|'Being Homeless' by Eric Harper|
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The first most well known cases of the homeless are those of Christ and the Buddha. Upon discovering enlightenment, the following words by the Buddha can be read as the advocating of homelessness.
I wandered through the rounds of countless births,
Similarly, to follow Christ and some Christian saints is to take up a homeless existence. In Matthew (8:18) one of scribes asked Christ, 'Master, I will follow you wherever you go'. Christ replied, 'Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'
Another example is Joseph Labre When Benedict Joseph Labre Lay in the streets of Rome Some thought he was a holy man Some thought he was a bum. (James K Baxter).
In certain Buddhist traditions, part of the daily meditative practice involves walking the countryside with begging bowls. Needless to say, this plea for alms by the homeless takes on a very different meaning in a Western context when in our busy lives we are assailed by appeals like, 'Can you spare me any change?' or when we encounter a drunken woman sleeping on a street corner.
In the Buddhist context homelessness is a means to an end - the end to the craving for attachment. This relinquishing of attachments through living with a lack leads to a new grammar of thought going beyond the site of representation - what Buddhist teachers refer to as an enlightened state. On the streets of London, however, homelessness often means the end of the road due to psychic fragmentation. The irony here are those cases of those homeless clients who believe they are Christ or the Buddha, which is not ironic, what is that like Christ and Budda they roam the streets looking for signs of care in the community.
Who are the homeless?
Homeless people are caught up in many different representations and no doubt this paper will offer yet another representation. One view is that homelessness is one of the biggest problems facing humanity at the turn of the century. Millions of people worldwide find themselves seeking refuge due to war, environmental disasters, poverty and bad homes (The New Internationalist 1996:18). In London one perception is that the big issues facing the homeless are mental health and psychological problems, substance abuse and/ or the results of previous experiences of institutional care (child care, psychiatric, prison and armed forces) (Just Ask, 1998:6).
Another perception is that of living "on the edge" (margins) of society, indulging in excessive and hedonistic life styles. Unlike the damage goods scenario in the first description living on the edge has a glamour attached to it. In fact many films, not only Hollywood, there is use this kind of representation when trying to catch the margins of existence. In this context these individuals are represented as playing with different forms of intoxication, which in turn bring about different (trance-like) states of consciousness and loss of bodily control: the cult of Bacchus/Dionysus and god (half man and bull) of divine intoxication.
It is some times seen as a savage and poetic cult in opposition to prudence and overcome by the excessive of a joyful/painful driven existence. The Bacchic ritual endeavouring to produce enthusiasm, that giddy state of being inspired and possessed (from the Greek entheos) through having the divine enter ones being. It is a pursuit that involves an act of courage and embrace, even if there is a savage sacrifice of reason.
Finally, the most common representation of the homeless is that of binary opposites, namely, a representation that privileges a particular life style and recruits individuals into a set of unexamined assumptions about having a home, job and family. Having a home, job and family seem to be aspirations so thoroughly built into everyday taken-for-granted, that it results in what Barthes refers to as the "naturalisation" of the symbolic order. The taken-for-granted manner in which these narratives and conversations take place designates and reifies having a home, job and family to the status of the unquestioned natural order of things and obliterates any (repressed) anguishing similarities there may between the marginalized group and the group representing dominant norms /ideology.
So saying homelessness as a word has existed as a predicate giving reference to something Other than itself. The word homelessness does not define what homelessness is, but rather what it is not to have a normal home. The category of homelessness functions as an enigmatic signifier of alterity, an otherness that may be our own that we want to suggest belongs elsewhere.
As if well known there exists in everyday taken-for-granted social interactions and the everyday structure of language a "truth status" attached to playing out socially ascribed roles. The homeless individual is under pressure to conform and engage in activities, which will elicit his recognition in others, within a particular discourse. Like most marginalised the homeless have suffered abuse, prejudice and discrimination of all forms throughout history due to not being able to conform and putting into question the taken for granted.
From the above we can conclude that many homeless living out a tale told by another, and in this respect can be understood as a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet at the same time it is a life style, to be explained below, which is an attempt to escape from someone else's prescription and attempt to find a voice (story) without it being subsumed into a normative structure and subject to the tyranny of being classified and pathologised. However, homelessness is not a catchall category and is particular to each individual's subjective experience.
No great therapeutic claims can or will be made for this interesting piece of work. Yet what I have described does illustrate how unexpected clinical phenomena can emerge in an unlikely setting when a certain type of listening process is put into action. And whilst the methodology used was somewhat crude and by necessity improvisational, it nonetheless adhered to certain analytic principles - a regular time, continuity of personnel, some attempts to keep a boundary, and a receptive, attentive listening stance.
