“According to Hopper, anthropology’s strength in this arena is its ability to focus attention on the cultural concepts that shape our thinking about homelessness, the social and policy conditions that prevent adequate solutions, and the social control that service institutions exert on homeless people.
One area where these concerns come together is in the connection between homelessness and mental health. In the 1970s, the closing of mental hospitals, asylums, and psychiatric clinics led to an explosion of homelessness in large cities, leading many people to believe that most homeless people are mentally ill. Social service institutions were built on the assumption that people become homeless because of psychiatric problems. Their model suggests the best way to approach homeless people is to treat them as mental patients.
Hopper has been highly critical of this model. Not only is there little evidence to prove its assumptions, there is no way of knowing if a perceived disorder is a cause or a consequence of homelessness. In other words, are the homeless peoples’ patterns of behavior ‘symptoms’ of mental illness or caused by, if not adaptations to, the homeless way of life (Hopper 1988:158)? According to Hopper, homelessness typically has its roots in larger developments, like housing crises, increases in unemployment, changes in household composition, and the reduction of government assistance programs. Defining all homeless people as deviant mental patients is an exercise in social control, and leads to coercive policies of hospitalization. These actions preempt questions both about the quality of immediate assistance offered such people and about the long-term subsistence alternatives to the hospital (Hopper 1988).
From Hopper’s point of view, the issue is not whether the problem of homelessness will be solved, because it will not. One reason, Hopper argues, is that industrialized societies produce “surplus people,” which means that there are more people than positions in technology-driven industrial economies, so there will always be people on the margins of the economy and out of work. One key issue is to recognize that the opposite of homelessness is not a homeless shelter. Rather, it is a home, which is currently lacking in treatments of homeless people.
Hopper insists that ethnographic research offers useful on-the-ground insights into these matters, because policy-makers, judges, and service bureaucrats are unlikely to find these things out for themselves. But, he argues, fieldwork is not enough: anthropologists also need to familiarize themselves with clinical knowledge and the government’s legal, regulatory, and procedural constraints to be able to evaluate proposed interventions.”
"One key issue is to recognize that the opposite of homelessness is not a homeless shelter. Rather, it is a home, which is currently lacking in treatments of homeless people."