CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This work brings together twenty of the papers delivered at an international conference held in Saint-Étienne in 2012 entitled “Public space and homelessness: a presentation of research”. The authors work in both French and foreign universities and in a wide range of disciplines including sociology, educational science, history, anthropology, ethnology and political science. The field studies were done in France (Paris and Saint-Étienne), Tokyo, Montreal and Buenos Aires.

2The authors analyse the public policies for combating exclusion implemented over the last twenty years and their effects on homeless populations as well as citizen mobilizations against homelessness. Their work comes together around two main ideas: the usefulness of continuing to amass research on these realities, and the relevance of the comparative perspective. Field studies and surveys play a major role in this research by way of analytic description and in connection with “epistemological scope”.

3The eight chapters are divided into three parts. In the first, the authors present their ideas on the practice of field studies and examine the role of researchers and other outside figures in such studies. The first chapter contextualizes the emergence of the public problem of homelessness over the twentieth century. Using a socio-historical approach, Axelle Brodiez and Bertrand Ravon describe the arrangements initially put in place, the effect of which was to render this marginal population invisible. In the second chapter, Daniel Cefaï draws us directly into the urgent social problem of homelessness, presenting a field study conducted with France’s municipal humanitarian emergency service, the Samu Social. In the next chapter, Marine Maurin analyses public policies around the “housing first” demand through case studies of a programme in Quebec and a city initiative in Saint-Étienne.

4Part II focuses on researchers’ involvement in and commitment to these studies, from the work of restoring research findings to the homeless population in question to the issue of what role artists should play in the debate on homelessness. Claudia Girola begins the first chapter of this section by stressing the importance of reflexivity when doing research with homeless people. In her text, Dalhia Namian demonstrates the relevance of irony and metaphor in studying “itinerance” and the end of life: incorporating them into the research helps better define and approach the practice of surveying a population on the margins of society and the epistemological and methodological difficulties this raises for researchers. In the next chapter, Jérôme Beauchez moves beyond the epistemology question, giving an account of tensions between “involvement” in the situation under study and “self-distancing” in a survey of groups of “punks, skinheads and squatters”. Beauchez stresses the importance of life history interviews, as does Christophe Blanchard in his account of a field study of young homeless persons with dogs; fieldwork is combined with an autobiographical sketch and a reflexive look at the use of sociological categories and concepts. The focus of the following text, by Fabrice Fernandez, is a group of drug-users “roaming the city”. Fernandez narrates how he proceeded as a researcher, meeting first with a crack-smoker who became his guide and introduced him into a field whose rules and frameworks are determined by drug-users rather than institutions. The last chapter describes proposed public policy solutions. Shirley Roy’s study of homelessness in Quebec shows the difficulties and potential of conducting research in partnership. Elodie Jouve and Claire Lemarchand concentrate on relations between research and public policy, analysing the effects of calling on artists to critique the living conditions of the homeless and showing the positive impact of artistic creations and “inventive, polemical or innovative” arrangements. This part ends with an article by Etienne Tassin on the role of designers whose aim is not so much to provide solutions as to elicit constructive thinking about the problem.

5Part III centres on ethnographic description. The aim is to account for the “metamorphoses of this social issue” on the basis of international examples from France, Italy, Japan and Argentina. The first articles discuss the settlement of homeless people in public space in precarious housing such as tents or shacks. Gaspard Lion describes in fine detail the experience of men living in the woods around Paris, a group he kept up with for four years. He stresses their resistance against the difficulties they encounter, including in their continual negotiations with the authorities and all the way up to their eviction. In similar fashion, Lucas Graeff presents a mobilization of the Enfants de Don Quichotte [Children of Don Quixote], a French association for defending the homeless, showing that the creation in France of a legal right to decent housing (and the right to sue to obtain it) has reinforced “the naturalization of categorical representations”. In Estelle Degouys’ study of clusters of tents for the homeless in Tokyo public parks, a chapter that echoes Gaspard Lion’s, we observe “the daily struggle to inhabit” and efforts to create organization that will facilitate “living together”. Griselda Pelleres and Paula Rosa study the presence of homeless people in public space in the city of Buenos Aires, where a recent law grants them use rights. The researchers critique the assistance-centred approach of the law, which many homeless persons cannot accept. Marie-Thérèse Têtu further exposes the limitations of this approach in her article on squats inhabited by homeless undocumented migrants. While homeless citizens of the country can claim a right to housing or shelter, undocumented migrants cannot. Here squats become places for mobilizing to demand “the right to be here”, mobilizations than can result in arrangements with institutional or association actors; also places for transmitting a kind of knowledge, as Maurizio Bergamaschi shows in connection with the hiring of former homeless people as au pair workers in Italy.

6It is regrettable that the studies of situations in France do not show how diversified the homeless population has become in recent years (increased numbers of women, children and foreigners) [1] and the impact these changes should have on how the public problem, and responses to it, are constructed. Nonetheless, this collective work constitutes a useful overview of research into homelessness; the chapters analyse local situations and stakes while situating them in a historical and international perspective.


  • [1]
    See F. Yaouancq and M. Duée, 2014, “Les sans-domicile en 2012 : une grande diversité de situations”, INSEE, France, portrait social.
  • Pichon Pascale, Girola Claudia, Jouve Élodie (eds.), 2016, Au temps du sans-abrisme. Enquêtes de terrain et problème public, Saint-Étienne, PUSE, 454 p.
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