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Urban Suffering Studies Center



Homeless society, homeless people

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Giacomo Torricelli



If you think you are a hobo you become one.
Walter, so-called homeless person

The problem isn't that they are homeless.
The problem is they don't have a home.
Don Piero Tubino



Almost every day for five years I worked and lived with people that are called Homeless People. I saw the people inside an institution, inside the assistance hospitality and care centers and facilities of the Caritas Diocesana of Genova. But I also went to many other places in which these people live, inhabit and sleep: on the street and at the train station, in apartments and protected accommodations, social hotels and public housing, rented rooms, houses. According to the most restricted sense and connotation of the definition, homeless people are all those individuals that, finding themselves in situations of serious personal hardship, social exclusion and poverty, live in the street or in cars, or in public dormitories, essentially ignored by institutions, mass media and public opinion (except when there is a cold weather emergency), without being able to entirely provide for their own survival on their own. An important clarification should be made immediately: the concept does not coincide with the symbolic and very concrete image, deformed and deforming of the hobo. Don Virginio Colmegna, wrote in the book Barboni: per amore o per forza? i.e. "Hobos: for love or by force?": "the old image of the hobo, the clochard - wrapped in the poetic aura of a combination of freedom, rejection, eccentricity - if it ever existed, is no longer around today".

The catch-all definition of homeless person includes people with very different and heterogeneous life experiences: people that suffered a long and sometimes violent institutionalization (orphanage, prison, insane asylum), with a deep mental suffering and tens of years of life on the street but also, especially in recent years, many come from more common and considered normal backgrounds. For these reasons the phenomenon includes extreme poverty, urban poverty, extreme exclusion and severe adult exclusion, social exclusion. These people are also called clochard, homeless, sans - abri, vagabonds, roofless, tramp, hobo, vagrants. Some have mental illness, are alcoholics. Others, increasingly in recent years, are also long term unemployed, new poor, separated fathers. In the concept of homelessness all of these are included and only in part do they overlap.

The reasons and the life stories that lead them to this situation seem to be extremely different, are considered to be rooted in their personal experience, in their autobiography and their biographical disruptions, in the lack of significant relationships that contributed to forming the almost always suffering and brutally fragmented identity. The most frequent issues connected to the condition of being homeless are mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, prison, prostitution, being HIV positive, unemployment. In recent years many young people from African countries, eastern Europe find themselves living on the street or in dormitories, and there has also been an increase in women.

The condition (in the strictest sense) is characterized and associated with not having a home and, as a cause and an effect, not having a job. Above all the most used the definition and wording by those that study and deal with this situation is homeless person. The word home contains and reinforces the semantic interaction of the words of house and dwelling.

The word home indicates a humanized space, the place (made) habitable in which to be, rest, live and sleep. It refers powerfully to the space altered only by human presence. When we speak of home we simultaneously mean: a physical space, intimate, protected and emotional to live; a collection of relationships and connections with other people. A sort of internal structure made up of one's identity, an inner home.

