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Development Southern Africa Vol. 19, No.

4, October 2002

Barriers that disconnect homeless

people and make homelessness
dif cult to interpret
Olusola Olufemi1
Homes are anchors of human life whether they are permanent or temporary, are located in one
place or are transported from place to place, are owned or rented, or are in planned
communities or squatter settlements (Alterman, I., 1993. In Arias E G (Ed.), The meaning on use
of housing: international perspectives, approaches and their applications. London: Avebury, ixx).
This article discusses the de nition, meaning and interpretation of home and homelessness
based on theoretical constructs and homeless street peoples perspective. It discusses the
barriers that make homelessness dif cult to interpret, such as negative, rejecting and unsympa-
thetic perceptions versus positive, accepting and sympathetic perceptions. The article argues that
the meaning and de nition of home or homelessness should be contextualised within the
broader issues of poverty, deprivation, socio-economic exclusion and, more recently, HIV/Aids.
Furthermore, breaking down the barriers of labelling and stigmatisation of the homeless people
will allow for a real meaning and de nition of home and homelessness. Any intervention with
regard to homelessness must take cognisance of homeless peoples perceptions.

This article examines the barriers that make homelessness dif cult to understand and
interpret. These barriers include de nition, meaning, sociocultural sphere, language and
labelling of homeless people.
Home and homelessness take on different meanings and understanding as one
moves from one culture to another. Major de nitional differences of homelessness
exist, not only between developing and industrialised nations, but also within these
broad categories themselves (Glasser, 1994). There have been several attempts at a
generic de nition of homelessness (i.e. inadequate shelter) and adequate shelter.
Like the term homelessness, adequate shelter is also dif cult to de ne. The Limuru
Declaration of 1987 (cited in Glasser, 1994) describes a basic standard shelter as
follows: Adequate, affordable shelter with basic services is a fundamental right of all
people. Governments should respect the right of all people to shelter, free from fear of
forced eviction or removal, or the threat of their home being demolished.
Another de nition is as follows: Adequate shelter includes not only protection from
the elements (intruders), but also sources of potable water in or close to the house,
provision for the removal of household and human liquid or solid wastes, site drainage,
emergency life-saving services and easy access to health care. In urban centres, a house
site within easy reach of social and economic opportunities is also an integral part of
an adequate shelter (Turner, 1988: 187).
The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS, 1997: par. 60) de nes
adequate shelter as more than a roof over ones head. It means adequate privacy;
Associate Professor, Department of Town and Regional Planning, University of the Witwater-
srand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

ISSN 0376-835X print/ISSN 1470-363 7 online/02/040455-12 Developmen t Bank of Southern Africa

DOI: 10.1080/037683502200001945 5
456 O Olufemi

adequate space; adequate security; security of tenure; physical accessibility; structural

stability and durability; adequate basic infrastructure such as water supply, sanitation
and waste management facilities; adequate lighting, heating and ventilation; suitable
environmental quality and health-related factors; adequate and accessible location with
regard to work and basic facilities: all of which should be available at an affordable
When the living conditions of people cannot meet these requirements, then those
people are considered homeless.
The UNCHS (1996) report indicates that the number of homeless people worldwide
can be estimated at anywhere from 100 million to one billion or more, depending on
how homelessness is de ned:
The estimate of 100 million includes those who have no shelter at all, those who
sleep outside (on pavements, in shop doorways, in parks or under bridges), in public
buildings (in railway, bus or metro stations) or in night shelters set up to provide
homeless people with a bed.
The UNCHSs estimate of one billion homeless people includes those in accommo-
dation that is very insecure or temporary and often of poor quality, for instance
squatters who have found accommodation by illegally occupying someone elses
home or land and are under constant threat of eviction, those who live in refugee
camps, those whose homes have been destroyed and those who live in temporary
The estimate of the number of homeless people worldwide would exceed one billion
if it were to include all people who lack an adequate home with secure tenure (i.e. as
owner-occupiers or tenants protected from sudden or arbitrary eviction) and the most
basic facilities such as water of adequate quality piped into the home, provision for
sanitation and drainage (UNCHS, 1996).
There is remarkably little consensus among policy makers, researchers, local authorities
and voluntary housing organisations as to the de nition of homeless, although the
meaning attributed to it has important implications for quanti cation, policy and a
better understanding of its causes.
Bassuk (1984) draws attention to the complexity of arriving at a simple de nition by
observing that there is usually no single, simple reason for an individual becoming
homeless. He argues that homelessness is often the nal stage in a lifelong series of
crises and missed opportunities, the culmination of a gradual disengagement from
supportive relationships and institutions.


