Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 1-22

First online:

Through a different lens: An anthropological perspective on the homeless mentally ill

  • Paul KoegelAffiliated withSocial Policy Department RAND

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Recent attempts to understand the emergence of a growing population of homeless mentally ill individuals have almost exclusively relied on epidemiological and clinical approaches, the result being an incomplete and even distorted perception of these people and their behavior. This paper describes gaps that currently exist in our understanding of the homeless mentally ill, focusing on the dearth of rich qualitative descriptions of lives in process, the overwhelming preoccupation with pathology and disaffiliation, the failure to view homeless mentally ill individuals in the broader socio-economic and situational contexts of their daily lives, the absence of a longitudinal perspective, and an over-reliance on self-report as a source of data. Data are offered from an ethnographic examination of the ongoing adaptation of 50 chronically mentally ill homeless adults in the downtown area of Los Angeles to suggest how research utilizing an anthropological perspective can fill some of these gaps. This discussion indicates by extension that anthropological research can provide policy-relevant insights in this critical area and that the study of homelessness and mental illness presents opportunities for anthropologists to pursue a variety of issues relevant to the field.