Advocate Ethnography

forest pic

Calla Kainaroi, and Alexandria Bright

Over the past two semesters, a few of us from Point Park University’s Clinical-Community Graduate program have been engaged in advocate ethnography. In conjunction with Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, we have been serving those living on the streets, cultivating relationships and transcribing their stories. Scribbled in notebooks, jotted quickly in the margins, our research is qualitative; our data consists of lived experiences. We’re on the outside striving to be invited into the lives of others, to be allowed into their experience. The outliers, the perpetual outsiders on the edge of society, are often avoided, scorned, and disdained. Advocate ethnography isn’t interested in adding to the stacks and queues of unread academic papers—instead, it’s interested in using research to transform, agitate, and incite social change. Immersing ourselves in this community, we attempt to better understand the lives of a population so often misunderstood.

There were four of us out on rounds that morning.  Packed into the blue SUV, we pulled up past a house that was isolated from the rest, surrounded by woods. I am continually amazed at how the “camps” are so often hidden in plain sight, but this one was a little different. The path we followed was very well hidden, tucked neatly away into a thickly wooded area that you would have never believed was only about 100 yards from the busway.

Quietly we walked, one after the other, bobbing and weaving through tangled brush until we arrived at the site.  Shawn*, accompanied by one of the two medical students with us, went to check if anyone was home. After a few moments of silence, we heard rustling and then the sounds of voices, muted both by the tent and our distance from the site. Growing louder and more heated, one voice shouting at the other angrily to leave. Two of us kept our distance to give them space to sort things out while Shawn approached the tent.

I stood around, becoming increasingly more uncomfortable as the arguing continued to escalate.  Finally, two people emerged from the tent: a man and a woman.  She hastily lit a cigarette, as he continued complaining about the unkempt state of their home, tossing around some of the trash that had begun to accumulate, shouting at her to leave. Visibly upset, she hurriedly started downhill towards the busway, leaving her phone behind. Shawn handed it to me, and I had to run to catch up to her, “Jocelyn, wait!” She stopped to face me and without a word I passed her the phone.  I didn’t know what to say, there didn’t seem to be anything I could say. This argument, one that for most of us would have been had behind closed doors, was instead in the unexpected company of four strangers.

After we left, we tried to find Jocelyn to make sure she was all right, but we were too late, she had already gone.

And also, beautifully, they welcome us, “come on in.” I’m invited down and shown where I can sit, told to watch my step and be careful not to trip. We chatted about everything from Cincinnati, to poor treatment from the EMTs, to Justin Bieber’s performance at the Video Music Awards—I felt as though I were visiting old friends. A medical student checked up on a previous injury as the rest of us passed out PB&J’s. Wanting to reciprocate, one of the women started a fire with rubbing alcohol in an old tin can as the five of us crouched around not knowing what to expect. She reached into her tent and pulled out an acoustic guitar. Strumming and singing, she shared her passion with us. The song was her own, and I was moved by her words. With many more stops to make, we had to get going, but she insisted on walking us out. She proceeded to use the light from her cell phone to guide us all the way out of her home, through the woods, and back to the path leading to the street.

We often dismiss people who call the streets their home, making judgments based off assumptions without caring to know their stories. These two anecdotes are glimpses into the lives of some of the people we have encountered—as we sit with them, talk with them, and are changed by them.  Our assumptions and biases transformed into understanding.  We can’t possibly capture the breadth and complexity of every human experience in this brief article, but our hope is that some insight into their lives might reveal that they are not so different than us.

* All names used in this article have been changed

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