Are the homeless « vagrants »?

projet collectif SciencesPo/Architecture Bordeaux, February 2021

Forum Vies Mobiles

The figure of the « homeless » is associated in people’s minds with the older figure of the unattached vagrant. In reality, the term « homeless » does not take into account the growing diversity of contemporary situations, resulting from the evolution of forms of precariousness and poor housing, whose specific needs and aspirations in terms of mobility are often misunderstood by public and voluntary actors. This literature review summarises the main works on this question, which has been little explored by research: how are the mobilities and immobilities of people who do not have access to the private place of anchorage and intimacy that is housing arranged?

The purpose of the project

The term « homeless people » covers a diversity of situations, reinforced by the recent evolution of forms of poverty and poor housing: this category includes very different profiles (homeless, migrants, Roma, backpackers, mobile workers, etc.) and equally contrasting social situations, from the point of view of access to housing (night shelter, day shelter, squat, living in a car or truck, etc.) and income (working poor, recipients of social minima, destitute, etc.). The lack of access to a private place of anchorage and intimacy implies forms of wandering in the public space, but also movements made necessary by the situation of precariousness (administrative procedures, access to associative resources, resourcefulness…). The search for shelter and the need to rest also leads to forms of investment in these spaces : the result is an arrangement between mobility and immobility. These practices clash with contemporary tendencies to conceive cities more and more as functional spaces and places of flux. Forms of control are then exerted on the movements and anchoring of these publics by the many actors who act directly or indirectly on the urban environment: privatizations and commodification, regulations, «  defensive  » urbanism, police controls, hostilities of the inhabitants… Homeless people also face difficulties in moving because of the lack of financial resources, but also because of other forms of brakes, discriminations or practical obstacles (ban on dogs in transport, difficulties in sheltering their belongings…).

The main results

The analysis of the grey and academic literature reveals controversies on the typologies and definitions applied to the homeless, which are at the origin of inappropriate public policies

Through their bibliographic research, the students put into perspective different approaches to the notion of « homelessness » and the attempts at categorisation developed by observers, such as the ETHOS typology proposed by associations and based on the criterion of housing status 1 (from a material, social but also legal point of view) or the one adopted by INSEE, which only takes into account the conditions of the last night spent by the person surveyed. Although the status of ‘homeless’ is defined without debate, the sociologist Julien Damon 2 emphasises the lack of clear distinctions between the different sub-categories of the homeless. This diversity of situations, which is little studied and poorly understood, is at the root of the problem’s poor handling by public policies. The students point out that other observers of homelessness 3 nevertheless note common trends and trajectories of exclusion that are « patterns », both at the individual level (difficulties in childhood, life accidents, health problems, desocialisation, etc.) and at the structural level (industrial decline, increasing inequalities, migration, etc.).

Reading the works of urban geography and the sociology of mobility allows us to analyse the phenomenon of homelessness in a context of globalisation and the injunction to be mobile

Critical geography analyses the city as a product of the regime of capital accumulation, within which mobility plays a central role 4 . The mobility of individuals, and more specifically of labour, is celebrated and encouraged, while the immobile bodies of the homeless are criminalised, rendered suspect 5 . Furthermore, sociology analyses the mobility « skills » necessary to meet the demands of society (financial means, access to information, driving licence…) and allows the analysis of the specific problems of socially excluded people. The notion of inequality in mobility is also important in addressing the issue of homelessness: Jean-Pierre Orfeuil’s work emphasises that the ability to be mobile has become a condition for social and economic integration. The «  injunction to mobility  » which characterises post-industrial societies carries with it several imperatives : activity (being permanently active), activation (putting oneself into activity), participation (being involved in a collective project) and adaptation (flexibility, innovation). Mobility difficulties and social problems act as mutual catalysts.

Specific surveys on the mobility and immobility of the homeless report « survival routes » and « occupation of public space », far from the image of random and aimless wandering

Djemila Zeneidi-Henry and Sébastien Fleuret’s work on homeless people in the Pays de la Loire region reveals a low level of mobility among homeless people, in contrast to the traditional image of the ‘vagrant’. Their observations show a mobility that is not similar to wandering but more like a mobility from goal to goal, with a major importance of family and friend references. A survey carried out in Lyon by Benjamin Pradel 7 shows complex strategies and « survival routes », strongly influenced by external factors (the season, the frequency of use of places at different times of the day, the layout, etc.). Other research works selected by the students show the diversity of profiles, and therefore of mobility and anchoring strategies: according to age (young wanderers looking for a job 8 ), nationality (people in exile 9 ) or gender (through the specific situation of women). All of them face forms of control and management of their movements, by the police, the inhabitants or their peers 10 . Finally, this research highlights forms of rites of occupation of public space, whether they are transitory or more permanent, in relation to survival strategies: taking shelter to sleep, or on the contrary, making oneself visible to beg, for example.

The attached document presents the research in its entirety and offers an overview of the work on this subject in seven synthetic chapters :

  • 1 The ETHOS typology, or European Typology on Homelessness and Housing Exclusion, is established by the European Federation of National Associations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA).

  • 2 Damon, J. (2003). The homeless in France : difficulties of definition and care. Journal Du Droit Des Jeunes, 223(3).

  • 3 Declerck, P., Les Naufragés, 1986.

  • 4 Mongin, O. (2013). La ville des flux. Paris, Fayard.

  • 5 Rousseau, M., 2008. The city as a mobility machine. Métropoles.

  • 7 Zeneidi-Henry, D., & Fleuret, S. (2007). Homelessness, a reflection on the mobility of the homeless. Espace Géographique, 36(1), 1. doi: 10.3917/eg.361.0001

  • 8 Pradel, B. (2020). The relationship to urban space of homeless people (Millennium 3).

  • 9 Tarrius, A. (1997). Unemployed youth in the city centre, work and wandering : Poverty in the public space of Perpignan. Les Annales De La Recherche Urbaine, 76(1).

  • 10 Jackson, E.(2012). Fixed in Mobility: Young Homeless People and the City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36(4), pp.725-741.


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