In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homelessness and Communication

  • Introduction
  • Stigma and Homelessness
  • Homelessness and Mediated Representations
  • Information and Communication Technology and Homelessness
  • Policy and Debate on Homelessness
  • Organizational Perspectives on Homelessness
  • Communication Approaches to Researching Homelessness
  • Rhetorical Perspectives on Homelessness

Communication Homelessness and Communication
Peter Jensen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0245


Homelessness and housing insecurity present a problem across the world. This problem becomes particularly glaring when examining how homelessness persists in developed countries through periods of economic development. For example, in the United States alone, more than 500,000 people spent at least one night without a home in 2018. Communication scholarship on homelessness examines the challenges of homelessness largely in these types of settings as they seek to unpack the issue from a variety of perspectives. This bibliography charts some of the approaches to the study of communication and homelessness. Unlike some other subjects in communication, the study of homelessness is decentered. There are few books on the problem of homelessness and only one edited volume. Likewise, there is no journal that has been the focus of research on communication and homelessness. The communicative study of homelessness is likewise methodologically and theoretically nomadic, with varying epistemologies and ontologies contributing to the body of literature. In truth, much of the communicative work on homelessness has been published outside of established communication journals and many of the works discussed here come from authors outside of the discipline. However, this diversity of forums provides an opportunity to confront issues of homelessness with a variety of expertise. Scholars contributing to this work draw on the full breadth of social scientific and humanistic research methods in their projects, with surveys, focus groups, ethnographies, and rhetorical analysis all adding to what is understood about the problem. Topics range from how news coverage of social problems like homelessness may lead to compassion fatigue to examining how homeless individuals may organize themselves to self-advocate. However, while there are a wide variety of topics, settings, methodologies, and assumptions expressed in the following works certain common threads are prevalent through many of them. First, in works based on direct experiences with homeless individuals, many scholars express the importance of communication as homeless individuals navigate their sociomaterial environment. Second, scholarship that examines the representation of homelessness largely concludes that how homelessness is covered in both traditional news media and other outlets impacts larger conversations about homelessness. Finally, interventions designed to alleviate the problems of homelessness should include the voices and experience of homeless individuals. To explore these themes, this piece first examines scholarship that explores the links between stigma and homelessness. Next, it summarizes research on mediated representations of homelessness. Third, it conducts an overview of the work on homelessness and information and communication technologies. The fourth section summarizes work on policy and homelessness. The fifth is a discussion of organizational responses to homelessness. The sixth section is an overview of the challenges and opportunities associated with studying homelessness from a communicative perspective. Finally, a review of rhetorical work on homelessness is provided.

Stigma and Homelessness

One of the most common issues explored in relation to homelessness across disciplines is how the stigma of homelessness manifests, is communicated, and is managed. There are a variety of perspectives on stigma, but much of the communication research on homelessness starts from a sociofunctional view of stigma, which is overviewed in Belcher and DeForge 2012. Schneider and Remillard 2013 and Ritchie 2011 examine how attitudes toward homeless individuals are communicatively constructed and maintained outside of direct interaction with homeless individuals. Gowan 2010; Harter, et al. 2005; Meanwell 2013; and Novak and Harter 2008 examine how stigma is managed by homeless individuals themselves. Finally, Hocking and Lawrence 2000; Jensen 2018; Lindemann 2007; and Papa, et al. 2005 examine navigation of the stigma of homelessness as a communicative accomplishment by both homeless and housed individuals.

  • Belcher, J. R., and B. R. DeForge. 2012. Social stigma and homelessness: The limits of social change. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 22.8: 929–946.

    DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2012.707941

    Although not written by communication scholars, Belcher and DeForge’s work provides a good overview of the discursive environment in which communication about homelessness exists and the sociofunctional role that some scholars argue stigma plays. The authors argue that the economic systems that create homelessness also encourage the stigmatization of the homeless, which limits opportunities for change. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Gowan, T. 2010. Hobos, hustlers, and backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816648696.001.0001

    This ethnographic project uses discourse analysis to examine how different discursive frameworks for homelessness—which the author characterizes as sin, system, and sickness— impact how homeless individuals see themselves and their capacity for change. This book provides insight as to how some homeless individuals make sense of their homelessness, and how they employ different discursive strategies to embrace, challenge, or shift perceptions of homelessness, work, and community.