De nitions re ect different purposes, values, ideologies and political agendas.
Austerberry & Watson (1986) argue that homelessness must be analysed within the
context of the speci c social and economic conditions of the time. Perceptions and
de nitions of homelessness have important implications for explanations of homeless-
ness and for policy development in the context of its de nition.
In the literature, homeless people and homelessness have been variously de ned, as
seen in Table 1. Some of the de nitions in the table re ect the mainstream negative
barriers and societys views about homelessness.
Barriers disconnecting homeless people and interpretation of homelessness 457

Table 1: Homeless people de ned

Homelessness Homeless people

Absence of a stable residence, of a place A street sleeper or a mobile squatter without a house
where one can sleep and receive a meal (Abrams, 1966)
(Wolch et al, 1988) People without a roof over their heads, people with
Being without shelter, living in derelict insecure or impermanent tenures, households sharing
buildings, squatters, hostels (DOE, 1981). accommodatio n involuntarily (Bramley, 1988)
Exclusion from and non-affordability of Able-bodied and disabled beggars, those sleeping under
personal accommodatio n de ne the bridges, on pavement s or roadside kerbs, those who
condition of homelessnes s lack real homes, social lepers orphans, the destitute,
UNCHS (1996) classi es homelessnes s into mentally retarded or psychotic people (Labeodan, 1987,
four categories: roo essness, houselessness , 1989)
insecure accommodation , and inferior or Those who lack access to adequate personal
substandard housing accommodatio n and are unable to access and maintain
an adequate personal dwelling from their own
resources, and are unable to maintain personal
accommodatio n unless secured with community
care (Avramov, 1995)
Those who lack basic needs (safe water, sanitation),
those who lack real homes, those living in bad housing,
homeless immigrants, those sleeping on pavements,
sidewalks or kerbs, those who lack personal needs
(voice, expression, dignity, self-determination)
(Olufemi, 1997, 1998)
Street people who for any reason use the outdoors as a
place of abode for a lengthy period of time. The term
street includes all open spaces, riverbanks, etc.
(CMA, 1998)


A house is generally taken to be synonymous with a dwelling or a physical structure.
A home implies particular social relations or activities within the physical structure
(Austerberry & Watson, 1986). The home as a social concept is strongly linked to the
notion of family the parental home, the marital home and the ancestral home. This
social concept is also time-bound or time-related and relates to the stage in ones
lifecycle. The word home conjures up images such as personal warmth, comfort,
stability and security, carrying a meaning beyond the notion of shelter.

Gurney (1990) sees a home as an ideological construct created from peoples emotion-
ally charged experiences of where they happen to live. The home cannot be adequately
understood in terms of taxonomic generalisations. He argues that even the homeless
have a home and declares that for single people living rough, the cultural milieu of life
on the street has become a means of rede ning home. Many street people do gain a
sense of home from being adopted by more experienced ones (Lonsdale, 1990), but this
does not mean that they have what they would call a real home.

This could also be argued further that one may have a real home and yet not feel at
458 O Olufemi

Table 2: Meaning of home

In relation to:
General Sense of
Key signi ers connotation security Self Others

Shelter Materiality Physical Protection Roo ng

Hearth Warmth Physiological Relaxation Homeliness
Heart Love Emotional Happiness Stability
Privacy Control Territorial Possession Exclusion
Roots Source of identity Ontological Sense Reference
Abode Place Spatial Rest Living/sleeping space
Paradise Ideality Spiritual Bliss Non-existence?

