“Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.” – Kurt Lewin
The purpose of this blog/web site is to provide advocacy for those homeless in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. It contains information, personal stories, and descriptions of experiences.
Often community workers, wanting to help, have located an “at-risk” community and entered that community with an expertise, agenda, and hypothesis for change and betterment. The community participants had little or no voice in this process. The researcher or interventionist would observe, presumably objectively, and provide advice and resources.
Our work is community-based, participatory action research and advocate ethnography.
What is homelessness?
Homelessness is an experience. We will not use the term “homeless,” as many of the people we work with have homes such as tents and other types of shelters, as well as respites and temporary housing (see Mallett, 2004). Some living in and using these homes would not consider them homes and some would, to some extent. Most, if not all, would want stable, safe, affordable housing along with a healthy lifestyle and a welcoming community — this, then, is no longer housing but a home.
Some too may indicate a choice toward a nomadic existence but this, again, is not being homeless necessarily as the choice and lifestyle may be grounded in the sense of a home carried along and shared with others; at once mobile, substantial, and cultural.
We retain the term homelessness, however, which includes instability, unsafety, a lack of meaningful connectedness to one’s origins, family, or friends, and a lack of accessibility to a healthy lifestyle or community. For example, let us think of those struggling with meaninglessness in their lives. This indicates a sense of being alienated from others, culture, and society; it involves a feeling of uncertainty and unrest, and a loss of purpose and tradition.
Homelessness, like meaninglessness, is a complex phenomenon; although experienced by each person uniquely, it can be understood as a phenomenon genuinely interrelated with our shared world. We can study this phenomenon if what is deemed to be essential remains grounded and emerges from the lived experiences of people.
As a phenomenon, homelessness is a lived experience. This should not be construed as stating that the person has caused or is blamed for the state of being homeless (Ryan, 1971), but that the experience itself – what it is like and how it is meaningful – is co-constructed by the person.
What is an ethnographer?
Ethnographers are advocates for a particular group! “Advocate ethnographers allow participants to define their reality, consider their view about the ideal solution to their problems and then take an active role in making social change happen” (Fetterman, 1998, p. 135). And, “They write in public forums to change public opinion […] and provide relevant information about a situation at opportune moments in the policy decision-making forum” (p. 135).
Advocate ethnography is part of an overall philosophy of action research (Kurt Lewin) and community-based, participatory research. Ultimately, the end result of action research is to recognize and specify explicit changes within the community such as changes in policy, procedure, intervention, location, and structure. Critical or emancipatory action research (Paulo Freire) has a particular interest in unequal power dynamics in a community and thus addresses oppressive power structures, policies, politics and attitudes.