We’re defined in part by where we are, the places we go and what we do there. We adorn our homes with paraphernalia caught in the net of life – the photos, the books and pictures. But what happens when you’re homeless? How do you define your space and identity when your home is a public place? To find out, Darrin Hodgetts and colleagues have conducted an unusual ‘ethnographic’ case study with ‘Brett’, a 44-year-old homeless man in Auckland.
The researchers gave Brett a camera, asked him to take photos representative of his life and then they conducted two in-depth interviews with him, using the photos as spring-boards for discussion.
The clearest finding to emerge was the way that Brett used a portable radio to insulate himself from the outside world – what the researchers called an ‘audio cave’. ‘I’ve got a sound bubble around me,’ Brett said, ‘and I can wander through the streets without paying attention to what’s going on around me.’ At the same time, by consistently listening to his favourite station George FM, Brett was able to develop a sense of belonging with the station’s other listeners. This provided Brett with a ‘fleeting sense of companionship and “we-ness”,’ the researchers said.
Brett is a self-confessed loner who avoids contact with other people where possible and who tries to conceal his homeless status. He told the researchers about the places he went that enabled him to do this, including a former gun emplacement with stunning views of the sea; Judges Bay where there are free showers and gas barbecues; and in the city centre, the church, bookshops and libraries. These places allow Brett to experience ‘life as a “normal” person who has interest in books and reading, or simply escaping the city to sit and reflect,’ the researchers said. By contrast, returning to photograph the public toilets on Pitt Street was an ordeal for Brett, reminding him of this time as a drug addict.
Brett referred to how other homeless people spend a lot of time sitting round talking and how it [homelessness] psychologically unhinges them. By contrast, the researchers said Brett had never ‘lost himself’ to the streets. ‘…[H]is memories, imagination, and daily practices, including his use of space, provide anchorage to an adaptive sense of self and belonging.’
Hodgetts D, Stolte O, Chamberlain K, Radley A, Groot S, & Nikora LW (2010). The mobile hermit and the city: Considering links between places, objects, and identities in social psychological research on homelessness. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 19531282
-The image, courtesy of Darrin Hodgetts, shows Brett’s sun-glasses, portable radio and book, which help him create a personal space in public.
-For more on the psychology of homelessness, see this recent ‘Helping the Homeless‘ feature article in The Psychologist magazine.