Methodologies for the Study of Homelessness

Through undertaking extended fieldwork and using holistic and cross-perspectives, anthropologists attempt to understand what drives individuals to life on the streets and to shelters, and what prevents them from gaining permanent and secure housing.

Ethnography, a hallmark of anthropology, involves entering a culture, learning about it, and, as much as possible, communicating a "native" point of view to a wider public. The "insider's" ethnographic approach attempts to avoid the a priori categories of other disciplines, and therefore enables us to see the world through the eyes of the homeless themselves. Anthropological research on homelessness then becomes a good complement to the research of sociologists, psychologists, and public health professionals who often utilize the one-time interview method.

In order to enter the world of the homeless, it is necessary to develop various approaches to the challenging task of invading the private space of a person whose life is conducted so often in public view. For example, working in a metropolitan airport, Kim Hopper would offer food and coffee to the individuals who slept in the airports and who tried to blend in with the travelers there. He was especially interested in why people preferred the airport to the public shelter and how they managed to survive. Sometimes, for those who were badly disoriented and sick, Hopper would arrange for placements with agencies in the city, but most of the time he concentrated on understanding "the native's point of view" (Hopper, 1991).

A very useful technique that has been employed in homelessness research is triangulation or obtaining multiple perspectives about the same person (e.g., interviews complemented by extensive observations). A good example from the work of Koegel (1992) is the self-report of a homeless man on the street who maintained that he used no services, despite living on the street full-time. As a member of the research team tagged along with him one Sunday, they observed him obtaining an entire week's worth of food from a mobile feeding program, which he put in his ice chest (well-camouflaged inside a tattered box), thoroughly belying his claim of "no contact."

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