Cover image for Homeless Advocacy and the Rhetorical Construction of the Civic Home By Melanie Loehwing

Homeless Advocacy and the Rhetorical Construction of the Civic Home

Melanie Loehwing

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$89.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08215-8

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232 pages
6" × 9"
2018

Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation

Homeless Advocacy and the Rhetorical Construction of the Civic Home

Melanie Loehwing

“Approaches a topic connected to marginalized voices that is sorely missing from rhetorical studies and, in many cases, from critical analysis writ large: the discourse of, and rhetoric about, homeless communities. The value of this study is that it demonstrates the transformative benefits of viewing homelessness advocacy as a rhetorical means rooted in ‘home’ rather than just through and by instrumental and utile ends. Loehwing’s work serves as a watershed moment of exploring the double marginalization of homeless communities.”

 

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Homeless assistance has frequently adhered to the “three hots and a cot” model, which prioritizes immediate material needs but may fail to address the political and social exclusion of people experiencing homelessness. In this study, Loehwing reconsiders typical characterizations of homelessness, citizenship, and democratic community through unconventional approaches to homeless advocacy and assistance.

While conventional homeless advocacy rhetoric establishes the urgency of homeless suffering, it also implicitly invites housed publics to understand homelessness as a state of abnormality that destines the individuals suffering it to life outside the civic body. In contrast, Loehwing focuses on atypical models of homeless advocacy: the meal-sharing initiatives of Food Not Bombs, the international competition of the Homeless World Cup, and the annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day campaign. She argues that these modes of unconventional homeless advocacy provide rhetorical exemplars of a type of inclusive and empowering civic discourse that is missing from conventional homeless advocacy and may be indispensable for overcoming homeless marginalization and exclusion in contemporary democratic culture.

Loehwing’s interrogation of homeless advocacy rhetorics demonstrates how discursive practices shape democratic culture and how they may provide a potential civic remedy to the harms of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and displacement. This book will be welcomed by scholars whose work focuses on the intersections of democratic theory and rhetorical and civic studies, as well as by homelessness advocacy groups.

“Approaches a topic connected to marginalized voices that is sorely missing from rhetorical studies and, in many cases, from critical analysis writ large: the discourse of, and rhetoric about, homeless communities. The value of this study is that it demonstrates the transformative benefits of viewing homelessness advocacy as a rhetorical means rooted in ‘home’ rather than just through and by instrumental and utile ends. Loehwing’s work serves as a watershed moment of exploring the double marginalization of homeless communities.”

Melanie Loehwing is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Mississippi State University.

From the Introduction

“Dwelling Within Democracy”

In November of 1978, an affordable-housing crisis and freezing temperatures combined to imperil a growing population of people experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital. Concerned and finding limited success through traditional advocacy channels, homeless activists Mitch Snyder and Ann Splaine devised a dramatic approach to publicizing homeless suffering: voluntarily living on the streets. By electing to take up residence on the same sidewalks and park benches as those they aimed to assist, Snyder and Splaine sought both a firsthand understanding of the experience of homelessness and a newsworthy act of defiance. They resisted the urge to return indoors despite the bitter cold, and instead spent the freezing nights roaming the city, talking to the people living there, and hunting for street grates as the sole source of heat available to them. Their approach to advocating for the homeless, though unconventional, afforded them the opportunity to discuss the experiences of homelessness with those who live it every day and articulate the varieties of resistance and injustice that stymied their work. As Snyder explained to the Washington Post, “There’s an insanity, an absurdity,” inherent in the public’s indifference or disgust toward homelessness. “These people out here are hungry, sick, broke, degraded, intimidated, the most miserable segment of society. Yet they are ignored. . . . Our social and economic systems drive people apart, instead of bringing them together. That is why I feel the need for radical change.” For Snyder and his peers in the Community for Creative Non-Violence, helping transform public attitudes toward homelessness—finding inventive ways to bring people together across the divisions of housing status—remained as essential a goal as administering to the needs of individuals suffering from life on the streets.

