My dissertation took over a year to plan, research and write. If I was to select a piece of work I was the most proud of during my time at university, it would be my dissertation. I have received my mark back for it now, and am proud to say I achieved a high first class mark for it. For those who aren’t at uni and don’t get the uni grading system (I didn’t before I went!), that’s a very good grade. I am super proud of it, and I have decided to share it with you (well, a very basic outline anyway!). This post is long, but I can assure you- nowhere near as long as the 12,000 words I submitted!
My dissertation was about homelessness and the research was conducted in the city of Bath. Bath is very pretty, a huge tourist attraction and needs to maintain its aesthetic appeal to keep the tourists coming (and thus, keep the money coming!).
As one might imagine, homelessness conflicts with the particular aesthetic and sense of place that is created in Bath. The homeless are often moved on from key tourist sites, especially shopping areas. Some spaces of the city, perhaps an underground level of a car park or under a bridge away from the city centre, are in less conflict, and so they become spaces that are acceptable to be homeless. These are what we call informal spaces. Obviously, homeless people are like anyone else, and they need to eat and drink. So they will visit various service providers who offer food, snacks, drinks, advice, warmth, a roof, a comfy sofa, and perhaps most importantly, kindness and acceptance. These are formal spaces of homeless, as they are created for the homeless.
My research took place in one of these formal sites, where I was lucky enough to spend my summer volunteering. I was adamant that my research would not be intrusive to the lives of the homeless, and that I wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable by being there. You see, researchers have had a bit of a reputation for going into a group of people, extracting the data they need from them, and then walking away, with little care for the impact that their presence or extraction of data may have had on them. For instance, one research participant may talk about some things in an interview that are upsetting or may bring up some bad memories. It doesn’t seem right then, that the researcher can bring that person into that state, and just walk away. The bottom line is you have to look after your participants. Especially with vulnerable populations such as the homeless. That’s why I took the time to get to know them through volunteering before asking them some questions, rather than strutting in with a pen and notepad and interrogating them. The added advantage was that I got some honest, open and amazing responses- because they trusted me. Research ethics is actually hugely interesting, and if you’d like to know more I would highly recommend reading through some feminist geography work. I’ll pop some examples at the bottom of the post.
I ended up with LOADS of data. It took me about a month to go through it all and analyse it. Then I spend another 2 months trying to write up my analysis, hating it, panicking, starting again….and then repeat. I handed in my first draft and it was ok- a bit basic comapred to what I eventually came up with. I might add, at this point, that it didn’t come together until 2 weeks before my hand in. I was editing and editing and then I had a brainwave and changed my literature review AND analysis. A huge risk but it paid off.
As previously mentioned, the homeless negotiate parts of the city that are more acceptable than others, and alternate between these formal and informal sites. I touched upon this, but most of my conclusions were focused on the formal site. I found that the formal site became a place (as opposed to a space) through the activities and performances that happened within it. The homeless people gave this space meaning, transforming it into a place. Some geographers have linked place closely to the concept of home, which was fascinating when approaching a population that have no home. The homeless performed ‘home making’ activities within the space, such as making cups of tea, which in turned made the space feel a lot more ‘homely’. The service provider was truly essential in the lives of these people and I could not praise it highly enough.
However, nothing is perfect, and I had to also think about the flaws of this site. You see, as much as this site could be presented as a place FOR the homeless, it never truly was. There were rules, set by the organisation, that the homeless had to abide by. Nothing unreasonable, but these were rules created by others, not by themselves, highlighting that they do not have control over this space. One of the rules was closing time. The space had to close, as it was pretty much all volunteers, and you can’t expect people to be there all the time. Again, nothing unreasonable, but it showed that outside of opening hours, this space did not belong to the homeless. Finally, I found that for certain people, this space was still a site of exclusion. Those who were not seen as ‘normal’, who did not fit in with the dominant group of people (white, cisgendered, heterosexual, British etc), were often excluded and made to feel unwelcome.
Hence, this was not truly a place for the homeless. It did a great job, but the sad reality is that there are very few spaces that are 100% for the homeless. I personally think places such as the one I spent my time in are amazing, and I would love to see them gain more funding so they can be open for longer, and reach more people. I would also love to see more spaces for the marginalized members of the homeless community. We already have women’s only shelters, which is amazing, but perhaps we could consider having shelters for ethnic minorities? LGBT+ members? Fairly niche, but perhaps a site for those whose English is limited? Sadly all of this costs money, and unless I win the lottery, I will have to stick to fighting these issues through my words.
Thank you for reading, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
NOTE: I am working on uploading a PDF online so you can read the whole thing- I just need to check whether I am allowed to do it!