Backpack and fast food bag on the floor of a car

“Homelessness” as a social construct

Published 2023-05-19

I recently realized that, for a period in my early 20s, I technically could have been “homeless.”

I certainly never thought of myself this way, and no one would have identified me that way, and it feels wrong even to write a sentence like that. This was while I was bumming around the western U.S. doing archaeology, or between archaeology gigs. I generally knew where I would be sleeping every night, and where I could stow my pile of stuff such that it wouldn’t get stolen. I took regular showers. I sometimes had a car, which I sometimes slept in. If someone asked for “my address,” depending on the context I would have told them the hostel or hotel where I was sleeping, or my employer’s address, or my parents’ address in Nebraska.

But in all reality: I was couchsurfing, or camping, or crashing at a hostel, or sleeping in my car, or living in a house rented by my employers. A census-taker would have had to record “no permanent address” and I might technically have been “unhoused” for some meaning of that word. I certainly had no idea where to register to vote in 1994: at the moment of the election I was living in Wyoming, but only a few weeks previous (so: when I would have had to register to vote) I had been living in Texas; but I had spent most of the year in North Dakota (where my bank was, for what that’s worth).

This is important and I must state it very clearly: except in some academic sense I wasn’t homeless, or unhoused, and it trivializes people who struggle with those situations to imagine myself that way.

I never thought of myself as “homeless,” and neither did anyone else, because of things I didn’t do, or because of particular ways I presented myself:

  • I never slept somewhere unsanctioned (like a doorway, or under a bridge)
  • I didn’t have to attend to private business (like bathing or defecating) in public
  • I didn’t have to deal with crises like mental health problems or addictions in public
  • I never panhandled
  • I never spent the night at a free public shelter
  • I generally had well-laundered clothes
  • I had money and could pay for my time in the places I hung around, like coffee shops
  • I was white, and healthy, and spoke clear English, and had good teeth
  • When I wasn’t working, I kept near to public places full of people who looked and acted like me — parks, shopping malls, museums…college campuses were an especially safe place to be during the day, because I looked exactly like a college student.
  • I knew it was all temporary, and voluntary
  • In short, I presented like what I was: a middle-class kid having adventures

When I started grad school this mostly ended. But I was thinking about my period of not-really-homelessness and I realized there were two guys in my neighborhood in Eugene in the mid-90s who serve as interesting counterpoints.

The first was a young guy — I forget his name, let’s call him “Dan” — living with his dog and his guitar in a VW Microbus parked semipermanently in the alley behind a friend’s apartment. This was decades before #vanlife was a meme, but it was certainly a thing, and Dan was living it. He was a clean-nosed, industrious person — he worked a couple different jobs, and unlike most other Eugenians was straightedge about mindbending substances. I think Dan was a sort of ski bum or rafting guide or somesuch; Eugene was just the place he was parked for a few months between his preferred seasonal employment. The essence of this, in fact, was entirely like my own experience as an archaeology “dig bum.”

It never occurred to me (or as far I knew) anyone else to call Dan “homeless.”

The second was a middle-aged guy whose name every Eugenian of the last three-plus decades knows: Frog. Frog sold — still sells, as far as I know — the “funniest joke book in the world” on The Ave outside the UO Bookstore, next to campus. Shortly after moving to Eugene, I said something to a local about “the homeless guy selling joke books” and I was swiftly corrected: “Frog isn’t homeless, he lives over on ___ Street.” In my two years in Eugene I discovered this was a common misconception, and it came to drive me absolutely crazy.

So how is it that Dan, who was quite literally a transient, was never regarded as “homeless,” while Frog, a Eugene fixture since the 70s, was? If you look at the list above, they were exactly like me — and each other — in every way! The only meaningful difference between us that I can reckon is that Frog conducted his business in a shared public space, without any official sanction like a storefront.

This blog post started as a thread on Mastodon where I flippantly theorized:

I contend the class distinction around “homelessness” is mostly about panhandling

To which another poster replied:

I agree that panhandling is one of the dividers, but also sleeping on the sidewalk/in doorways or otherwise intruding on the awareness of Regular People...

And there it is: “homelessness” is socially constructed as intruding on the awareness of Regular People. Most of the this construction is not about where a person lives, or even how intentionally they live there, but whether they break a particular social barrier around public behavior. In fact, I can think of two neighbors — longtime residents of my neighborhood — right now who, by a strict institutional definition are certainly unhoused. But one is regarded as “homeless” and the other is socially anonymous. Because the first lives in the alley behind a business near the busy commercial strip, and the other lives in a residential garage well away from it. The first person intrudes on the awareness of Regular People, the other doesn’t.