The home is therefore not just a material place but a symbolic place, emotional, spiritual, that unites self with social identity, one's person and humanness in time and space in relation to self and with others.
For all of these implications, to not attribute a home to a man is a huge responsibility.
The word, the concept and the space that is immediately associated with a home is a house, with its concrete and symbolic dimensions of inhabiting. This notion, of inhabiting, is connected to the word habit, in the sense of clothing, and habit, with all the implications regarding customs, mores and traditions, life styles and therefore human interactions that are developed in a place, that are generated by and generate codes of thought and conduct. Inhabiting refers to the intimate and protracted relationship that emerges between things, people and places in the course of daily life, the collection of interactions that tie human beings and their places of life together; inhabiting does not coincide with inhabiting a house, the same way that home does not coincide with house. If a house is also a home, the home is not always a house. However an inhabitance is synonymous with house, because house, as a custom and cultural norm, is the habitable and inhabited place in our society. It is considered normal to stay and live in it, cultivate oneself, take care of one's most important relationships, emotional and intimate away from the gaze, the closeness and the physical presence of others, the strangers. Because, as Moses a Moroccan gentleman that lives in the Genova train station, once told me, "changing your underwear in the train station is gross".
Living on the street and/or not having a home, in this society pushes the ontological and anthropological limits of man. It approaches animality and a pre-human state, and for this reason it runs the risk of casting a terrible shadow on those who experience it: them, "the homeless" are not like us; they are not men, not anymore and not yet men. They are part of another category of men, they are ontologically different. A homeless person is not one of us. They do not belong to the human assembly. Erving Goffman states that, by definition, we believe that a person with stigma is not quite human.
There is another aspect to highlight: this nearly inhuman condition of being without a house, called homelessness, runs the risk of becoming pervasive in the being of the person and becoming their identity, and coincide with it, especially when it is protracted over time. In many writings and daily verbal formulations, in many contexts, often for brevity and economy of communication,the most important component of the definition is lost: the word person; this semantic erosion, that carries on like a drip, apparently innocuous and forgettable, slowly loses the traces of the connection between the homeless person and the human dimension, leaving them without a home (to be helped).
It is clear that there is little poetry in not having a house and how this can increase the pain, the suffering and the fragmentation of existence, at least in certain periods of life. However there could be a risk of seeing only and/or above all the diversity in a negative way, aligning with what Franco Basaglia in "La maggioranza deviante" i.e. "the deviant majority" called the ideology of diversity, according to which, writes Marco Aime, "the accent is always placed on diversity, almost never on the common ground, that is taken for granted, quieted, not considered or ignored".
In this way, affirms Sabrina Tosi Cambini, "the public discourse on homelessness has created an idea of a universe of people that is completely other compared to the people "with a house" (housed). This responds to the need of social, public and private entities, to identify a target groups on which to focus financing, facilities and projects. The label of homeless person not only runs the risk of overtaking and engulfing the persons perception of self, drowning them in a total otherness, but also produces and reproduces marginalization in the organization of services and specific contexts of assistance services for this category of people, and in this way to make the hardship chronic, reinforcing the stigma derived from the phenomenon, (defined by Goffman) the situation in which the individual is excluded from full social acceptance. This would be in open contradiction with, for example, the Constitution of the Italian Republic, that in one of its founding and foundational articles, Art. 3, declares that all citizens have equal social dignity. Furthermore if the juridical - bureaucratic - public record definition defines these people as without a stable home, attributing to them, like to anyone, a physical concrete home, the notion of homeless person is from this point of view absurd. It has in fact another purpose.
This use of the term home instead of house and roof, is meant to go beyond the purely material dimension of the problem-phenomenon, and it underlines the relational and psychological issues. These are terribly present, rooted and radical, and the obtaining of a house does not magically erase them. However the emphasis on the relational and psychological dimension that is present in the use of the concepts of "home" and "without a home" runs the risk of psychologizing and individualizing the vision, the analysis and the interventions aimed at these people. The problematicity runs the risk of being rooted in the homelessness, in the internal home, with all the implications regarding the responsibility, inability and fault of the individual. This movement from outside inward could contribute to strengthening the negative constructs and to corroborate the translation of a condition (without a roof and a house) into an identity (without a home).
In a somewhat tautological manner it can be stated that a person is considered without a home, or starts to perceive themselves as such, when they start to frequent the places and services meant to help those who do not have a home. The identity of those without a home is also assumed by frequenting the places of those without a home. (The same homeless person in frequenting an unemployment office is unemployed, the mental health center is a mental patient, diagnosed and defined by the new references categories). The reference to Erving Goffman's Asylums is crucial, an ethnographic study of total institutions: the presence of the individual inside these institutions, Goffman says, is evidence of them being the kind of person that the institution was created to treat. Personal identity is also, and always, relational, in the sense that it is defined in relation to others, through social interaction with them and the social context in which the human being lives. Frequenting entities, institutions with their spaces and services designed exclusively for homeless people (cafeterias, shelters, dormitories) that have the same characteristics of a total institution, and contexts, specific areas of the city (for example parks, train stations), being in material "circuits of survival" and of relationships "where there is no one normal", along with the awareness of one's condition, can generate places and forms of ghettoization that run the risk of increasing labeling, the stigmatization and the self-imposed and outside imposed social abandonment, reinforcing the idea of being without a home and homelessness and with it the interiorization of a negative image, and facilitating the shared learning (also to survive) of dangerous behaviors (for example using alcohol, substances, micro-criminal behaviors; all of these can increase the mental suffering and/or cause a return to prison). It is often in the organization of services that there is a risk to cause and increase, most times unconsciously, the negative diversity that separates us, "normal" researchers and professionals, from them, the homeless people, the "abnormal". We target the homelessness but not the social context. If the individual and personal intervention, of support, social accompaniment has proven necessary and effective (especially with autobiographical approaches), this does not mean that the causes of the condition are only personal and individual.
