Homelessness and the Turbulent Cycle of Displacement

By Jessie Speer

The annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers is the largest geography conference in the world, and hosts researchers engaged in cutting edge scholarship. Alongside fifteen internationally-based scholars, I took part in a paper session organised around the theme of “floating life,” conceptualized as a transitory mode of dwelling shaped by international migration, working conditions that require continual movement, and more abstractly as the condition of cycling in and out of employment untethered to the labour market. In bringing these multiple meanings together, presenters were able to draw out the relationships between different ways of living in perpetual mobility. Altogether, the papers highlighted how floating life can be experienced both as a form of coerced passivity and active struggle, as people must negotiate the tension between waiting to be displaced and rushing to arrive at the next destination.

In my own work, I theorise the experience of floating in the context of homelessness, arguing that life outside of market housing is marked the turbulence of perpetual displacement. Based on close readings of memoirs and oral histories of homelessness from cities across the United States, my paper called attention to patterns of cyclical displacement in contemporary US cities. While many have theorised homelessness as a static condition of living permanently outside, the genre of life narratives reveals that homelessness involves a constant struggle to find homelike spaces in the face of repeated and ongoing expulsion. In the US in particular, those who are displaced are forced to continually move between sites in order to evade arrest. 

As one memoirist writes, homelessness is a condition of “ongoing chaos” in which people are forced to be continually “in motion.” In addition to eviction and policing, homeless women and young people are often displaced by domestic violence and subjected to violence in the public sphere. Thus, many experience homelessness as a kind of constant escape, or as one narrator writes, “running away from running away.” Yet homeless life narrators also describe efforts to organise against eviction and domestic violence, and to build collective homes in parks and abandoned buildings. In this way, I argue that displacement can inspire the search for alternative models of spatial belonging.

The session was very well-attended, and through participating I was able to meet a range of people interested in the relationship between homelessness and geographic mobility. In particular, I made plans to collaborate with a geographer in Brazil who also works with life narratives of homelessness. We discussed strategies for developing creative community outreach, as we are both committed to the larger goal of reaching beyond academic audiences. Outside of the session, I had the privilege of being able to attend a range of excellent panels and make new social connections that will be crucial to my work going forward. A colleague and I co-organised an informal meeting, bringing together nine scholars who research the politics of homelessness and housing justice. The conversation that evening laid the groundwork for organising a session at next year’s annual meeting on the subject of collaboration with homeless activist movements. Finally, as my work has also examined the nexus between housing injustice and incarceration, I was able to connect with a carceral geographer with whom I am developing a future project to create an archive of anti-prison advocacy based out of the Southern California Library.

Altogether, this conference was invaluable in enabling me to connect with other scholars and deepen my knowledge of the work currently being done around homelessness in geography. I am tremendously grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for having made my attendance possible.

In the coming months, Jessie Speer will be embarking on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship through the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. Her doctoral research examines memoirs and oral histories of homelessness as away to redress the historic devaluation of homeless people’s knowledge, and in future research she will work with grassroots groups in London to challenge the growing climate of anti-homelessness leading up to Brexit

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