Despite the intervening years, public attitudes toward homelessness still largely reflect the lack of compassion that struck Snyder as insane and absurd. As a result, advocates for people experiencing homelessness face a rhetorical situation that seems to be characterized more by constraints than opportunities. In advancing public arguments on behalf of a marginalized homeless population, these advocates must still work tirelessly across a number of different fronts. They must appeal for material resources for those in need, petition for expanded shelter and affordable housing options, challenge antihomeless legislation and sentiment, and cultivate supportive communities despite the public’s increasing compassion fatigue. Supporters of homeless populations must often work with too few resources and too little social capital as funding for vital programs gets cut. Gentrification efforts decimate the availability of affordable housing. Economic downturns jeopardize the already precarious financial standing of the working poor, and housed publics, often made weary by their own economic struggles, turn their backs on their homeless neighbors in indifference or disgust. Business owners increasingly demand protection against the disruptions of commerce that they attribute to the public presence of homeless bodies. Given the substantial financial, legal, and political constraints within which homeless advocacy must operate, the goal of ending homelessness seems like some kind of utopian dream—an ideal accomplishment, to be sure, but perhaps too unrealistic an objective.

Yet in December 2013, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, was able to publicize the remarkable accomplishment of ending chronic veteran homelessness, announcing that its successful initiative could serve as a blueprint for other cities working to get people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into stable housing. Not only had the city managed to house the 222 veterans living without regular shelter, but it also was the first to achieve the goal set by the Obama Administration to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Just weeks later, the mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, proclaimed its second-place finish in their “wonderful friendly competition” with Phoenix to eradicate chronic homelessness in their cities’ veteran populations. Like Phoenix, Salt Lake City had identified the homeless veterans living in their community and dedicated resources to housing them. Their success, according to the mayor, came by virtue of cooperation among public and private stakeholders working at the national, state, and local levels in the fight against homelessness.

Phoenix and Salt Lake City represent early success stories in the federal effort to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015 as an initial step to ending homelessness across all subgroups. While veteran homelessness in particular and homelessness in general has persisted beyond the original 2015 benchmark, city and state communities across the country have joined Phoenix and Salt Lake City in asserting substantial progress toward these shared goals. In New Orleans, officials declared the end of veteran homelessness when the last of its 227 known homeless veterans received housing at the start of 2015. Similar pronouncements of the resolution of chronic veteran homelessness emerged over the course of 2015, including those from the states of Virginia and Connecticut, and the cities of Las Cruces, New Mexico; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and New York City. As the deputy director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), Laura Zeilinger, told the New York Times, “We do think we can get to the point where we can say there are no more homeless veterans in the country. . . . And if we do this for veterans, it’s something that as a nation, if we set our mind to, we can achieve for other populations as well.”

Zeilinger’s objective inspires in both its optimism and ambition. Given the persistence of homelessness as a multifaceted social problem lacking straightforward solutions, the idea of completely eradicating it is undeniably appealing even as the obstacles appear insurmountable in their complexity. But what could it mean for a community to declare it has “ended homelessness”? At first glance, it would appear to mean that within such communities, at the moment of declaration, every single citizen has housing of some kind. Yet such an admirable state hardly qualifies as an end to homelessness overall, since housing status changes regularly—particularly for those of marginal socioeconomic status, for whom the possibility of homelessness is especially tangible. In the context of the vagaries and fluctuations of housing status, rhetorical declarations of the end of homelessness seem to ask us to freeze the present moment in time to stand in for all future measures of housing, which is an unrealistic stance, to be sure. And once we move past the celebratory headlines that announce an end to homelessness, we see that the details of the accomplishment qualify it based on USICH’s criteria: that in the cases of the communities discussed above, all homeless veterans have been identified, have been provided shelter if desired, are moved quickly into permanent housing, and are able to be supported in the event that they are at risk of homelessness in the future. Communities meeting these criteria can submit documentation to the federal government for review and official certification that they have “achieved the goal of ending veteran homelessness.”

