Homelessness: Living on the Margins

Anne M Lovell. Homelessness Handbook. Editor: David Levinson & Marcy Ross. Berkshire Publishing, 2007.

Many social scientists consider homelessness to be a form, if not the prototype, of marginality. Marginality is sometimes confused with social exclusion from a dominant social order and from an institutionalized system of material and symbolic exchange, such as the formal labor market and families. However, marginality is best understood as a state or a series of situations between social exclusion and social integration. This definition is found in many theoretical perspectives that nevertheless imply different causes and mechanisms of marginality.

Marginality as Weak Social Integration

U.S. homelessness is often analyzed within a functionalist framework—a theory that analyzes social phenomena in terms of the part they play for the society as a whole. Following the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a founder of positivist sociology, which posits the social world as a system of causal relationships between realities that can be observed and treated like scientific facts, marginality was considered a form of deviancy from a society’s norms and a by-product of weak social integration. Sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) elaborated a modified functionalist theory of deviancy that included different types of marginality. Skid row homeless were the prototype of one type called “retreatism.” Although socialized to aspire to hegemonous (relating to influence) goals, retreatists lack the means of achieving them. They retreat from society by rejecting the goals, the means to achieving them, and dominant norms. Sociologists Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin further observed that retreatists lack the knowhow of illicit subcultures and thus reject both licit and illicit means to reaching that to which they aspire.

U.S. studies of skid row during the 1960s and 1970s illustrated the functionalist perspective. They characterized the homeless, most of whom were men and actually domiciled in flophouses and other so-called disreputable dwellings, as deviant, anomic (relating to social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values), and alienated from dominant social institutions. Among the best-known studies were those of the Columbia Bowery Project in New York City. Howard Bahr and his colleagues tested the disaffiliation thesis, or the idea that homeless persons have an attenuation (reduction), if not a veritable absence, of ties with mainstream institutions (family, work, religion, etc.). These studies defined marginality in relation to middle-class social organizations, such as Rotary Clubs and boards and advisory committees. Yet, on many disaffiliation measures, homeless men turned out to be not very different from working-class controls. In fact, the differences between non-homeless poor and wealthy men were much greater on most measures than those between the homeless and the nonhomeless poor. This similarity between marginal (homeless) and poor men suggests tenuous borders. However, paradoxically, by ignoring similarities between the social relations of homeless persons and those of nonhomeless persons, these representations reinforced the image of marginality as exclusion from society rather than as structured by it.

Belonging to a nuclear family was also a criterion by which marginality was measured. These skid row studies found attenuated bonds of kinship and sometimes total loss of family ties. However, researchers during the 1980s and 1990s often ignored the evidence of family ties in their own studies. They interpreted marital status as a proxy for having a family, termed single-parent households from which some homeless originated as “a euphemism” for family, or described mothers living in shelters for singles as “single,” “without family,” or “disaffiliated.” At the same time, homeless men on Manhattan’s Bowery but also other types of homeless—women in shelters and homeless persons with psychiatric disabilities—were found to have varying degrees of family connections. In fact, the degree of marginality experienced by a homeless person is shaped by gender, ethnicity, age, and structural characteristics, such as social class. Thus, some African-American and Puerto Rican women in New York City shelters for “singles” keep family together by “fostering out” their children to relatives, then taking them back when they find housing again. On the other hand, young, severely psychiatrically disabled homeless men with intense patterns of circulation may be totally estranged from their families, maintaining the delusion of a “substitute” family. That marginality can be a state and not an end product is supported by longitudinal studies of the circulation of homeless between states of domiciled poverty, makeshift arrangements (such as doubling up with family, staying with friends), and the streets or shelters.

More anthropologically oriented studies of homelessness presented an alternative to the disaffiliation thesis. In 1923 sociologist Lars Anderson had already described the normative (relating to norms or standards) characteristics of homeless men within their own subcultures. During the 1970s proponents of the “social enculturation/replacement” thesis recognized that homeless men were stigmatized by mainstream society and experienced isolation from it. However, they argued that homeless men on skid rows reestablished social ties in an “ecologically appropriate” manner, with small, highly active but fluid networks, such as those focused on drinking. Like marginal rural migrants in Latin American cities, other homeless persons who are disconnected from the formal labor market (but not all are) may be integrated into precarious institutions, such as the informal economy, squats (empty buildings occupied by squatters), and shantytowns.

