“Just out of sight” : homeless (in)visibilities in Austin, Texas



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This dissertation is an ethnographic study of homelessness as a problem of (in)visibility. The concept of visibility is central to the construction of homelessness as a societal phenomenon, but in ways that are overly simplistic and reifying of stereotypes that perpetuate the marginalization of homeless people. The purpose of this study is to analyze the meanings of visibility in the discourse surrounding homelessness in Austin, Texas, and to understand what meanings the people in my study made of their own relationships to visibility. Understanding the complexity of visibility, that is at once empowering and disempowering and somewhere in between, is important for recognizing the complex conditions within which homeless people make lives and enter frames of representation. Discursive and visual constructions of “the homeless problem” shape both the popular understanding of homelessness as well as policy responses at both the local and national level. That the urban core and the entertainment district in downtown Austin is an area that business owners and public officials manage the visual appearance of, and that this has consequences for the city’s homeless, is not a surprising outcome. How people manage to find comfort (which requires taking up space in ways that are normally restricted), and friendship (which includes the congregation of two or more visibly homeless people), within the conditions of homeless are questions that present more interesting conclusions which inform the sociological study of homelessness, visibility, and friendship. My experience in this research project, revealed in the discussions throughout, brought about a critical perspective of a variety of initiatives that are meant to address homelessness. In particular, I am critical of the dominant framework suggesting that the best way to deal with “the homeless problem” is through the goal of ending homelessness. This foundation, that homelessness must be ended, appears at first to be the only moral perspective that makes sense. However, I clarify the unintended consequences of “ending homelessness” that further marginalize and stigmatize those who experience conditions of poverty and housing instability.