Source: Somerville (1992).

home due to certain circumstances such as con icts or abuse. Home is not just a matter
of feelings and lived experience, but also of cognition and intellectual construction.
Verschure (1993: 1) notes: Not everyone has the same interpretation of what a home
or a house can be, whether that is by choice, by force or by lack of alternative. It is
exactly this interpretation, the degree to which people feel at home or homeless and the
way housing is felt to be supportive or oppressive in daily life, that constitutes a
housing problem in todays world. Muller (2000) asserts that home is what you
believe it to be.

Like home, homelessness is an ideological construct (Somerville, 1992: 530). People

distinguish between the absence of a real home (meaning a failure to experience home
in an ideal sense) and the lack of something that can be called a home for them
(meaning the lack of an abode). Homelessness, like home, is a multidimensional
concept (Tables 2 and 3).

Somerville (1992) identi es seven key signi ers, which are also corroborated by
Austerberry & Watson (1986):

Table 3: Meaning of homelessness

In relation to:
General Sense of
Key signi ers connotation security Self Others

Lack of shelter Material Physical Exposure Roo essness

Lack of hearth Coldness Physiological Stress Alienation
Heartlessness Indifference Emotional Misery Instability
Lack of privacy Powerlessness Territorial Surveillance Vulnerability
Rootlessness Anomie Ontological Senselessness Lostness
Lack of abode Placelessness Spatial Restlessness (Impossible!)
Purgatory Ideality Spiritual Suffering Non-existence ?

Source: Somerville (1992).

Barriers disconnecting homeless people and interpretation of homelessness 459

In Table 2, home as a shelter connotes the material form of home in terms of a

physical structure that affords protection at least a roof over ones head.
Home, as hearth, connotes the warmth and cosiness that a home provides to the
body, causing one to relax in comfort and ensuring a welcoming and homely
atmosphere to others.
Home, as heart, emphasises emotional rather than physiological security and health,
with associated images of a happy and stable home based on mutual affection and
Home, as privacy, involves the power to control ones own boundaries.
Home, as roots, means ones sources of identity and meaningfulness, and involves
a sense of security, which Gurney (1990) de nes as ontological security because it
is concerned with ones sense of being in the world (Heideggar, 1967).
Home, as abode, implies a de nite position, not necessarily xed.
Home, as paradise, is an idealisation of all positive features of the home fused
Havel (1992: 301) reiterates that our homes are an inseparable element of our human
identity. Deprived of all the aspects of his home, man itself would be deprived of
himself, of his humanity. This essentially means the homeless are deprived of their
Homelessness (see Table 3), on the other hand, can be expressed as the semantic
contrary to home. This is certainly the case with the key signi ers of lack of shelter,
lack of hearth, heartlessness, lack of privacy, roo essness, lack of abode, and purgatory
(or should it be hell?), and with the sense of insecurity associated with those signi ers
(Somerville, 1992: 534).
For some schools of thought, the minimal de nition of homelessness is lack of shelter
or roo essness, not lack of abode.
Home and homelessness are essentially ideological constructs involving compounds of
cognitive and emotive meanings, and embracing within their meaning complex and
variable distinctions between ideality and reality.


Meaning is the sense or signi cance of a word, sentence, symbol or the inner,
symbolic or true interpretation of something. In the context of de nition, this section
discusses the meaning of home, house and homelessness from the perspective of the
homeless street people.
From a philosophical perspective, Studer (1993: 23) and Runes (1959) note that
meaning is a highly ambiguous term with at least four pivotal senses involving:
Intention or purpose
Designation or reference
De nition or translation
Causal antecedents or consequences
To expand on this, intention or purpose could be linked to the phenomenological
principle of phenomena and intentionality. Pickles (1985) notes that the world and all
its parts, to the extent that there can be an awareness of them, are phenomena and can
become a point of re ection. Through re ection we turn our attention away from our
460 O Olufemi

