is an empty space, which has being present from the beginning in that the child often ‘had nobody to push him or her out into the world,’ (Oakley, C). Instead the persons life is marked and consumed with this absence (black hole of nothingness), it eats away and breaks down resistance.

Nobody is another way of saying the body has not being symbolised. No-Body is equated as a Bad-Body through which the individual identifies him/herself. So often we hear our clients talk about being a “junky, alcoholic, dosser.” It is as if the person is nothing more than this object. “I am nobody” or “I am just like an object.” It is to be identified with an object in the place of person (leader/ideal).

Furthermore, many of these individuals have suffered a chronic lack of secure attachments and undergone frequent losses. The nature and frequency of separation leave many of them emotionally frozen in time, feeling powerless to change the world around him/her with the result that a ‘learned helplessness’ sets in. There is no longer (if there ever was) a belief that they can control or influence events, whilst at the same time, there is a loss of involvement in or commitment to the activities of their lives. This lack of personality hardiness may render the subject helpless in the face of change. Change is felt to be something to fear. The individual’s repeated exposure to stressful events breaks down resistance and exhausts him/her. It is a demand for energy that cannot be met, a break down in the belief in the self, and a form of ‘learned helplessness’. What we encounter on the street is despair. Where there is protest (delinquency) then there are still signs of hope. On the other hand, when the cold hard exterior becomes the cold hard interior, the psychic shuts down and goes into reverse and a detachment.