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DISPATCHES FROM THE STREET1
Deborah N. Kaplan
University of Washington
This study examines the personal worlds of homeless campers in Tucson,
Arizona in the late 1990s to discover how the homeless contend with new sociospatial
strategies of control. Tucson is typical of the dozens of U.S. cities that are attempting to
evict street people from urban cores that have been rediscovered as frontiers for
development and capital investment. The article draws from a yearlong ethnographic case
study of six campers to analyze their everyday talk and placemaking as interrelated
productions of meaning. The analysis shows that the campers’ meaning making was
inseparable from their material struggles to survive. They used their talk and placemaking
to construct alternative homes and workplaces, an alternative, self-affirming definition of
homelessness and the foundations of a critique against the “system” of institutions
producing poverty and inequality. Their meaning making constituted a “weapon of the
weak” which the campers deployed to wage a kind of symbolic guerrilla war against the
dominant discourse on homelessness.
Ten o’clock at night alongside the bike trail of a city park just west of downtown Tucson, Arizona. The couple Sue and Stone have bedded down for the night along with their occasional camp mate Billy, 28, a strapping six-footer who, Sue says, “has the mind of a 10 year old.” Stone listens to reruns of old radio serials on his portable radio. He is too hungry to concentrate fully on the adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto: “One meal is not enough energy to hold me from bike to bedroll.”
His wife shrugs and turns to her other side; she hears this complaint every night when
the day’s proceeds from recycling cans falls short of the $5
tab for dinner at the nearby Carl’s Jr. Billy has fallen fast asleep still clutching the toy Star Wars laser gun that he scavenged from a dumpster. Its faint florescent glow does something to allay his fear of the dark. Sounds are oddly amplified in the pitch black of the desert night: A mule brays in a neighboring farm; a wind blowing south from the Santa Catalina Mountains rustles the surrounding scrub oak. On the other side of the dry river wash, the intercoms of a medium-security prison emit blasts of static and the occasional bark of a guard announcing the minutes till lights out.
The campers had camped near the prison complex with the idea that its implacable law-
and-order presence might deter assailants from pillaging their camp or knifing them in their sleep. “I’m scared (camping), 24-7 scared,” Sue told me. “The biggest one you’ve got to watch out for is the (housed) Joe Blows that want to come down and shoot you, or roll over you with their cars.” The campers sleep with their bedrolls linked head to foot so that an attack on one of them would rouse the other two. All of them, however, are in the habit of sleeping light “because of the cops” and the frequent police sweeps of campers in the park. “They come around and tell you to move on, this is private property,” Stone told me.
They try to beat up on you, intimidate you. Tell you, ‘Next time we catch you, we’re going to kill ya.” Shit like that. Because you have to remember, we’re “homeless people.” We have no rights.
1 Published (2008) in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication
, 1(4), 269-289.
THE REDEVELOPMENT FRONTIER
The campsite scene illustrates how street life is turning into political struggle, as homeless people
daily contend with local militarized campaigns to evict them from urban cores that have been
rediscovered as frontiers for development.
Since the early 1990s, dozens of major U.S. cities have authorized police sweeps and
raids, bulldozed encampments and passed myriad antibegging and antiloitering laws in a coordinated attempt to move the homeless out of the city, into shelters or onto marginal land where they can be contained and policed (Harcourt 2001; Mitchell 1997; Smith 1993, 1996; Snow and Mulcahy 2001; Wright 1997). For many scholars, these antihomeless campaigns are part of larger efforts to engineer growth through the redevelopment of inner cities (Mitchell 1997; Smith 1996; Wright 1997). Redevelopment entails a spatial politics that seeks to “recolonize” city space in order to revitalize the profit rates of downtown real estate and create the kind of exclusive, upscale places that will attract consumer dollars and capital investment (Smith 1996, 27).
The manipulation of land and real estate markets to create such places has an important
cultural component. As sociologist Sharon Zukin (1995)
writes, cities increasingly use their physical landscapes – their buildings, parks and streets -- to visually represent the city, collaborating with private capital to develop historically or culturally unique sites into thematically packaged “sights” that are designed to market difference on a global scale. The attempt to visualize the city in its landscapes not only imposes a monopolistic vision of what the city’s cultural identity should be; it also leads to the creation of new kinds of public spaces – quasi-privatized, heavily policed emporia that are closed off to the urban poor and homeless.
The homeless pose, inadvertently, a particular set of challenges to the production of
wealthy enclaves and symbolic landscapes on the redevelopment frontier. Their occupation of city space jeopardizes fixed investments in real estate, while their visible presence on the streets conflicts with the reimagining of the city in its landscapes. Their presence is evidence of rising levels of poverty, and signals that something has gone terribly wrong with the whole project of unfettered “free market” growth through development.
