Medicalizing Homelessness: The Production of Self-Blame and Self-Governing within Homeless Shelters

Abstract

This article draws upon three years of ethnographic research within an emergency homeless shelter in Massachusetts to explore the subject-making effects of routine shelter helping practices. A medicalized discourse of deviancy is uncovered that provides the dominant conceptual framework within which both concerned homeless people and shelter staff remain enmeshed. As a result, helping practices focus on detecting, diagnosing, and treating understood deviancy within the bodies or selves of homeless people. The dominant discursive practices produce homeless subjects who learn to look within their selves for the “cause ” of their homelessness. Treatment focuses on reforming and governing the self. Alternative discourses suggesting the need for practices challenging broader political economic processes are thus marginalized as peripheral and unreasonable.