The work had a tactical, strategic and ethical dimension. In the case of one woman, Jane, this allowed a genuinely moving story to unfold, which brought about some changes in her view of herself and in her personal circumstances. In a Winnicottian sense one could say that Jane 'used' me well - I made myself available to be destroyed. I survived the destruction, and this led to her transforming that which had driven her into self-destructive situations into something that she could live with as a part of the contradictions that made up her being.
With thanks to Pip Bevan, Richard Klein and Chris Oakley who supported and supervised this difficult work. Without your help this work would not have being possible.
Mark Epstein (1996) Thoughts without a thinker - Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. Duckworth Press. London.
Freud, S. (1984) 'Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego' in Sigmund Freud Civilization, Society and Religion. Vol. 12. The Pelican Freud Library. Penguin Books. London.
Harper, E and Klein, R (1997) 'Personal Communication.' Just Ask Counselling and Advisory Service. (1998) 'A Space to Think - Review of the Pilot Counselling and Advisory Service to London Street Homeless.'
Klein, M. (1986) 'A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States' in J Mitchell (Ed). The Selected Melanie Klein. London
Klein, M. (1986) 'Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States.' in J Mitchell(Ed). The Selected Melanie Klein
Klein, M. (1986) 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms.'. The Selected Melanie Klein
Klein, M. (1986). 'A Study of Envy and Gratitude.' The Selected Melanie Klein
Lacan, J. (1955-1956). 'The Psychoses. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan.' Edited by Jacques-Alan Miller. Routledge. London.
Lacan, J. (1960-61). 'Transference The Seminar of Jacques Lacan.' Unpublished.
Oakley, C (1996) Personal Communication
The New Internationalist (1996) 'Housing and Homelessness' no 276.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). 'Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena.' Published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Vol. 34, Part 2 (1953) in Playing and Reality.Penguin Books. Tavistock Publications.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). 'The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications.' In Playing and Reality. 1971. Penguin Books. Tavistock Publications.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). 'The Location of Cultural Experience.' In Playing and Reality. 1971. Penguin Books. Tavistock Publications
Winnicott, D.W. (1967). 'Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development.' In Playing and Reality. 1971. Penguin Books. Tavistock Publications.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). 'Interrelating apart from Instinctual Drive and in Terms of Cross- Identifications.' In Playing and Reality. 1971. Penguin Books. Tavistock Publications.
Labre was an eighteenth century saint who lived in great poverty, devoting his time to prayer and to the poor. Towards the end of his life he used to sleep in the ruins of the coliseum. "He was suffering from an oppressive feeling of guilt, of which he did not know the origin, and after which he had committed a misdeed this oppression was mitigated. His sense of guilt was at least attached to something. Paradoxical as it may sound, I must maintain that the sense of guilt was present before the misdeed, that it did not arise from it, but conversely - the misdeed arose from the sense of guilt. These people might justly be described as criminals from a sense of guilt."(Freud,S Some Character-Types Met With In Psychoanalytic Work 1916:317) One reading of this nightmare is to see individuals engaged in a slow suicide and unable to help themselves.
They are people lacking basic life skills, unable to tolerate frustration, in need of immediate gratification, very demanding and driven. These individuals cannot articulate what is troubling them, cannot identify the problem, (nor do they have adequate problem-solving frameworks) and who therefore act out what cannot be thought out. They are individuals who engage in testing out / attention seeking behaviour which becomes a problem for the practitioners working with them. They become the problem cases that are referred from agency to agency - the untouchables.
At the very moment of coming into being (via identifications with signifiers found in the filed of the Other) there is both the emergence of meaning but at the same the disappearance and fading of the subject. It is in union with the Other that the individual takes on language and finds the means to speak of his/her being, but it is an alienating intercourse. The individual represents him/herself through a chain of signifiers but something remains non represented. "I" re-presents "I" through a linking of words to preconceptions, but in the very pronouncing what "I" represents, the individual is petrified and reduced to nothing more than this pronouncement (a word). The individual is subject to language but his/her being lies forever outside any form of symbolic inscription.
In the Buddhist doctrine the individual is both self and no-self. When asked about the nature of self by Vacchagotta the Buddha remained silent. What is more, the extinction of suffering involves a fading away and extinction of the individual (who craves). A border (cf. Borderline) is an edge at which one discovers an object (a). When the subject is dropped from the edge of the stage (of language) due to systematic abuse, a forced identification with the object (a) can occur.
At this moment of depersonalisation the subject becomes nothing but an object.
The practitioner's presence offers an encounter with the Other that exists outside of the all consuming present, thus cutting into this intolerable state and enabling a response (from the Other) to contain the wordless scream. Direction of the treatment through the dimensions of tactics, strategy and policy (ethics) is an approach that is being developed by Richard Klein and myself.