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From the Field

Understanding Why Homeless People Refuse Emergency Accommodation

The refusal of emergency accommodation by many homeless people expresses the intensity of their attachment to the communities to which they belong. While this attachment to the street or to their neighborhood exposes them to extreme precarity, it also reflects a need among homeless people for recognition and a certain rootedness.

If people sleep on the streets, it is because they have chosen to do so. This is what Sylvain Maillard, a French member of parliament from the ruling LREM party, representing a Parisian constituency, said in the media on February 5, 2018. [1] This allegation, typical of the libertarian line of thinking that poor individuals are primarily responsible for their own situations, was then immediately challenged by associations whose work seeks to eliminate exclusion. These associations, which benefit from a level of legitimacy acquired as a result of decades of action and expertise, distinguish between two types of situation. The vast majority of homeless people in France are homeless because of a lack of available social-housing units, which itself is a consequence of the very low stocks of housing accessible to working-class populations. But this explanation does not apply to the minority of homeless people who, having become “settled” in public spaces, consistently refuse to go to emergency accommodation that is available to them.

How can we understand why people without housing—living in conditions that strongly deviate from the standards of decent housing generally shared and accepted in our society—refuse assistance when it is offered to them? Based on a recent survey into the non-use of homeless shelters in the Paris region (Gardella and Arnaud 2018), [2] this article revisits the most common interpretations of this phenomenon in order to help change the way in which these extreme situations of poverty and exclusion are most often viewed.

Refusing accommodation: an expression of individual preferences?

A number of studies portray the refusal of accommodation as an individual choice, which involves preferring to sleep on the street rather than suffer the living conditions proposed by assistance policies (Damon 2002). These analyses, together with certain surveys conducted by associations or the national statistics office (Marpsat, Quaglia and Razafindratsima 2002), take seriously the criticisms leveled by the homeless against shelters. Despite improvements over the last 20 years, this kind of accommodation in France has been subject to the same criticisms over the years: the lack of privacy, hygiene and/or safety; and inadequate access and operating procedures. Certain associations working to prevent exclusion have also taken up these criticisms in order to denounce the indignity of these living conditions.

Let us explain the logic behind this reasoning a little more. Do these criticisms alone enable us to understand why certain people refuse places on offer in homeless shelters? Or do the people who do accept places in these shelters also have criticisms to offer? Conversely, does the fact that a homeless person regularly attends a shelter necessarily correspond to a lack of complaints about the living conditions in that shelter? This seems unlikely: an individual who is dissatisfied with the service provided to him or her can continue to use the facility without necessarily criticizing it publicly or stopping using it (Hirschman 1995 [1970]).

Accordingly, in our survey, we also questioned people who do make use of shelters, in the same way as those who refuse accommodation. From these interviews, one observation emerges: in the end, they too complain about homeless shelters. This result underlines the limits still encountered by the accommodations in the eyes of their users. It shows, above all, that to criticize is not to refuse.

Taking these criticisms seriously is therefore necessary to give meaning to the non-use of accommodation, but is by no means sufficient. How then to understand the specificity of the attitude of refusing accommodation in shelters? It is to this type of question that the second dominant interpretation of this reality responds: the pathology of the social bond declined in terms of desocialization.

What is the sociological relevance of an analysis in terms of desocialization?

According to this interpretation, homeless people undergo such powerful processes of exclusion that they can no longer connect with the last institutions, those of assistance, that reach out to them. Refusal of accommodation is therefore diagnosed as one of the most acute forms of a phenomenon that characterizes, in these analyses, situations of poverty and exclusion in general: desocialization. In other words, from this perspective, the homeless, by refusing the accommodation offered by welfare institutions, express a state of total isolation.

The notion of desocialization has a very strong force of conviction: it can be found in the discourse of professionals in the field, in expert analyses (Henry 1985; Emmanuelli and Malabou 2009) or in ethnopsychiatric works (Declerck 2001). It can also be found in surveys of the sociology of poverty, whether these focus on the unemployed who suffer the most (Schnapper 1994 [1980], pp. 142–160), the poor who are seen as most remote from assistance mechanisms, deemed to be “marginalized” and “whose social ties are broken” (Paugam 2002 [1991]; Paugam and Clémençon 2002), or recipients of income support with the greatest needs in terms of reintegration (Duvoux 2009), and among them the homeless, whose desocialization is related to “trauma” (pp. 177–178) and “profound disruptions [in their lives]” (p. 209).

Let us dwell for a moment on what the term “desocialization” can mean from a sociological point of view. Is it possible to imagine a poor individual who is, literally, “de‑socialized”? Would he or she have lost all the dispositions acquired during the process of socialization that he or she has known in the past and still knows? Probably not. Would he then be cut off from all social relations? This is what this type of analysis suggests: desocialization would correspond to a break with regard not only to welfare institutions but also to society in general.

After investigation, it is clear that this demonstration is only partial. Undoubtedly, the homeless people we met who had settled permanently in urban public spaces told of a life punctuated by various separations (with employers or family members). It is clear that the exclusion of certain social groups that are highly integrative in modern societies (such as family, profession and employment, but also politics and religion) increases the risk of experiencing difficult material and relational situations. Yet, after investigation, it is clear that this category of desocialization is not adequate for understanding the situation of homeless people.