  • Harter, L. M., C. Berquist, B. Scott Titsworth, D. Novak, and T. Brokaw. 2005. The structuring of invisibility among the hidden homeless: The politics of space, stigma, and identity construction. Journal of Applied Communication Research 33.4: 305–327.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880500278079

    Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, focus group interviews, and in-depth interviews, this article examines how homeless youth in a support program navigate issues of visibility and stigma. The authors find that while practicing invisibility may foster their ability to navigate street life, this invisibility also isolates them from resources that may enable them to escape homelessness. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Hocking, J. E., and S. G. Lawrence. 2000. Changing attitudes toward the homeless: The effects of prosocial communication with the homeless. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless 9.2: 91–110.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1009466217604

    Using experimental methods, Hocking and Lawrence examine how extended periods of time spent working with homeless individuals impacted perceptions. Participants who were selected to volunteer in a shelter setting were more likely to view homeless individuals as socially attractive and view homelessness as a result of bad luck than participants who did not volunteer. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Jensen, P. R. 2018. Undignified dignity: Using humor to manage the stigma of mental illness and homelessness. Communication Quarterly 66.1: 20–37.

    DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2017.1325384

    This article explores how one anarchist-run homeless shelter uses crude and sexual humor to counteract the dual stigmas of mental illness and homelessness. Based on participant observation and semistructured interviews, the author argues that a conceptualization of dignity that is grounded in local practices can be used to communicatively cocreate a culture that ameliorates and reduces the salience of social stigmas. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Lindemann, K. 2007. A tough sell: Stigma as souvenir in the contested performances of San Francisco’s homeless Street Sheet vendors. Text and Performance Quarterly 27.1: 41–57.

    DOI: 10.1080/10462930601046012

    Lindemann explores the practices of homeless vendors of San Francisco’s longest running homeless newspaper. Based on ethnographic observations, Lindemann examines how the discursive practices of the vendors’ use of an authenticity related to their homeless identity empowers them as sellers while simultaneously reinforcing the stigma of homelessness. Lindemann argues that through these practices the stigma of homelessness becomes a souvenir to be consumed and shared, and reflects how these challenges are related to homelessness and advocacy by nonprofit organizations more generally. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Meanwell, E. 2013. Profaning the past to salvage the present: The symbolically reconstructed pasts of homeless shelter residents. Symbolic Interaction 36.4: 439–456.

    DOI: 10.1002/symb.79

    This paper examines the communicative strategies homeless individuals use to secure services from aid agencies. Meanwell argues that homeless individuals must position themselves as both worthy of help from a moral standpoint but also incapable of self-sufficiency. Using interviews with forty-four shelter residents, the author claims that homeless individuals create a present worthy self that is temporally divided from a past unworthy self. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Novak, D. R., and L. M. Harter. 2008. “Flipping the scripts” of poverty and panhandling: Organizing democracy by creating connections. Journal of Applied Communication Research 36.4: 391–414.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880802104890

    Drawing on participant observation and in-depth interviews, this part of a larger project examines how street newspapers that homeless individuals sell transform how they exist in relation to the street and its other inhabitants. The authors argue that homeless individuals are changed into employed street vendors, a shift which changes the street into a location for engagement and community building. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Papa, W. H., M, J. Papa, K. P. Kandath, T. Worrell, and N. Muthuswamy. 2005. Dialectic of unity and fragmentation in feeding the homeless: Promoting social justice through communication. Atlantic Journal of Communication 13.4: 242–271.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15456889ajc1304_3

    This article examines how community suppers between housed and homeless individuals might create a sense of unity. It found that conversation provided opportunities for bridging gaps for some. However, the authors also point to the limitations of these programs in that while the suppers may promote community they may also increase feelings of isolation after the suppers are complete; nonetheless they argue that these feelings work together to create community. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Ritchie, L. D. 2011. “You’re lying to Jesus!”: Humor and play in a discussion about homelessness. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 24.4: 481–511.

    DOI: 10.1515/HUMR.2011.027

    In this study, the author explores how young adults use humor to discuss homelessness. Drawing on data from classroom discussions, the author argues that the participants use humor to express ambivalent feelings about homelessness. Humor was used to identify the genuine homeless from those who were perceived as young adults “slumming” for fun. Finally, humor was used to manage tone when the conversation was becoming “too serious” for some. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Schneider, B., and C. Remillard. 2013. Caring about homelessness: How identity work maintains the stigma of homelessness. Text & Talk 33.1: 95–112.

    DOI: 10.1515/text-2013-0005

    The authors use Foucault to discuss how stigma is a process that produces homeless “subjects.” Based on conversations from focus group interviews, the authors examine how caring for homeless people actually serves to reinforce the social stigma of homelessness. In particular, the authors highlight how participants engage in identity work to maintain their own positive self-identity and to construct the homeless individuals as “other.” Available online by subscription or purchase.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.