everyday living into the world, and focus on the way in which we grasp the
corresponding experiences. These experiences are what Husserl (1927, cited in Pickles,
1985: 95) calls phenomena.
Intentionality refers to this basic character of consciousness of always directing itself
to that which it is not. Thus, every experience of something is said to be intentionally
related to this something (Husserl, 1927, cited in Pickles, 1985: 96). In the everyday
world, which is pre-re ective, the homeless person understands himself as being
functionally related to his world. For each individual, the essence of consciousness lies
not in discovering reality, but in describing in personal terms what reality is, in the
mind of the individual, intended to be (Muller, 1993: 11).
Designation or reference refers to terminology or appellation within the context of
homelessness. The various terminologies re ect either the sympathetic acceptance or
unsympathetic rejection of the homeless people.
De nition or translation based on homeless peoples experiences could be interpreted
as perceptibility, appearance or visibility. Perceptual experience has been in uenced by
what should be, rather than what actually is. This has led phenomenologists to such
terms as pre-suppositionless or free from a priori judgement (Spiegelberg, 1975: 10),
meaning that when perceiving an object, our perception might be shaped by our
experience or by how the object is being perceived, but that it should not be distorted
by prior judgement.
Casual antecedents or consequences, the fourth pivotal sense when applied to the
homeless in South Africa, could be regarded as those factors that aggravate homeless-
ness. Olufemi (1997) has established that the causes of homelessness include poverty,
non-affordability of rent, unemployment, family disintegration, physical abuse, lack of
skills, no or partial education, violence, and the residential segregation policy of the
apartheid government. The latter policies include the Group Areas Act and the In ux
Control Act, which restricted people to locations and townships. All these, in agree-
ment with Bassuk (1984), constitute a series of crises in the homeless persons life and
one of the consequences thereof is lack of decent shelter or a proper roof over the
persons head.
Meaning, according to Francescato (1993: 36), signals the intention to approach
housing from a communicative angle. In human terms, the goal of communication is
not merely the transmission of information, but also the interpretation of information
and the elucidation of its meaning. In turn, interpretation implies a hermeneutic
viewpoint, an acceptance of diversity of meanings, and this is indicated in homeless
peoples perception of and the meaning they give to their home and homelessness.

4.1 The homeless perception or meaning of home, house and homelessness

The perception of, or meaning given to homelessness, home and house by the homeless
varies and can be seen in their responses during a focus group discussion (Olufemi,
1997). The homeless street people described home as follows:
A place where my life is forever
Where you belong
A symbol of individuality, status and identity
Where you have a warm and mutual attachment
Gives you a sense of territoriality, belonging, familiarity and control
Barriers disconnecting homeless people and interpretation of homelessness 461

Means safety and comfort

Everywhere is a sacred place
Some of these perceptions corroborate the earlier explanations given by Somerville
(1992) and Austerberry & Watson (1986). However, home described as everywhere
being a sacred place suggests that wherever one is, at home or homeless or away,
home is a sacred place, a place of dignity. Heideggar (1967, cited in Danto, 1990: 8)
states: A dwelling or house is the primary attribute of our being our essence in
effect. We do not dwell because we have built, but we build because we dwell, because
we are dwellers. Re ecting on the meaning of dwelling, Churchman & Herbert (2000:
144) point out the following:
The imperative of shelter. A dwelling is a mechanism for ensuring survival, health
and a reasonable level of comfort and convenience.
The imperative of identity. A dwelling is a reinforcer of a sense of person, family,
community and location both in time and space.
The homeless people in the study by Olufemi (1997) described homelessness as:
Not having a place to stay, sleep or to do whatever you want
Being poor, lonely, neglected and isolated
Being born and bred on the streets
A reproach to or recrimination against the new democratic South African society
A person without a home, a feeling of loss or a gap
Feel like dead
No sense of belonging, no identity
I dont understand, I am tired
A homeless person explained homelessness as follows, using the acronym HOME-
LESS (Homeless Talk, 1995): H hypocrisy; O obstacles; M maze; E exit; L
loneliness; E encouragement; S solitude; and S sorrow.
The homeless people in the focus group discussion interpreted the meaning of the
acronym HOMELESS as follows: Hypocrisy means that the homeless people see
themselves as parasitical and have forfeited their self-respect. In terms of maze and
obstacles, they are faced with many impediments and a great deal of frustration. Their
situation with regard to exit is transitory or transient. They are excluded, rejected and
have no access to the basic necessities of life. They are lonely, in solitude, isolated and
desolate because they are outsiders (outside the mainstream of society). They need
encouragement in terms of motivation, aid, participation and cooperation (Olufemi,
1997: 272).
Dear & Wolch (1987) view homelessness which they term the most extreme
consequence of deinstitutionalisation (i.e. out of the psychiatric hospital or mental
home) as part of a network of social and economic problems, partially attributable
to the actions of governments and service providers. This view could be linked to the
perception of homelessness as being poor, lonely, neglected and isolated, as seen in
a case study below:
Siphiwe is a 56-year-old woman, who lived in Kimberley before she
became homeless. She came to Johannesburg in search of a job, but ended
up on the streets with no job and no money. Siphiwe has been on the street
for 13 years. She roams from one street to another sleeping on bare oors,
carrying her plastic bag, which she refers to as her only property on earth.
462 O Olufemi

