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Br J Sociol. 2011 Sep;62(3):442-61. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2011.01373.x.

Homeless identities: enacted and ascribed.

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Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland.


Homelessness has been a perennial concern for sociologists. It is a confronting phenomenon that can challenge western notions of home, a discrete family unit and the ascetics and order of public space. To be without a home and to reside in public places illustrates both an intriguing way of living and some fundamental inadequacies in the functioning of society. Much homelessness research has had the consequence of isolating the 'homeless person' as distinct category or indeed type of individual. They are ascribed with homeless identities. The homeless identity is not simply presented as one dimensional and defining, but this imposed and ill-fitting identity is rarely informed by a close and long-term engagement with the individuals it is supposed to say something about. Drawing on a recent Australian ethnographic study with people literally without shelter, this article aims to contribute to understandings of people who are homeless by outlining some nuanced and diverse aspects of their identities. It argues that people can and do express agency in the way they enact elements of the self, and the experience of homelessness is simultaneously important and unimportant to understand this. Further, the article suggests that what is presumably known about the homeless identity is influenced by day-to-day lives that are on public display.

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