Governing the Homeless in an Age of Compassion

Homelessness, Citizenship, and the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County Washington

– By Tony Sparks:


In 2001, President Bush announced his intention to “end chronic homeless by the year 2012” as part of his broad “Compassion Agenda”. Since then, departmental consolidation, changes in funding allocation, and continued decentralization of services provision have dramatically reshaped the landscape of homeless service provision in the US. In this paper I examine how these roll-out policies reify and re-entrench liberal equations of property with rational self-governance at the local scale. Particularly, I illustrate how tropes of homeless otherness work alongside and through federal neoliberal roll-out policies to exclude homeless voices from the formation of local social policy. In doing so, I attempt to call attention to the mutually constitutive relationship between the spatial management of homeless bodies, tropes of homeless deviance and dependence, and limits to citizenship in the context of neoliberal urban governance.


Tom’s rather common-sense proclamation that “we lost our homes not our minds” ironically marks the limit of state knowledge. Within the monoculture of knowledge produced by the logic of propertied citizenship, the homeless appear in exactly the opposite light—that is, the homeless have no homes therefore they have no minds. As non-propertied, non-laboring, “excluded inclusion”, the homeless person’s necessary presence in public marks him as a pathologized individual whose very presence necessitates state quarantine and management (Feldman 2004).

As liberal citizenship’s always already deviant or pathological other, the voices, views and practices of the homeless are, by definition, also deviant or pathological. In the language of neoliberal individualism this relationship appears not as a logical expression of propertied citizenship but as a product of “choice”. Although the homeless must submit to disciplinary management and rehabilitation in exchange for shelter, it is their choice as “consumers” to admit their deviance and accept benevolently offered services. It is therefore not surprising that those who, like Tom, eschew a rehabilitative approach appear irrational or exceptional. If they rebuff the need for rehabilitation they must, within the logic of propertied citizenship, be criminal, irrational or not homeless. Operating within the paradigm of propertied citizenship, the state, regardless of the level of inclusion, is simply unable to “see” any alternative (Scott 1998).

Real full article in Antipode Vol. 44 No. 4 2012 ISSN 0066-4812, pp 1510–1531.



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