Given these qualifying criteria, the triumphant announcement of an end to homelessness (or identification of such as a concrete goal) is more of a political or symbolic victory than a literal one. Declaring that a city has secured an end to homelessness may seem like a relatively straightforward bureaucratic matter, a measurement of policy outcomes that might only interest social workers or elected officials invested in tracking the success rates of city initiatives to improve the quality of life for those who reside in their communities. In contrast, I suggest we understand announcements of an end to homelessness as a rhetorical act, one that contributes to the constitution of the civic body by strategically defining homelessness as a marker of flawed disposition that disqualifies individuals from inclusion in the political community. The ideal of ending homelessness conjures up images of communities where none lack basic resources or struggle to make ends meet, but in reality the federal program establishes rapid provision of housing to people experiencing homelessness as a satisfactory outcome. Undoubtedly, we should celebrate any community that can meet the objective of having sufficient available housing to serve the needs of the newly homeless. But in recognizing that some residents will remain at risk of future homelessness, and that resources must be maintained to provide for them, cities that aim to declare an end to homelessness seem to contradict themselves as they plan for its inevitable persistence. Assessed purely in terms of policy outcomes, declarations of an end to homelessness may seem incoherent at best, duplicitous at worst.

Homeless Advocacy and the Rhetorical Construction of the Civic Home makes sense of this apparent contradiction by asking not what it means to declare an end to homelessness but instead what communities gain through this rhetorical act. As I will show in the following pages, there are powerful political incentives for declaring an end to homelessness; most seek an opportunity to assuage housed publics’ fears that homelessness will disrupt their daily social and commercial transactions. And while communities that declare an end to homelessness may be motivated at least in part by charitable attitudes toward people experiencing homelessness, public efforts to eradicate homelessness simultaneously respond to the concerns of private citizens and business owners who feel threatened by the material realities of other people’s misfortune. In this context, declaring an end to homelessness may provide a powerful form of reassurance to a housed citizenry that feels the community is diminished by the persistence of homelessness.

This book takes as its starting point the insight that resolving homelessness cannot be reduced to ending houselessness—that providing shelter is but one undeniably important yet, on its own, insufficient remedy to a condition that has been produced, refigured, and reinforced through decades of marginalizing discourses and discriminatory policies. In short, the condition of homelessness is one constituted by the public rhetoric that documents it, condemns it, attempts to resolve it, and proclaims its potential end. As we will see in the following discussion, these discourses have activated forms of social and political exclusion that require more than shelter alone to remedy the harms they have perpetrated against people experiencing homelessness and the communities that have been constituted around their displacement from the civic body.

The Rhetorical Production of Homeless Exclusion

When policymakers and publics define homelessness simplistically, in terms of a lack of housing alone, explanations and solutions to the problem seem correspondingly simple and manageable. A prime example of this sort of reductivist rhetoric appears in USICH’s 2010 report, Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, which it presented to the Office of the President and Congress. This document outlines a series of ambitious goals, including to “prevent and end homelessness among Veterans in 2015,” to “finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in 2017,” to “prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children in 2020,” and to “set a path to ending all types of homelessness.” President Obama, in his prefatory letter to the Opening Doors report, suggests what an end to homelessness might look like by defining “home” exclusively in terms of housing. He writes, “Since the founding of our country, ‘home’ has been the center of the American dream. Stable housing is the foundation upon which everything else in a family’s or individual’s life is built—without a stable, affordable place to live, it is much tougher to maintain good health, get a good education or reach your full potential.”

And indeed, this reduction of homelessness to houselessness continues throughout the document; it is particularly evident in the section establishing an “Operational Definition of an End to Homelessness”: “An end to homelessness does not mean that no one will ever experience a housing crisis again. Changing economic realities, the unpredictability of life, and unsafe or unwelcoming family environments may create situations where individuals, families, or youth could experience, re-experience, or be at risk of homelessness. An end to homelessness means that every community will have a systematic response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible or is otherwise a rare, brief, and non-recurring experience.” The brevity of potential future homelessness is ensured, according to Opening Doors, by equipping all communities to detect any increased risk of homelessness among their residents and make immediate interventions to either eliminate that risk or provide access to housing of some kind to resolve a temporary lack of shelter before it devolves into a more permanent situation. The vision of this admirable and ambitious federal plan rests firmly on the notion of homelessness as a lack of housing—homelessness as houselessness.

(Excerpt ends here.)

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