Street Talk: Homeless Discourses and the Politics of Service Provision

  • Arturo BaiocchiEmail author
  • Tyler M. Argüello


This chapter introduces a basic typology for identifying key narratives of homelessness that permeate contemporary American social culture. What the sociologist Teresa Gowan aptly describes as sin-talk, sick-talk, and system-talk represents common caricatures of homelessness heard by the media, professionals, and the homeless themselves. Drawing from Gowan’s (Hobos, hustlers, and backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010) ethnographic study of homeless men in San Francisco, we summarize how these narratives reduce the complex realities of individuals without secure housing to singular causes related to criminal behavior, mental health, or affordable housing. Given this, our chapter has a couple of goals. First, we provide an overview of Gowan’s research by discussing how these discourses have evolved over time and reflect the confluence of various political efforts to manage poverty and inequality in the USA. Second, we argue for the importation of Gowan’s typology into social work as a useful heuristic for praxis. Third, as part of our critique, we discuss some limitations to Gowan’s work for applied practice, and therefore we offer an additional discourse, one of social-talk, to help conceptually congeal and extend these “talks” for social work and its practitioners.


Homelessness Discourse Causes Ideology Medicalization Competency Cause Narratives Caricatures Folk theories Ideologies Poverty Typology Heuristic Foucault Poststructuralism Postmodernism Normal Knowledge Power Discourse analysis Naturalizing Ethnography Sin-talk Sick-talk System-talk Moral Morality Poverty management Protestant Reformation Martin Luther Vagabonds English Poor Laws Poor relief Rugged individualism Laissez-faire Capitalism Meritocracy Quality of life Criminal justice Punishment Exclusion Public safety Broken windows theory Public space Structural Misdistribution State Free market Marx Marxism Marxist Middle-class Wobblies Tramps Hobos Welfare state Great Depression Deindustrialization Reaganomics National Housing Alliance McKinney-Vento Act Charity Rights-based movement Archipelago Street outreach Housing First Therapeutic Mental health Medicalization of poverty Pathology Client Street agency Clinton HUD Continuum of Care Social workers Diagnose Assess Treat Caseworker Disability Mental illness Addiction Social work Practice Person-in-environment Lived experience Oppression Language Microaggressions Limitations Jane Addams Intervention Hull House 

Supplementary material

441379_1_En_6_MOESM1_ESM.docx (45 kb)
(DOCX 44 kb)


  1. Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W., Castaneda, C., Hackman, H. W., Peteres, M. L., & Zuniga, X. (Eds.). (2013). Readings for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Aykanian, A., & Lee, W. (2016). Social work’s role in ending the criminalization of homelessness: Opportunities for action. Social Work, 61(2), 183–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baum, A. S., & Burnes, D. W. (1993). A nation in denial: The truth about homelessness. Ann Arbor: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  4. Belcher, J. R., & DeForge, B. R. (2012). Social stigma and homelessness: The limits of social change. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 22(8), 929–946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blau, J. (1992). The visible poor: Homelessness in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bloom, B. L. (1984). Community mental health: A general introduction (2nd ed.). Monterey: Brooks/Cole.Google Scholar
  7. Caplan, G. (1961). An approach to community mental health. New York: Grune & Stratton.Google Scholar
  8. Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three political economies of the welfare state. International Journal of Sociology, 20(3), 92–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972–1977. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  10. Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality (Vol. 1). New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  11. Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  12. Gitterman, A., & Germain, C. B. (2008). The life model of social work practice: Advances in theory and practice. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Gowan, T. (2010). Hobos, hustlers, and backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Heathcote, J., Perri, F., & Violante, G. L. (2010). Unequal we stand: An empirical analysis of economic inequality in the United States, 1967–2006. Review of Economic Dynamics, 13(1), 15–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Jaworski, A., & Coupland, N. (Eds.). (1999). The discourse reader. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Jencks, C. (1995). The homeless. Boston: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference. Boston: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  18. Katz, M. B. (2013). The undeserving poor: America’s enduring confrontation with poverty: Fully updated and revised. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Kelling, G. L., & Wilson, J. Q. (1982, March). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. The Atlantic. Accessed 30 June 2018.
  20. Lamb, H. R. (1984). Deinstitutionalization and the homeless mentally ill. Psychiatric Services, 35(9), 899–907.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Langsley, D. G. (1985a). Community psychiatry. In H. I. Kaplan & B. J. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry/IV (4th ed., pp. 1878–1884). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.Google Scholar
  22. Langsley, D. G. (1985b). Prevention in psychiatry: Primary, secondary, and tertiary. In H. I. Kaplan & B. J. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry/IV (4th ed., pp. 1885–1888). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.Google Scholar
  23. McNamee, S. J., & Miller, R. K. (2009). The meritocracy myth. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  24. Mechanic, D. (2008). Mental health and social policy: Beyond managed care (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  25. Mullaly, B. (2002). Challenging oppression: A critical social work approach. Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada.Google Scholar
  26. Myers, D. G. (2001). The American paradox: Spiritual hunger in an age of plenty. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  27. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (2017). Social work profession. Accessed 8 July 2017.
  28. National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (2016). Housing not handcuffs: Ending the criminalization of homelessness in U.S. cities. Washington, D.C: Author.Google Scholar
  29. Piven, F. F., & Cloward, R. A. (1971). Regulating the poor: The functions of social welfare. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  30. Platt, A. M. (1977). The child savers: The invention of delinquency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  31. Rossi, P. H. (1991). Down and out in America: The origins of homelessness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  32. Skocpol, T. (1992). Protecting mothers and soldiers: The political origins of social policy in the United States. Cambridge: Belknap Harvard.Google Scholar
  33. Snow, D. A., & Anderson, L. (1993). Down on their luck: A study of homeless street people. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  34. Soss, J., Fording, R. C., & Schram, S. (2011). Disciplining the poor: Neoliberal paternalism and the persistent power of race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  36. Tsemberis, S. (2011). Housing first: The pathways model to end homelessness for people with mental illness and addiction manual. European Journal of Homelessness, 5(2).Google Scholar
  37. Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Weber, M. (2002). The Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism and other writings. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  39. Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., & Yates, S. J. (Eds.). (2004). Discourse theory and practice. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  40. Zelizer, V. A. R. (1985). Pricing the priceless child: The changing social value of children. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California State University, SacramentoSacramentoUSA

Personalised recommendations