In terms of vision of the phenomenon defining homelessness, using the very word home, if on one hand it places the focus on all the non-material dimensions that constitute poverty and determine it, can run the risk of circumscribing the sphere of problematicity, of the difficulty and the needs of the single individual, losing sight of the very relational and social dynamic that causes poverty and suffering, that run the risk of being limited to an only individual logic. This, even in the face of much rhetoric and speeches on the complexity and intersubjective and macro dynamics that influence them. The studies, the research, the reflection on the dynamics and the determinants in the social organization, on the limits of politics and the structuring of services are present in books, in the training, the conferences, pushing the politics and the private sector but in the everyday life of the person they are increasingly a homeless person that is often the object of support, projects, accompaniment on the part of services, centers, systems on the most part of entitlement nature, particularly in this time of economic crisis cuts in the private and public sector. This is confirmed by ISTAT research on homeless services that shows that "the absence of public guidance in Italy makes these people enter into entitlement circuits but they are unable to exit them". It is clear how in recent years there is a political absence and of policy, not only in the crucial creation of effective policies, but even more in the sense of cultural elaboration and generation of reality. The politics seem, as Freire writes, to order what is created spontaneously. In this way it falls under the problematicity of the individual. In this way on the topic of homelessness, missing pure abstraction and pure singularity, concrete and isolated, in the interaction of practice and theory, a discourse has developed that, with the due caution and reservations, is considered and made to work as a real discourse. This by the researchers, workers, public administrators, representatives of the ecclesiastic world, volunteers and professionals. This discourse is rooted in the very definition of homelessness. The most recognized in the Italian context was developed by fio. Homeless person (Federazione Italiana Organismi per le Persone Senza Dimora, association that united the public and private entities that deal with homelessness in our country), for whom a homeless person is an individual in a state of material and immaterial poverty, subject to a complex, dynamic and multiform hardship.
The "complex, dynamic and multiform hardship" seems to be rooted in the single homeless individual. To avoid the danger of the causal link between "you are without a house because you are without a home" it should be reminded that "you are without a home because you are without a house" and that both formulations have a relationship of cause and effect on each other. And this is because, beside the hardship of the individual, it is the phenomenon that is complex, dynamic, and multiform: these very words were said to me by Paolo, fifty year old, ex-Benedictine novice and ex-director of a library, living in a dormitory of which I was responsible. The container - the label homeless person groups together very different people that create a heterogeneous and varied reality. They have in common the fact that they are without a house and without a home. This runs the risk of being all inclusive, to homogenize what is not homogenous and to hypostatize the condition translating it into an identity, especially when the situation continues for years, in the manner which we have described.
Even looking exclusively at actions to address homelessness, the very definition of homelessness widens the semantic spectrum of without a stable home: it reveals and highlights the problems of the relational, psychological and social hardship, the symbolic non material components of poverty and suffering and places it in the realm of action - public and social reflection. Compared to the other definitions these components, in this way unmasked and active, would require a greater number of professionals, professionals, an iter èquipe and multidisciplinary, a greater awareness and training in the world of volunteer work, true dialogue and common action between social entities, with the aim to negotiated meanings together (with the participation of homeless people). However these components run the risk of acting without control, to propagate negative effects with cuts and the scarce resources available to hire, support, train, professionals, the decrease of the culture of social responsibility. Considering also that in a scarcity of resources what gets cut are usually the reflection, the thought, the experimentation, thinking of one's survival, of the "survival of the service", it runs the risk of developing cultures of emergency and entitlement services where the imperative is the supplying of measurable services (meals, showers, clothes, beds, nights), lengthening the stays in the premises, those in which you "join and are roped into projects", so as to run the risk of the homeless people becoming more passive and dependent in an 1800s view of charity and philanthropy. Where not only does the homeless person need the service but the service needs the homeless in a self-referential and self-feeding cycle. The risk is of affirming to treat the homeless person with the dignity of a person, to not consider them an object but a subject with due rights, but at the same time objectify some characteristics starting with the very definition.
The definitory structure and the negative definition of homeless person, as person without, help or obstruct the path to "recognizing the principles of formal and substantial equality, solidarity, social justice, non-discrimination for all men and women? Do they help to reconcile reality with rhetoric? How can I, I that have a house, see myself on the same human plane with the homeless person that does not have a house but not even a home, in other words the characteristics that come from it and allow to have it? Can we start by defining -building the discriminatory container to achieve nondiscrimination? Does this label facilitate the creating of conditions so as to allow for the possibility, albeit distant but concrete, that the homeless person could be no longer without a home? Or does it contribute to the fact that the homeless person stays homeless, structuring their life according to the activities of this category that after a sometime becomes a profession, so that "we" can take care and continue to take care of him, and of "them" the homeless?
Is this container needed or can we create a new one? Are the places, the services, the interventions for homeless people appropriate for the presence of new figures, the new poor? The economic and social crisis that has exploded worldwide in recent years has accelerated the dynamics of social fluidity, fragilization and fragmentation, (starting in the ‘80s), has drawn together biographies that in a solid society would have been unlikely linked. And, as Robert Castel reminds us, "the integrated, vulnerable and désaffillies belong to the same together, the unity of which is highly problematic". From the material point of view the ISTAT, Ministry of Labour, INPS and Bank of Italy data tell us that in Italy there are approximately 6 million people in absolute poverty, 10 million in a condition of relative poverty and approximately 20 million at risk. According to ISTAT, with the economic crisis the number of people in absolute poverty has doubled going from 2 million and 427 thousand to 4 million and 814 thousand, to reach 6 million and 60 thousand people. It is the very crisis that seems to have widened the definition of homeless person, developed in and for a previous historical period. If the words without and home must be used, more than the people, they should be used to define a Homeless Society.
From a symbolic standpoint - relationally this represents a general fragilization of the connections and a destabilization of the stable. The dominant values are speed, novelty, desire, ambition, the ability to adapt, being flexible, being connected and continual reinvention. Value is being on the move: running, being self-made, with a progressive increase of reciprocal distrust and aggression. Instability, temporariness, insecurity, uncertainty are the dominant individual and shared conditions and sentiments, necessary and constitutional characteristics of the prevailing context and discipline of this historical period, the financial economy. The very society that is increasingly automatic and automatized in the concrete procedures and devices of daily life (ATMs, pay tolls, on line payment and documents, online shopping, smartphones, tablets, etc...) makes people less used to the Other and the Different, as a concept and as a concrete presence, and to be increasingly isolated. Increasingly isolated but increasingly connected to the networks, telematics and the social networks like Facebook but also the social micro networks, often of individuals identical or homologous to each other. Increasingly frequent, to everyone, people and homeless people, is the condition and subsequent feeling of belonging to multiple social systems in the same society, increased by the new technologies with which it is possible to be in contact with different systems. New technologies the use of which is very present even among homeless people. It could be said that the individual lives in a simultaneity of social systems that are not able to assign to him a stable place, generating a status that is not consistent with a linear model of social stratification, but more inclined to follow an irregular pattern connected with the increase of complexity, the contingency and the risk, where progress and the downturn can follow one another without interruption, characterizing an era in which, as Di Nicola underlines, "not only is the ‘position' central but also the ‘connection". To think of the individual status in terms of connection, beyond referring to a reticular vision of society, suggests reflections on what it means to find oneself in a condition of marginality today, asking oneself if this condition is still referred to an idea of fixed marginality or if it refers to a binary logic of access/non-access to the different nodes that make up the structure of complex societies, a logic that tends to disconnect the person from the social fabric and seems to refer to the very dynamics that differentiate the condition of the homeless person.


