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Documenting the utopian home of the homeless

by Sara King-Abadi September 16, 2014
Documenting the utopian home of the homeless

Eric Weissman’s PhD defense wins rare honour

As an academic, one can only dream that their work could have a real-life impact — or at least one should strive for that endgame as far as Concordia sociology professor and recent recipient of the Canadian Association for Graduates Studies Distinguished Dissertation Award  Eric Weissman is concerned.

Weissman won the award, given for a dissertation that makes an unusually significant and original contribution to a field, as a PhD graduate from Concordia’s Individualized Program (INDI) project, a Graduate Studies program created to cater to a limited number of exceptional students wishing to undertake specific individual research.

“I think if you’re in school you need to be academically rigorous but you also need to apply your eye, your lens and your skills to solving social issues that need to be resolved,” said Weissman on the overlap between the longtime project and his PhD studies and the research that is changing not only the way but where many live their lives.

A filmmaker, author, and ethnographer in addition to his sociology professorship, Weissman can’t really be placed in a box. His dissertation, “Spaces, Places and States of Mind: a pragmatic ethnography of liminal critique,” looks at the United States’ first city-sanctioned shantytown, Dignity Village. Dignity Village, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, came about when dozens of homeless individuals banded together and used social activism to create an independent community catering to their needs. The camp fought the state of Oregon for recognition of important American values like the right to shelter and organized themselves with lawyers, campaigns and housing advocates, eventually getting Portland to recognize it as, in the words of Weissman, an “ emergency transitional campground.”

What they also did is create a model for other communities wishing to put that creative spin on putting a heavy dent in homelessness. Dignity Village pitched a homeless utopia as part of their case for shelter: their vision entailed community kitchens, enterprises and gardens in an aesthetic, rustic environment.

“They pitched this perfect utopia. They never managed to live up to that,” said Weissman. Cost as well as poor location (it was built on a section of asphalt near the Portland airport) left their utopian gardens a dream on the drafting papers.

Weissman said he hopes his dissertation, highly critical of Dignity Village and its chronic problem of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs that left inhabitants unable to self-govern, helps make it so that similar intentional communities have the groundwork, and its potential mistakes, laid out for them.

“Dignity Village can’t really run itself because they’re too busy fighting with each other,” Weissman explained of the problems plaguing the community. “These new places [by contrast] have strict policies on drugs and alcohol.”

Weissman has personally visited six such communities in the United States, all based on the same kind of utopian model as Dignity Village, though there are possibly hundreds more. One example is Community First! Village in Central Texas. The 27-acre community aims to give not just shelter but a home to 200 people and has already successfully provided for 99 disabled and chronically homeless residents. The community is built of canvas guest cottages, repurposed mobile homes, and trendy tiny homes.

“These new villages appeal to this mass sentiment about living smaller, leaving less of an imprint.” Weissman said. When Weissman visited the Community First! Village, the director explained to him that, “this isn’t a political statement [like Diginity Village], it’s a way to give people affordable housing again.”

That, Weissman thinks, is the real issue with homelessness. “It’s not about drugs, it’s not about addictions, although people who become homeless tend to exhibit those problems after some time,” Weissman said frankly, “it’s about affordable housing.”

Being able to provide housing is the first step in aiding a host of social problems, and Weissman says it almost always adds to the dignity and quality of life of participants. Take for example Chez Soi/At Home, a four-year cross-Canadian experiment in five major cities, including Montreal. The study looks at housing as a first method of managing homeless and mental health problems, along with medical and psychological support. The results  not only improved the residents’ situations by limiting the associated recidivism of street life but saved a substantial amount of money in the process: inpatient costs were offset on average by an estimated $14,003.

“I think that we need to know that we can change the way people think about the solutions to our social problems,” said Weissman, who is certainly doing his part. His next destination is San Antonio, Texas as a keynote speaker for the Texas Homelessness Network, and he will be in good company, bringing along two Dignity Village residents to talk about their experiences. “I don’t really do things unless I see that it can have a concrete result,” concluded Weissman. And his results have literally been laid in concrete, canvas, and community.

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