A hot afternoon in September 2013, I had my first ever time in my life, outreaching the homeless community in Hong Kong. Walking up to a pedestrian bridge, I met Cynthia, a homeless lady, who was in her wheelchair using a boom to clean up a corner of the bridge, where she regards it as her ‘home.'
On that day, Cynthia genuinely shared her life with us. After taking us to her good old days, she told us that she had pancreatic cancer. A doctor told her that she would not live for more than ten months. She was counting down her days. To my surprise, she did not express a tiny bit of bitterness or worries, she rather told us she wanted to live with "joy" for the rest of her days.
In the next ten months, I visited Cynthia at least once a week, she always welcomed me with a smile except for a few times she felt too sick to talk. However, her friends always took her in good care. Sometimes, I would see her neighbor taking her to the hospital for regular examinations. Born and raised in a lower-middle-class family, I had never imagined how a person could survive in a street community. I was struck by the time when Cynthia told me she enjoyed living there with her friends.
A few months later, she was rehoused in a public housing unit through an expedited rehousing process because of her cancer. In my perspective, this offer at first looks like a happy ending, that she could live her entire life in a unit with privacy, peace, and safety. However, after settling down in the new housing unit for a few weeks, Cynthia told me that she did not like the place. She experienced discrimination in the housing community after her neighbors realized she is a formerly homeless person.
Living in her tiny apartment, Cynthia felt lonely. Ever since she was housed, she was no longer "eligible" to take the free resources from the non-profits, such as free food and clothing that were prioritized for homeless people in the street community. When she once got a set of food coupons from a volunteer on the street, she was commented by her former neighbor as greedy and selfish. Cynthia fell into a dilemma that she could not be integrated into the public housing community, at the same time, she did not want to get back to the street. She decided to bring some of her friends to the unit to live with her. However, such action violated public housing regulations. When her neighbors saw her friends moving into the unit, they filed complaints to the housing authorities.
In 2016, Cynthia was expelled by her landlord, the public housing authority, because the office received multiple complaints accusing her of bringing "drug abusers" and "criminals" to the unit. In 2017, Cynthia passed away in a tent in the street community.
Cynthia is the first homeless friend I meet in my life. She is just one of the many homeless people who fall into such kind of rehousing struggle. To me, she is definitely a brave "shero" who tried hard to live with joy and dignity in the final years of her life. I am deeply saddened by what she encountered throughout the process of relocation and re-homelessness. Her story brought us to the question of how should society treat the homeless "properly"? How should we find ways to eliminate discrimination against people who are underprivileged?
I have been committed to conducting research on homelessness because I hope I could search for an answer. Unsurprisingly, when I dig deeper, there are more questions worth investigating. In my undergraduate degree, I conducted a comparative ethnographic field research project on homelessness in Hong Kong and Vancouver, Canada. In the coming years, I will keep publishing articles based on the findings I have on the project. I list the abstracts of the manuscript(s) in progress down below.
Typology of Homelessness:
The Construction of Deviance and Social Distrust in High Rent and Neoliberal Metropolitans
This study draws on ethnographic field works to investigate a contextually grounded typology of homelessness in two new-liberal and high rent metropolitans, Vancouver, Canada and Hong Kong, China. The framework of Merton’s anomie theory is applied and reconstructed to understand how homeless people utilize both legitimate and illegitimate means to achieve or abandon the social goal of being rehoused. Over the course of three years, participant observation, 24 semi-structured in-depth interviews and over a hundred informal interviews were conducted in two similar urban landscapes--central business districts and semi-closed communities—in each city. Five types of homeless life were identified: the unfortunate, ritualistic helplessness, operational helplessness, cynical hopelessness, and the untouchable. Informants identified by each of these types experience homelessness differently that shapes their interpretations of the past, present and future life. Moreover, individuals are observed to be transiting into different types of homelessness over the life course that is related to the situating social context. I then put forward my findings to explore how the level of deviance and social (dis)trust is constructed along the pathway of homelessness.