This consideration leads to the conclusion that social marginality today takes on peculiar and extremely widespread characteristics compared to the past. There is a shared feeling of being excluded from participating in the decisional processes of small and large social and political systems and to only be able to have an impact with great effort on those that are relevant, feeling simultaneously and in an ambivalent manner both in and out, included and excluded from them even while a part of them. The idea, quite concrete, of being ignored and disenfranchised, to not be able to access the available rights or to see the acquired ones be eroded is particularly widespread.
The margins of society and of the cities are no longer drawn at the outside rim of them and in the lower levels. What appears is very much a homeless society.
Those characteristics that were attributed and attributable to those without a stable home or the homeless no longer belong to a specific category; they have also been pulverized and liquefied and they have spread to the whole society. However if this is true, then it should be specified that if we are all in some way homeless not everyone is, we are, homeless in the same way. If the sense of instability, temporariness, insecurity, uncertainty, fear and marginality is shared, obviously it is not shared by everyone in an identical manner.
The central issue in considering the phenomenon of, even extreme, poverty and hardship seems to us to be the very definition of Homeless Person that, even used in the plural as Homeless people, to indicate a heterogeneity and multidimensionality of the phenomenon does not seem to describe adequately the social and economic changes of recent years, and relationships of individuals with them.
The individual without a stable home or homeless is progressively more similar to others. It is no longer a stereotypical image and (with Foucault) created, constructed, generated by social symbologies, understandings, practices and dynamics, close to the absolute Other, Abnormal and Different, in other words disconnected from connections (ab - solvo), the image of the fool, the vagabond, the mental patient, the abandoned, the excluded, the dirty man, with torn clothes, the long beard and the carton of wine. Based on the ISTAT research on homeless people, meant as without a roof or house, in 2011, in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Social politics, Italian Caritas and FioPSD.
It emerged that 63.9% lived in their own house before becoming homeless , and 15.8% lived with parents, friends and acquaintances, for a total of 79.7% that lived in a house. Of the remaining 20.3% only 7.5% declared that they had never had a house.
From the employment standpoint at the time of the interview, 28.3% of those interviewed had employment, 25.7% had had stable employment and 39.3% had worked for a time, or in an inconsistent or periodic manner. Only 6.7% had never worked.
Nonetheless the definition of homelessness separates, divides the healthy world from the sick world, and does not seem to illustrate as a horizon of meaning this greater similarity that has emerged in recent years. It separates, distinguishes and distances people that are not so distant and separate. Based on the understanding it does not seem adequate to describe the nearness of marginal people to those that are vulnerable and integrated, and the marginalization and fragilization of the latter, tends to make a condition static which is in reality dynamic. This seems to us, as we have seen, not because of the use of the suffix -less, that defines a man by what is subtracted and lacking, but because of the use of the word home, charged and bearer of an extreme ambiguity, increased by the used in wide sense of social, sentimental and relational network in use in these past fifteen - twenty years. It is often superimposed with house but it does not coincide with it. It indicates at the same time the place that I humanize with my very human presence and the circumstances, often a protected place, shelter and refuge: It is the place where I linger, stop, stay, pause and live. It indicates the being in a place, the stopping in a place. Home is the place where I am. It is my place in the world. As can be seen the term is interconnected with a deep indeterminacy that refers to the meaning in use and for other historical periods in which populations and human beings where much less stationary, and when living did not coincide with living in apartments. Wide, vague, indefinite and extremely polisemantic meaning, it can be the place where I am, the house but also figuratively existence in the world, having a place in the world, being in the world, referring to an almost Heideggerian ontological existence. What are the conceptual borders of the term? What are the concrete ones? This power to unite the particular and restricted with the absolute and the totally symbolic makes this term extremely fascinating and equally dangerous.
Because affirming and theorizing that a person is homeless or without a stable home seems to equal saying that they do not have a place and their place in the world, it absolutizes the Diversity and Otherness that do not correspond to reality, today less than yesterday, follows and continues the story of the reject, the poor, the fool and the abnormal, the Other and Different: the model of reference is downward, "looking down", at the hobo. The definition emanates a strength and direction that pushes downward and out of the social systems and the human groups those that it is put on: it leads to the margins and exclusion.
Furthermore, as we have said, the intent and the value of outlining the components of the relational and psychological, beside social, hardship considered present or even the basis of the condition of being without a stable home or homeless, seems to be counterproductive from the practical standpoint because brought out into the light and exposed, the details of the hardship are not faced in a congruous manner. Actions aimed at reactivating, besides personal competences, the work and professional abilities are lacking. The answers that seem predominant are those that assist with material emergencies: meals and hospitality.

