05/23/2014 01:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Identity Construction Among Homeless Men of Skid Row


Homelessness is a process of marginalization and de-legitimization that extends beyond a loss of housing. At this moment in time, it plagues the physical and psychological wellbeing of over one million Americans -- men, women and children.

Michael Habashi graduated from Duke University magna cum laude and with distinction in May 2013 with an A.B. in sociology, certificate in markets and management studies, and minor in religion. Michael now brings his passion for research, strategic planning and innovation in his capacity as a management consulting business analyst at Accenture in New York City. A native of Orange County, California, he enjoys good company and spends much of his free time exploring the multitude of restaurants in Manhattan.

Research on the homeless population has often focused on its debilitating factors: substance abuse, incarceration, education, unemployment, family background and race. When I began my research in the spring of 2011, I followed a similar route by studying the overrepresentation of Blacks in the homeless population of Los Angeles through an analysis of the intersection between substance abuse, social vulnerabilities and racial dynamics. My previous findings provided individualized accounts on why Blacks are more likely to be homeless, and largely confirmed the host of factors that cause Black men to be marginalized in this manner. In analyzing and reanalyzing my data, however, I decided that, for the purpose of this thesis, I would not focus on investigating the causes of homelessness for these men, as it would prove difficult to generalize any conclusive findings based on the experiences of a random set of homeless Black men.

In search of a new research question, I quickly became inspired by the growing body of research on homelessness that focuses on exploring the means by which marginalized individuals effectively engage in impression management in the absence of traditional resources for self‑presentation. In this context, the terms "impression management" and "self-presentation" are often interchangeable and reflect an individual's desire to attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about themselves, by regulating and controlling information in a social interaction. Whether consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily, we engage in self‑presentation on a daily basis. For many of us, just our clothing and possessions serve as the basis by which we engage in self-presentation. For example, much can be learned about an individual who sports a Duke University sweater or Rolex before he or she even utters a word. But when you are homeless -- perhaps dressed in soiled, tattered clothing and with all of your worldly possessions in a grocery bag and with no place to call home -- effective impression management becomes exponentially more difficult. Thus, homelessness creates a physical loss -- loss of home, job, friends, and family -- and a psychological loss -- loss of identity and sense of belonging to a greater social context.

In this paper, I argue that "talk" -- essentially the language used in social interactions -- becomes the means by which these marginalized individuals: (1) work to construct, assert, and maintain desired personal identities (in the absence of other, more conventional resources for identity-making) and (2) cope with reality through effective condition management. Thus, my research focuses on the varieties of talk that Black homeless men employ in (1) "identity construction" and (2) "condition management."

My analysis revealed that respondents utilized four patterns of talk in order to make sense of themselves and their situation: blaming, stereotyping, distancing and redemptive storytelling. Blaming manifested itself in two forms. The first type of blaming was self-blame, namely behavioral self-blame and characterological self-blame. The former type is control-related, and involves attributions to a modifiable source (one's behavior). Respondents who utilized this form of self-blame felt as though they should have done something differently in their pasts and believed in the ability to avoid future negative outcomes. The other form of self-blame is esteem-related, and involves attributions to a relatively non-modifiable source (one's character). Those who expressed this type of blame believed they deserved the negative outcomes in their lives. The second type of blaming, blaming of others, took two forms: blaming of individuals and of institutions that victimized the individual. In addition, respondents often engaged in racial stereotyping of fellow Black men. Distancing took three forms: associational, role and behavioral, whereby interviewees, respectively, disassociated themselves from other homeless men on Skid Row, their current role as a homeless person and past behaviors. Finally, respondents often engaged in redemptive storytelling, explaining their tragic lives with optimism and embracement, essentially seeing the positive amidst the negative. These four main varieties of talk represent the strategic methods by which the individual makes meaning of and copes with their state of homelessness.

My research involved a mixed methods data collection approach, which included participant observation, in-depth qualitative interviews with a small sample of men who resided on the site, and a self-administered survey of men who participated in one of the social service programs at the location. I began the study by volunteering at and partnering with The Midnight Mission, one of the three largest homeless services organizations on Skid Row, in order to access its population for my study. Relying on both convenience and snowball sampling, I interviewed 20 homeless African-American men, 10 of whom lived on the streets or in temporary shelters and 10 of whom were members of The Midnight Mission's drug and alcohol recovery program. The questions asked covered a wide-range of topics including, but not limited to, family background, work experience, education, the origins of their homelessness, substance abuse, trouble with the law, and views of other homeless people. Each semi-structured interview lasted approximately one hour and was recorded and transcribed verbatim. In addition, I distributed a questionnaire to 120 men of various racial/ethnic identities in The Midnight Mission 12-step drug and alcohol recovery program. The survey consisted of 22 questions regarding drug and alcohol use, incarceration, family background, and men's evaluation of their current situation, among other topics.

In conducting my research, I had two primary concerns: safety and access. Skid Row is known to be one of the most dangerous places in Los Angeles, with streets teeming with men and women with lengthy prison histories, substance abuse issues and mental health problems. In addition to my safety concerns was the question of access. Once I got to Skid Row, I could mind my own business in order to be safe, but how would I get men to talk to me and for an extended period of time?

To complicate things further, I had never been to Skid Row prior to developing my research project. I had been six or seven blocks from the region in the trendy areas of downtown, but I never ventured past Los Angeles Street, where the rough side of town begins. However, my interest in the homeless population of Los Angeles developed miles from Skid Row in the vicinity of city hall, where I interned as a rising high school senior at the city attorney's office.

Growing up in Orange County, California, I had never been exposed to systemic, chronic homelessness until that summer. While I was used to seeing a homeless man here and there, most often with a tattered cardboard sign by the entrance to busy highways, it was in downtown Los Angeles that I noticed the bitter reality: scores of men -- almost exclusively older Black men -- sitting on the same park bench, wearing the same clothing each and every day. I assumed them to be volatile and violent individuals, and had no clue why they had relegated themselves to a public bench instead of a job that could pay their bills and get them off the streets. I desperately desired to sit with them and ask about their condition and history, but I was simply too scared. The color and faces of homelessness fascinated me, and I swore that I would one day come back to research the population.

When I took my first sociology course at Duke University with Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, the renowned race scholar, I was reminded of this inequality that I had long forgotten since moving to college. With Dr. Bonilla-Silva's guidance and support, I developed an extensive plan to research the population in the summer of 2011. And though I was more intrepid three years later, as I began this research project, the same fear that enveloped me that summer as a high school student came to haunt me.

In order to combat the challenges of gaining safe access to interview the men of Skid Row, I decided that a partnership with a shelter or organization in the area would be the perfect solution. I contacted the Union Rescue Mission, one of the largest Christian rescue missions in Los Angeles, and The Midnight Mission. An administrator from the latter returned my call with great enthusiasm and opened the organization's doors to my research, which I suggested would potentially help The Midnight Mission better understand the population they served and improve the programs they offered.

In more ways than one, The Midnight Mission and I both benefited tremendously from the experience of conducting my research and presenting my findings in the form of my senior honors thesis. I hope that through reading my work, you too will benefit -- not only by learning more about homelessness, particularly in Los Angeles, but also about the challenges that this form of marginalization creates for individuals who, like all of us, feel the need to engage in effective impression management. But unlike most of us, these homeless individuals must rely on one of the very few elements of their lives that they can control -- their talk -- to properly construct their identity and manage their condition.

--Michael Habashi

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