The Geography of Homelessness

Posted on September 21, 2008


Geography is fundamentally the study of the relationship of human beings to the landscape.  Part of that relationship is inventory:  mountains, rivers, valleys, marshlands, metals, minerals, forests, indigenous plants, birds, wildlife, fish, topsoil, and so on.  Much of the rest of the story has to do with how human beings relate to that inventory.

That is why we can talk about the geography of homelessness.  Different classes of people relate to the landscape differently, because, among other reasons, some have more power than others, and the homeless are those with the least power of all.

A landowner will relate to a downtown hotel as an investment, a way to make money.  That same downtown hotel might also be seen as home for a couple of dozen people.  If the landowner decides that it is possible to attract a class of tenant with more money, and get a better return on his or her investment thereby, then he or she will do so.  Of course, in that case, the original tenants must move out.  And when they do, some will find substitute accommodation, and some will not, depending upon how much substitute accommodation is available.  Those who do not find substitute accommodation become homeless.

The process of attracting tenants with more money is known as gentrification.  For gentrification to happen, a formerly low rent district has to undergo changes, transform itself into an area which the prospective new tenants deem acceptable.  In transforming itself, the low rent district becomes progressively less affordable for the poorer people who originally lived there.  Gentrification, a geographic process driven by money and bourgeois values, thus becomes one of the forces encouraging homelessness.  It’s people with money pushing people without it into the cold.

Once you are homeless, geography controls your life even more.  According to laws and policies put in place by the classes with power in our society, certain people have more rights over the landscape than others, and can decide what various parts of the landscape can and cannot be used for.  The benches in bus shelters, for instance, are for the use of commuters.  That is an acceptable use.  It is not acceptable that a homeless person should sleep on one, even if it is in the middle of the night and the buses are no longer running.  Therefore, they design these benches so that they can be sat on, but cannot be slept on.

Making benches so the homeless can't sleep

Making benches so the homeless can't sleep.

Parks are another example.  These are for recreation, having a picnic, playing ball.  If you are homeless and try to set up a tent in a park, the police will come and move you on.  Playing ball is all right, but living there is not, even if you have no other place to go.

If you sit on a curb, you will be moved along.  If you camp in an abandoned building, you will be moved along.  If you try to sleep in the alley, you will be moved along.  When you are homeless, no part of the landscape is reserved for your legitimate use.  You don’t belong anywhere.  You are not permitted to stand still, to lie down, to lock a door or turn off a light, and when you try to beg for a meal in front of a store, the shopkeeper will come out and threaten you.  And the police will stand by the shopkeeper’s right to do so.

They chase you, and prod you, and kill your sleep.  Anywhere you stand is the wrong place to be.  Anywhere you stand, there is someone who doesn’t want you there.  Finally, your only recourse is to hide where no one will find you, to find a hole where no one will see you, to stay out of the reach of the legitimate people who don’t want you around.

That is homeless geography.  A rat in a hole, out of sight of the decent people.

Oh, such decent people.

Posted in: politics