Marginality, Capitalism, and Globalization

For Marxists and political economists, marginality is a product of capitalist penetration in Third World countries, the destruction or displacement of jobs through deindustrialization and globalization, and the maintenance of surplus populations in industrialized and postindustrial countries. This perspective is relevant to homelessness in at least two ways.

Sociologist Saskia Sassen demonstrates how the global economy simultaneously creates sites of centrality and marginality. It materializes in strategic places along a geographic grid that cuts across national and regional boundaries. A transnational urban system, including “global cities,” accommodates financial markets and their necessary support systems (information, banking, public relations, etc.). Vast territories within national boundaries meanwhile become increasingly peripheral and excluded from the major processes that fuel growth in the new global economy. This territorial inequality is accompanied by the rift between highly paid, highly educated workers necessary to finance and its support system and low-paid, low- or medium-skilled workers. Finally, within cities, a second rift occurs. Resources are focused on metropolitan business centers, downtowns, and the residential neighborhoods of the multinational workers, whereas peripheral, low-income neighborhoods experience resource shrinkage. As a result, communities break down, housing becomes scarce, and more workers on the low-paid end and their families become vulnerable to homelessness.

Social scientists Kim Hopper and Jim Baumohl have borrowed the notion of “abeyance” (suspension) from Ephraim Mizruchi’s theory of marginality and applied it to homelessness. When work and other status positions are scarce, a number of social institutions and arrangements “warehouse” redundant populations. They keep them out of the labor force while controlling their potential threat to the social order. This resonates with the Marxist idea of a reserve labor army. Abeyance works through marginal institutions such as shelters, religious orders, or countercultural movements that are thus functional equivalents of work, yet uncompetitive with mainstream labor. Framing homelessness in terms of abeyance redirects attention both to nonhomeless institutions (e.g., hospitals, the military) and informal practices (e.g., “fostering out” children) that absorb the homeless and potentially homeless.

Social Structuring of Homelessness

Sociologist Robert Castel’s monumental history of economic marginality and the responses to it bridges theories of social integration and a neo-Marxist perspective. The marginalization of the homeless is socially produced through the way society organizes work and distributes roles and statuses. From the fourteenth through the eighteenth century, vagabonds in Europe belonged to a larger category of marginal people that included beggars, criminals, prostitutes, rogues, and marauders. They shared characteristics, such as (1) surviving through expediency (begging, swindling) outside systems of regulated work and common production of wealth; (2) seeking opportunities through mobility or settlement in devalued spaces (fallow land, edges of cities, etc.); (3) being disaffiliated from their communities of origin; and (4) maintaining atypical social relations, with their own hierarchies, slang, common law marriages, and so forth that reversed the dominant norms.

Vagabonds during this period came from the rural poor or the strata of unprotected, unregulated city jobs (i.e., outside the corporations). In most cases a marginal status was a necessity, not a choice. However, as their marginalization intensified, vagabonds became dissocialized and replaced their attachments with less stable, often dangerous ones.

Castel hypothesizes that when marginals become a large enough group—a deviant majority, so to speak—they constitute a factor of social change through the pressure they exert on a society where they don’t fit. Thus, in France and England, marginals reintegrated into mainstream society by becoming part of the workforce of the first large factory complexes during the Industrial Revolution.

Margins Beyond Classification

According to British anthropologist Mary Douglas, margins are those social spaces in which traditional ways of classifying things and people no longer work. The culturalist perspective has been used to understand how U.S. researchers classify homeless people and analyze homeless outreach work. Outreach workers and homeless people encounter one another at a borderland between their respective worlds. Outreach workers must often suspend their usual ways of understanding (the mental structures that shape their culture) at the cost of anguish and disorientation. On the other hand, they sometimes erroneously assume that the person encountered shares their worldview. For example, they may not see that crossing back over into mainstream society runs the risk of breaking up the networks and other resources on which homeless persons depend. They can leave behind their stigmatized identity when they cross the border. However, they court the danger of not acquiring full citizenship (rights, responsibilities, strong connections to mainstream institutions) but only another marginal status as second-class citizens with fragile connections to institutions, rights, responsibilities.

