Governing homelessness : the discursive and institutional construction of homelessness in Australia

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This thesis analyses changes in the ways in which the phenomenon of ‘homelessness’ has been conceptualised in Australian policies, programs and services for homeless people since the early 1980s. My experience working in this area suggested to me that a fundamental shift had occurred, away from a policy understanding of the causes of homelessness as being produced by ‘structural’ social and economic factors such as poverty, lack of affordable housing and domestic violence, to one in which homelessness was now understood more as a result of ‘individual’ issues caused by problems or behaviours of homeless people themselves. This thesis asks: how and why had such changes taken place? I show that, consistent with my experiences, conceptions of homelessness in policy and programs have indeed been understood in homelessness research and commentary in terms of, on the one hand, structuralist conceptions of the causes of homelessness, and on the other hand, explanations that rely on a methodological individualism, with a shift over the last 30 years from structuralist to methodologically individualist conceptions of homelessness. Attempts to reconcile these two explanations, for example by means of the policy concept of ‘social exclusion’, have generally failed in practice to move beyond this dichotomy. I address the question by drawing on Foucault’s work on ‘governmentality’ and examining both historical official statements about homelessness policies and programs and in depth interviews with people who have worked in the area. I show how policies and programs have a constructive role in shaping understandings of homelessness and of the situations of homeless people. In particular, I show how changes in homelessness policies and programs over the past thirty years involved not a retreat of the state as some commentators assert, but an extension and reconfiguration of political power ‘beyond the state’ through a diversity of service providers. These changes sought to replace the welfare state with an ‘enabling’ state or so-called ‘advanced liberal governmentality’ which characterised the causes of homelessness in terms of ‘dependency’. Homelessness programs became focussed on techniques designed to produce a managed form of self-reliance - interlinking both freedom and constraint. The policy conceptualisation of homelessness shifted towards ‘individual’ factors and away from ‘structural’ factors. The ambiguous nature of these techniques is reflected in evidence of both improvements and reductions in service delivery, including the exclusion from services of some ‘high risk’ homeless people who could or would not meet case management requirements.
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