The Culture of Homelessness

The Culture of Homelessness

The Culture of Homelessness

The Culture of Homelessness


Despite an extensive literature on homelessness there is surprisingly little work that investigates the roots of homelessness by tracking homeless people over time. In this fascinating and much-needed ethnographic study, Megan Ravenhill presents the results of ten years' research on the streets and in the hostels and day-centres of the UK, incorporating intensive interviews with 150 homeless and formerly homeless people as well as policy makers and professionals working with homeless people. Ravenhill discusses the biographical, structural and behavioural factors that lead to homelessness. Amongst the important and unique features of the study are: the use of life-route maps showing the circumstances and decisions that lead to homelessness, a systematic study of the timescales involved, and a survey of people's exit routes from homelessness. Ravenhill also identifies factors that predict those most vulnerable to homelessness and factors that prevent or considerably delay the onset of homelessness.


Megan Ravenhill’s fascinating study The Culture of Homelessness enters a crowded field, but successfully introduces unique elements and new insights, with some tart but apt criticisms of existing literature and established ways of working in the area.

There has been a wealth of research on homelessness in Britain since the 1980s, but it has been variable in quality and has left notable areas uninvestigated. In 2000 Klinker and Fitzpatrick surveyed the state of knowledge, finding growing interest in the social and economic factors underlying homelessness, increasing sophistication in the identification of ‘risk’ factors, and evolving expertise in helping people resettle. However, they noted a real absence of research tracking homeless people over time – essential for understanding the roots of homelessness and to provide a context for policy and specific interventions.

The Culture of Homelessness fills just this key gap, and has been developed through the author’s tenacious work over more than a decade. Ravenhill’s work is based on long, intensive interviews with almost 150 homeless and formerly homeless people, as well as homelessness workers and policy-makers, and hundreds of hours of observation on the streets, in hostels and daycentres, in a range of sites in London, the South-East and South-West of England across the period 1996–2006. This unusually broad and deep approach allows very full exploration of routes into – and, in some cases, out of – homelessness, with an emphasis on the experiences of homeless people.

Ravenhill’s life histories of people living on the street in the past decade show that the risks of homelessness were rooted in their childhoods, in earlier decades, as far back as the 1940s. Homelessness – like other extreme social situations – often develops after the gradual accumulation of risk factors over an extended period. Ravenhill shows that, on average, nine years passes between triggers – such as violence from parents – and homelessness finally occurring. Those who became homeless as adults realized themselves that rooflessness was a possibility an average of one to two years before it happened, although they often spend much of this time in denial.

Homelessness itself is an – or even the – archetypal example of ‘social exclusion’. The biographies of Ravenhill’s interviewees feature a torrent of extremely serious problems: abuse as children, institutionalization, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, personality disorders – as well as more mundane problems such as the breakdown of adult relationships and tragic-comically trivial barriers to resettlement. The study provides particularly detailed and painful evidence of the emotional and psychological worlds of some homeless and ex-homeless people: depression . . .

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