CRESR Seminar: Homelessness – a failure of systems or a failure of relationships?

Start date: 
Wed, 15/01/2014
Closing date: 
Wed, 15/01/2014
Stoddart 7139
Event contact: 
Ian Wilson & Will Eadson

Peter Somerville - University of Lincoln


I will start with a statement of the ‘problem’ of homelessness as constructed by ‘society’ and will then problematise this ‘problem’ as in itself pathologising and stigmatising.  I will then look at current academic ‘explanations’ of homelessness but briefly, as this is discussed in greater detail in Somerville (2013a). I will attempt to critique the position I adopted in that article by arguing that homelessness does not need to be ‘explained’ as a fact or real object or cultural phenomenon but rather needs to be seen in the context of a wider social and spiritual understanding (I originally tried to do this in Somerville, 1992).

I will then look at homeless people’s own explanations of homelessness and their common rejection of the homelessness label. E.g. sin, sick, system (Gowan, 2010) – but few blamed the system in our research. Chance is another explanation but is equally over-categorical and simplistic. These explanations are clearly not good enough. ‘Shit happens’ (e.g. we go wrong, we get damaged, we get knocked back) – but why does it happen to some people more than others? And why do different people respond differently to similar shit? It is commonly assumed by researchers that homeless people understand what has happened to them and why it has happened, but our research suggests that this is not the case (example from ‘life has its ups and downs’ here).

I will then argue that ‘system’ is underemphasised and undertheorised in homelessness research. I will focus in particular on the revanchist thesis, applied mainly to urban areas but also to rural areas (Somerville, 2013b). Following De Verteuil (2006) I will focus on the ambivalent role played by homelessness organisations.

Finally, I will argue that explanations in terms of ‘system’ are insufficient – ‘agency’ or ‘culture’ or ‘spirit’ also has a role to play. The difficulty lies in distinguishing one from the other. Revanchism (system) tends to annihilate the human spirit (agency) but also provokes resistance (agency). People labelled as ‘homeless’, however, are abject and, as such, in no effective position to challenge yet alone change the system. For that, local, national and international political action is required.

De Verteuil, G. (2006) ‘The local state and homeless shelters: beyond revanchism?’ Cities 23, 2: 109-120.
Gowan, T. (2010) Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Somerville, P. (2013a) ‘Understanding homelessness’, Housing, Theory and Society. Published online on 10th January:
Somerville, P. (2013b) ‘Changing social relations in the English countryside: the case of housing’, in Bosworth, G. and Somerville, P. (eds) Interpreting Rurality: Multidisciplinary perspectives. London: Routledge.


Peter Somerville is Professor of Social Policy and Head of the Policy Studies Research Centre at the University of Lincoln. His main research interests are in homelessness, community, governance, and social theory. With Phil Brown, Lisa Scullion and Gareth Morris, he was responsible for an ESRC project on multiple exclusion homelessness, which was completed in 2011. The team are still in the process of producing outputs from this research, and my presentation today stems largely from this process. 

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