Dynamics of Social Margin

Social interaction, the focus of sociologists in the symbolic interactionism tradition—which considers that reciprocal action between individuals and the meanings they attribute to those actions are the basis of social phenomena—is a dynamic process. The interactionist concept of social margin has proved useful to understanding homelessness as a process rather than merely a status. Sociologist Jacqueline Wiseman defined social margin as “the amount of leeway a person has in making errors on the job, buying on credit, or stepping on the toes of significant others without suffering such serious penalties as being fired, denied credit, or losing friends or family. Where a person is well-known and considered to have likeable traits, there exists social margin to have some unpleasant characteristics as well” (Wiseman 1979, 223). In the homelessness context, social margin is the possibility of drawing on resources, relationships, and personal attributes to survive in or move beyond a marginal situation. Like the “forms of capital” in the theory of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), and particularly his notion of symbolic capital (symbolic resources such as honor and prestige), social margin is both cumulative and “graduated like the possession of riches.” The more one has, the more one can obtain. Social margin is a relative concept because it depends on the norms and values relevant to a particular setting.

Social margin and marginality work in opposite directions: The narrower one’s social margin, the more marginal one is. Social margin is useful for examining social differentiation among homeless people, as well as between groups in the social structure. In a study by sociologist Steven Segal and his colleagues, young vagrants in California looked down on mentally ill street people they labeled “space cases.” The latter possessed narrower social margin: fewer material resources, less social interaction, and negative personal attributes, such as undependability and unpredictable behavior. Homeless persons with psychiatric disabilities in New York City were far more likely to get into housing if they had more social margin, defined by a higher percentage of nonmarginal persons in their social network and a higher social class background. One implication of these findings is that the breakup of communities and networks of origin (through urban and economic processes or the nature of social services) needs to be addressed. Social margin may help understand how a segmented homelessness service system responds to certain people (families, those with psychiatric disabilities, battered women, etc.) while marginalizing others (the “generic” homeless).

Homelessness and Marginal Space

Cultural geographers and sociologists in the social ecology tradition define homelessness in relation to marginal space. What distinguishes homeless persons from socially integrated members of society is not so much the former’s lack of property rights as the functional value of the space they are obliged to occupy. That value is determined by the “host” community. As sociologists David Snow and Leon Anderson observed in their study of street people in Austin, Texas, “the critical question is not who owns the property or whether it is public or private land, but whether it is of importance for domiciled individuals” (Snow and Anderson 1993, 103). Space is classified on a continuum from prime (routinely used by the domiciled for residential, commercial, recreational, or symbolic purposes) to marginal (of little value to regular citizens, such as abandoned buildings, alleys, vacant lots, or impoverished residential areas).

Marginal space can be ceded intentionally and unwittingly to the powerless and proper-tyless. However—and this resonates with the abeyance view of marginality—space can also be made available in a way that controls and contains homeless populations. This happens when interstitial spaces—spaces under highway abutments, degraded parks, abandoned lots—are occupied by homeless persons.

However, marginal space can also be reconstituted as prime space through gentrification (a process of renewal and rebuilding), redevelopment, or informal homesteading, for example, by artists. Homeless or marginally domiciled persons are thus displaced by higher-income groups, as has happened in New York City during the past three decades. Paradoxically, homeless persons are then forced to seek resources in prime areas, a process that renders them at once more visible and more vulnerable, without changing their marginal status.

Research Directions

Marginality may have outlived its usefulness as a concept for understanding and responding to homelessness, especially as a global phenomenon. One useful perspective is offered by European scholars, for whom homelessness is one possible outcome of an accumulation of handicaps that marginalizes people from collective and professional life. Thus, homelessness is not isolated, or conceptually marginalized, from other forms of social and economic precariousness. Another approach might examine what could be termed “civic marginality.” French scholars have begun tracing the changing civic status of homeless persons throughout European history along these lines. For example, during the fourteenth century vagabonds, such as beggars and the poor more generally, commanded dignity; they were seen as the image of God. When war and social transformation displaced thousands during the next centuries, wanderers and other homeless lost this dignity.

Today, some European countries are moving toward the elimination of marginal legal status for homeless people by recognizing basic citizenship rights instead of specific categories reflected in laws on begging, vagrancy, or vagabondage and administrative requirements for a local address. This perspective on homelessness and marginality joins wider concerns in the area of poverty and welfare that focus on the struggle for recognition as a central building block of civic society.