People experiencing homelessness must often learn to ‘perform as homeless’ to receive the services they need, according to new UBC Okanagan research.
Researchers Dr. Shelley Cook and Dr. Rachelle Hole with UBC Okanagan’s school of social work recently published a study that attempts to gain an understanding of homeless peoples’ survival through their relationships with the system of service providers.
According to one study participant, “it is about looking homeless, but not too homeless.”
Work for the study took place in downtown Kelowna, where Cook interviewed a number of men and women experiencing homelessness, ranging in age from 23 to 55. She found, contrary to earlier research, people who live on the street depend on service providers as their main source of material and social support, not their relationships with each other.
Cook said the people she spoke with learned how to tailor their interactions to the expectations of different service providers — with a successful performance meaning the difference between being deemed appropriate for services, or not. Often over-burdened, providers sometimes have to be selective in who they choose to offer their services to.
“In a situation where need greatly outpaces the ability of the service system — where there’s only so many beds or bus tickets available — performing those representations of homelessness aligned with the service setting is all the more important,” said Cook. “It’s a necessary survival strategy that people use to increase their odds of making it on the street.”
Hole said performances take on different expressions even between similar services. According to previous research, homeless people recognize what service providers are looking for and knowingly adapt their performance to those indicators. Study participants said service providers often encouraged them to “play up” their needs.
“The basis of performing involves presenting the appropriate level of need based on their perception of the service context,” said Hole.
While this practice does lead to increased odds of service access, Hole said the fact people feel they need to ‘perform’ in order to get appropriate services reinforces a homeless identity.
“With competition for resources contributing to the need for these performances that are in part, a side-effect of challenges related to service capacity, the problematic dynamic will persist as long as capacity issues do,” she said.
Cook said the findings are consistent with other communities, despite the fieldwork only taking place in downtown Kelowna.
“I think it’s clear that we need to think about how the policies and practices aimed at addressing homelessness may actually be contributing to people’s subjectification as a homeless person,” said Cook. “If we fail to recognize and have an appreciation for the ways in which the discourse underlying different approaches creates and reinforces this box, however inadvertently or unintentionally, we will continue to perpetuate homelessness.”
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