She is a sickly old woman and this is obvious in her appearance. She
reiterated that life on the streets is no life at all. She has been able to get
a blanket through Operation Snowball.
Siphiwe says people are of the opinion that she is a lunatic, and she resents this. This
highlights the unsympathetic view of others that acts as a negative barrier, obscuring
any intervention of homelessness problem. Living amid cardboard boxes is home to
Siphiwe she has a home but she is still homeless by virtue of the de nition and
meaning of adequate housing. Siphiwes abode lacks privacy and safety; it is cold,
heartless and rootless, but she still guards her territory jealously. This further reveals
the multidimensional complexity of the meaning of home and homelessness
(Somerville, 1992).
The homeless people in the focus group discussion (Olufemi, 1997) perceived a house
to be:
Permanent structure
Place where you are sheltered from rain, rodents and insecurity
Four-walled building with rooms, toilet, bath and kitchen
Place where you cannot be harassed
Safety and security are paramount in the interpretation of house by homeless people.
For example, house as a prison for a homeless person means that in a house with
electronic gates, burglarproof doors and windows, a security and alarm system and
surveillance gadgets, it is like being locked up in a prison. This, to a homeless person,
perpetrates lack of freedom, as they do not want to be con ned to a bounded space.
This is corroborated by Lenz-Romeiss (1973: 18): Home falls under area (a de ned
space), place of abode, belonging, contentment, public spirit, heaven and freedom,
while the opposite of home is expulsion, debility and poverty.

4.2 Sociocultural language and labelling of homeless people

The use of language and the way in which words, concepts, values and beliefs shape
peoples behaviour and their view of others are also very important in the meaning
attributed to homelessness. It also exasperates the dif culty in breaking down the
barriers of societal perception, power relations, negativity and lack of sympathy.
By exercising the power to name, we construct a social phenomenon, namely home-
lessness, the criteria used to de ne it, and a stereotype of the people to whom it refers
(Daly, 1996). The homeless have been classi ed as the underclass or down and out,
or are seen by many as hopeless, a latter-day version of the undeserving poor (Daly,
1996: 7).
Words such as tramp, vagrant, hobo and deviant are used in the international
literature. In the South African context similar words used to describe homeless people
are Malalapipe, Malunda, Lekatsu (these are nicknames the homeless give to them-
selves), Abomalala esikhotheni or Dingi ndawo, Malala endle, hawelose, stroller,
skadukinders and tsotsi-taal (conveyed during an informal discussion with homeless
street people in the Johannesburg inner city, 2000). These terms have become labels
that portray homeless individuals and the meaning of homelessness in negative ways.
They connote detachment or dissociation, disaf liation and disconnectedness from
family and society. They also re ect negativism, rejection and exclusion.
Barriers disconnecting homeless people and interpretation of homelessness 463