We have indeed collected discourses and observed interactions, which show that homeless people, settled at a distance from shelters and in a public space, frequent other homeless people on a regular basis, engaged in exchanges of gifts and counter-gifts within groups with fluctuating boundaries. We have met people with whom we have established relationships, fragile but very real, with passers-by or shopkeepers, with whom rites of greeting or even conversation are made possible by their long-term installation in the same public space. We have seen people rendering occasional services to passers-by or residents, or receiving members of their families. Finally, their distance from shelters does not mean a refusal of assistance in general, and even less of society, since these people may be on minimum social benefits or maintain regular relations with other homeless services other than shelters, such as mobile assistance teams on regular rounds or day shelters.

The sociological analysis of the refusal of accommodation proves that desocialization with regard to certain groups, in a situation of exclusion and poverty, is only one stage in a more general process, which continues with resocialization in new groups or collectives; even if these are less valued and less structured (and therefore less visible) than the most institutionalized social ties (such as family, work, political and religious associations, etc.).

Over-individualization of analyses of exclusion and poverty

Our survey, by confirming other ethnographic results (Gaboriau 1993; Duneier 1999; Pichon 2010; Girola 2007; Lion 2015), sheds light on the failings of the most common interpretations of the refusal of accommodation. It also allows us, by reinforcing the sociological dimension of the reasoning, to get out of the trap they set for us: excessively individualizing situations of poverty and exclusion.

Analyses that depict the refusal of accommodation as an expression of individual preferences or the result of a process of desocialization have in common that they portray the poor receiving assistance as individuals, isolated, facing support systems. It is therefore remarkable that these analyses reappropriate the way in which the assistance institutions deal with the situations of poverty and exclusion for which they are responsible—that is to say, individualized treatment, which goes as far as contractualizing the assistance relationship with their users.

This individualization, while part of broader changes in assistance policies, proves to be inoperative, because it is excessive when it comes to understanding how the poor perceive the assistance addressed to them.

If one looks only at the justifications for individual choices or at times of desocialization of the homeless, refusals of shelter are therefore not understandable. On the other hand, they become understandable once they are interpreted as the expression of an attachment to a form of community life, which is organized from the public place where people sleep.

Sociologically, attachment has a moral dimension (Durkheim 2002 [1906]; Karsenti 2006), in the precise sense that it is produced by the multiple duties that individuals feel obliged to fulfill towards the collectives to which they belong. The fulfillment of these obligations, and the sanctions suffered in the event of failure to comply with shared rules, thus contribute to giving them a place in this collective life (Lemieux 2009).

These collectives correspond, as we have seen, to groups of homeless people who exchange goods or gestures of attention. These groups are also structured by reminders to order, whether it be on participation in collective tasks (cooking, collecting survival goods) or on the conduct to be maintained in public for the sake of passers-by or neighbors. Belonging to this collective life is finally anchored materially and emotionally, when people take care of the place they occupy (the cleanliness of the site, the decoration of their habitat) or of other living beings (humans, but also animals, such as dogs, which sometimes live with them). Attachment, through regular collective organization and a shared responsibility towards living beings as well as objects (Hennion 2015), is then reinforced by the transformation of public space into a familiar habitat (Breviglieri 2013). Thus, being responsible for one’s dog and the way one lives in one’s living space provokes reactions from passersby (asking for the dog’s name, stroking it, or commenting on decorations) and contributes to the homeless person being recognized as living in this space.

“My life is here”; “Here, everyone knows me”

It is by taking account of these moral practices, always within the context of community life, that we can understand not only the criticisms of homeless shelters, but also the way in which people speak positively of their installation in a public space, saying “my life is here,” “I have my routines here,” or “here, everyone knows me.”

In other words, continuing to live in a space that is deemed to be uninhabitable can be understood from the moment that these individuals leave behind their situations of isolation and disruption, to which they are all too often reduced, and return to their lives in the community which, although in many cases complicated, they hold dear, like everyone else. While these attachments may be solid, they do not in any way lock these individuals into an immutable condition, as shown by the cases of people who, after a certain time, turn to shelters and sometimes even see their right to housing become effective.

Homeless individuals’ refusal of accommodation in shelters thus expresses the intensity of their attachment to the groups and communities to which they belong, which were formed at a distance from shelters—even if this rootedness exposes them to extreme physical precarity, psychological suffering, physical violence, a very serious deterioration of their health, and even early death.

This result raises new questions with regard to the survey, in terms of how social policies are perceived and accepted by the poor, by systematically seeking to reconstitute the collectives to which they belong. It is on this condition that the sociological survey will avoid the pitfalls of the excessive individualization of situations of poverty and exclusion to which we are conditioned by the dominant representations concerning the relationship of the poor to welfare institutions.


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To cite this article:

Édouard Gardella & translated by Oliver Waine, “Understanding Why Homeless People Refuse Emergency Accommodation”, Metropolitics, 9 March 2021. URL :

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