It is necessary in our opinion to rethink the representation of the phenomenon with a metanoia, a conversion and a cultural and conceptual revolution, describe the phenomenon focusing on the relationship between individuals/ human groups and society , investigating and getting lost in only one of the poles in question would be partial, misguided and probably harmful. And from the application standpoint it is necessary to integrate not only, in the sense of carrying inside, assimilate and include, people considered disconnected from the social body, but instead seek processes and paths of meetings between marginal and integrated people, in places conceived to be truly participated and shared, even with different roles, that allow for cultural and social change.
It could be decided to restart from the concept of home and dwelling, "stay more or less permanently in a place", in the first, narrow, etymological sense of the term of "lingering". In this view people that do not have a roof, without a house, in the dormitories or the roads, with a fragilization and break in relations, are homeless people. The problem then is that they have a home and they have a home and little more, but they do not have a place to cultivate and consolidate their life world in a protected and serene way, even from an intimate, relational and emotional standpoint.
This sphere seems to be expressed even in the term house, that includes even the history and diachrony of the relationships. Even in the negative diction of without a house, this would nevertheless have the positive value of moving towards the center, upward and toward inclusion, based on a model of comparison and reference to those who have a house and live in one. Analytically the semantic confusion of the term home could be avoided describing nonetheless a varied and multidimensional phenomenon with different implications in terms of knowledge and spheres of life that could from a practical standpoint work towards integration.
We believe that the term homeless should be abandoned and replaced with without a house, rich in terms of understanding, descriptive of the social fluidity and hardship, and that this can have important practical and application consequences, contributing to sustain the housing first policies and welfare promotion in the community also through contact and collaboration among entities (profit and nonprofit, public and private) that even today tend to work in a sectorial manner with target populations.



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Center for urban suffering

The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

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The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


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