Language is instrumental in how we construct reality. Language, as evident from the

discussion above, also constitutes a barrier to the way in which homelessness is
interpreted. Certain keywords have meanings, express values and proclaim ideological
positions, such that they are inextricably linked with the problems that they are used
to describe.
Daly (1996: 9) states: Language used to describe homeless people in the literature is
broadly construed. It includes media images, which are defamatory, and sometimes
rhetoric, as well as policies and programmes that convey mainstream societys message
of power, in uence and authority. The messages that raise a number of ethical
dilemmas can become tools of manipulation. Homeless individuals may be silenced by
such power relationships, control mechanisms, and messages contained in popular
Language is political. It reveals how we look at social, economic and political issues;
the way we use language serves to de ne relations of power. Various categories of
people use languages to label the homeless within their own spheres of in uence. For
Economic or business interests employ the language of competitiveness, laissez-faire
and the free market to describe their preference for a level playing eld (Daly, 1996:
10) (i.e. unsympathetic).
Religious or philanthropic organisations use the language of pity, charity or
compassion (i.e. positive, accepting and sympathetic).
The government uses the language of worthiness or of being deserving or undeserv-
ing when it comes to who gets what, or who quali es for a transitional shelter among
the homeless, or even in the allocation of resources to the homeless. The govern-
ments response is a mix of exclusion and sympathy.
Language of imageability (appearance): scruffy, unkempt, insalubrious, homeless
people would tarnish the city image and are seen to be repulsive (i.e. negative and
unsympathetic view).
The above indicates the extent to which the homeless are being stigmatised by and
dissociated and disconnected from the society in which they live. It also constrains the
extent to which their needs are met and the kinds of solutions that are possible, thus
aggravating their continual exclusion from and disconnectedness in society.
According to Daly (1996: 8), homeless individuals are con ned to the periphery of
public consciousness because, by failing to conform, they violate social norms and
offend public sensibilities. Society deals with them by dissociation or distancing to
minimise or displace feelings of resentment, fear, contempt, guilt, shame or con ict.
For instance, people may perceive homeless people as criminals.
In the inner city of Johannesburg, for example, business people are of the opinion that
homeless people give their business a bad image because many clients and customers
turn away when they see homeless people. They do not feel safe around them, and
sometimes do not even bother to conduct business there. This is indicative of rejection
and a lack of sympathy towards the homeless. On the other hand, some business people
employ homeless people as car watch guards or to wash cars.
As part of the dehumanising process, the extent of this dualistic dissociation is manifest
in the terminology used to describe homeless individuals. We compartmentalise the
homeless and erect barriers between them and us (society, professionals, etc.). Lifton
464 O Olufemi

(1992: 133) suggests that our societies engage in destructive patterns of symbolising

There are many similarities between the conventional meaning of homelessness and the
experiential interpretation of it by the homeless street people.

The way the homeless feel at home/homeless and their interpretation of adequate/inad-
equate housing also corroborate the conventional meaning of an inadequate/adequate
house. Planners must understand the background and perception of both the homeless
who are giving the interpretation and the object (homelessness) that is under interpret-

The issues of dissociation, distancing, stigmatising, labelling and disconnectedness all

clearly emerge from the meanings and interpretations given by the homeless street
people, as well as the conventional meanings. What stands out clearly is the detachment
and disconnectedness of homeless people in the shelters and on the streets. This area
needs to be explored further for purposes of knowledge in planning. Furthermore, the
practical rejection of the homeless, power relations, stigmatisation, societal main-
streaming and the elite/academic perceptions of the problem constitute barriers that
make it dif cult to interpret the phenomenon.

To break down these barriers, it is imperative to reintegrate the homeless into society
and reverse the negative connotations, labelling and stigmatising. On one hand,
contextualising home and homelessness within the framework of poverty, depri-
vation, exclusion and HIV/Aids could assist in reintegrating the homeless. On the other
hand, reintegration could be achieved through effective communication, education and
awareness. For example, radio and television jingles, advertisements, handbills, com-
munication networks among the homeless communities, drama, and others would all
heighten the awareness of both society and the homeless people themselves.

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