Academic journal article Social Work Research

An Exploration of Alienation and Replacement Theories of Social Support in Homelessness

Academic journal article Social Work Research

An Exploration of Alienation and Replacement Theories of Social Support in Homelessness

Article excerpt

This study conducted a preliminary test of two theories (general alienation and replacement) of support networks in relation to duration of homelessness. Nine hundred respondents experiencing homelessness were selected randomly from shelters and day centers and recruited from city streets. Information obtained from interviews included number and perceived reliability of supports--distinguishing between family supports, friend supports with homes, and friend supports without homes. Duration of homelessness was defined by shorter ([less than or equal to] 12 months) versus longer (> 12 months) length of lifetime homelessness. Support for the general alienation theory included associations between longer-term homelessness and smaller family support networks and inability to count on family and friends. Support for the replacement theory included the lack of differences between the two groups in terms of number of friends and the association between longer-term homelessness and inability to count on friends.

Key words: affiliation; homelessness; social support networks


The body of literature on the social support of People experiencing homelessness has grown during the past several years. A theoretical framework in these investigations, however, surprisingly lacking. Most work seems to be aligned with an affiliation-disaffiliation continuum (for example, Grigsby, Baumann, Gregorich, & Roberts-Gray, 1990; Hertzberg, 1992; Jackson-Wilson & Borgers, 1993; LaGory, Ritchey, & Fitzpatrick, 1991; Stovall & Flaherty, 1994). In this affiliation-disaffiliation model, attachments to oneself, others, and society's institutions theoretically represent anchors that prevent individuals from floating into the disconnectedness associated with vulnerability to homelessness. The purpose of this study was to examine three social support scenarios, based on affiliation-disaffiliation theory, by comparing size and reliability of supports with duration of homelessness.


Thinking about the social relationships of people experiencing homelessness has progressed from earlier ethnographic and qualitative research. It appears that the social networks of individuals experiencing homelessness evolve in a social and cultural context based on the pursuit of survival needs and modified by other perceived needs such as alcohol and other drugs (for example, Anderson, 1978; Liebow, 1967; Snow & Anderson, 1987). In the past two decades, quantitative research has operationalized social support in terms of network size.

Naturalistic studies of the social support of individuals and families experiencing homelessness described relatively small networks (LaGory et al., 1991; Solarz & Bogat, 1990; Stovall & Flaherty, 1994). Subsequent studies comparing people experiencing homelessness with those with low incomes and homes found smaller networks among those experiencing homelessness (Bassuk et al., 1996; Jackson-Wilson & Borgers, 1993; Letiecq, Anderson, & Koblinsky, 1998; Passero, Max, & Zozus, 1991). This difference has not been found universally, however. One study reported no difference between the two groups (Goodman, 1991), and another study described larger networks among those experiencing homelessness (Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991). Shinn and colleagues have alleged that people experiencing homelessness "use up" or drain their network resources during their journey into homelessness, accounting for their counterintuitive finding.

More recently, the social networks among particular subgroups of individuals experiencing homelessness have been examined. Among people with mental illness, smaller social networks were found in those experiencing homelessness than in those with homes (Segal, Silverman, & Ternkin, 1997; Wu & Serper, 1999). But these networks have been shown to be similar in size to others experiencing homelessness without mental illness (Segal et al. …

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