In their attempts to physically remove the homeless, cities have deployed a whole set of
militaristic policing policies and revanchist discourses that has had the synergistic effect of constructing poverty as a crime problem and the homeless as transgressive outsiders. The policies and discourses are rooted in the so-called “broken windows” theory, first advanced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly
article (Duneier 1999; Harcourt 2001). The theory says that such minor disorders as littering, loitering, panhandling, graffiti writing and vandalism, if they are tolerated, signal that no one cares and invites more serious crime into the neighborhood.
Beginning with New York, under Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, cities adopted
the theory as the politically legitimizing basis for “quality of life” antihomeless laws and “zero
tolerance” crackdowns on street people. The laws and crackdowns were glossed in local political
discourse as moral crusades to “retake” the streets from the disorderly and restore civil order
(Harcourt 2001). The homeless were thus reconstituted into the deviant and dangerous
“disorderly” whose mere presence threatened civil society and warranted exterministic measures. FIGHTING BACK
This article goes “to the ground” in Tucson for a close, contextualized look at the personal
worlds of six homeless campers in an attempt to discover how the homeless respond to these
new, sociospatial forms of control. The study builds on the small cadre of ethnographic work on
the homeless that examines their adaptive strategies in dialectical relation to the spatial politics
driving redevelopment and the antihomeless campaigns.
Mitchell Duneier (1999), for example, looks at how street vendors in New York’s
Greenwich Village negotiate the local law-and-order regime to convert Sixth Avenue into a “makeshift economy” marketplace of used and scavenged goods. Gwendolyn Dordick (1997) compares four sites of shelter for the homeless in New York – a bus terminal, encampment, public shelter and church-run facility – for the ways in which the homeless exploit these environments to create social worlds, moral codes and collectivities.
Susan Ruddick (1996) examines how revitalization in Hollywood triggered a kind of
identity politics among the punk squatters who fought turf battles with powerful placemakers over the meaning and uses of city space. Talmadge Wright (1997) makes spatial politics the centerpiece of his ethnographic case studies of homeless mobilizations in Chicago and San Jose. Wright draws on Henri Lefebvre’s theory of spatiality to argue that the locus of class struggle has shifted from the factory floor to the streets, where new sociospatial strategies of control have mobilized street people around the defense of commodified city space as social space, the space of everyday life and use values.
All of these works suggest that the spatial politics has not created passive subjects and
that the homeless, despite their seemingly entrenched condition of abject subservience, do a considerable amount of fighting back to reclaim expropriated space, rights and personal dignity. These struggles only occasionally take the form of open protest; they are more often waged below the eye in the everyday tactics of survival.
Little is known, however, about the symbolic component of these battles. The studies
either focus on the rare, short-lived mobilization as evidence of “voice,” or they read homeless people’s daily survival activities as a kind of precognitive expression of personal agency. They do not fully explore the ways in which the homeless themselves, using language, symbols and scavenged cultural goods, actively produce the meanings that turn their compulsory material struggles into coherent strategies of self-affirmation or resistance. Meaning making is not only overlooked as a key process of agentization, but also as the one activity that can provide empirically observable clues as to the motivations and intentions behind homeless people’s public actions.
This article focuses on the symbolic, adapting a mode of discourse analysis developed by
cognitive anthropologists to examine the Tucson campers’ everyday talk and placemaking
practices as interrelated productions of meaning. The analysis shows that the campers used their
talk and placemaking to construct alternative homes and workplaces, an alternative, self-
affirming definition of homelessness and the foundations of a critique against the “system” of
powerful institutions producing poverty and inequality.
The analysis is based on data gathered in an ethnographic case study of the campers that lasted a
year, from September 1998 through November 1999, and combined semi-participant
observation with casual and in-depth, oral history interviewing. I went into the field once a week
on average to accompany the campers on their dumpster-diving and panhandling rounds, hang
out with them and occasionally camp overnight with them. The data I collected on these
campers was supplemented with field notes of encounters or casual interviews with 22 other
I used informal snowball sampling to select the campers identified here by the
pseudonyms Sue, Stone, Duke, Harry, Freebird and Joe. They represent the cohort of local street people who sleep outdoors either because they cannot find open shelter beds or because they eschew the heavily regulated shelter life. There are no reliable estimates of the number of
campers nationwide; they escape shelter-based surveys and Census counts and often seek invisibility as a condition of survival.
A 1998 University of Arizona survey of 1,739 local homeless, however, shows that 37
percent reported being unhoused the previous night, and that sleeping outdoors was predominant among the cohort of 598 who reported being homeless for a year or more (Snow and Shockey 1998,
tables 4 and 8). This cohort was mostly made up of unmarried white men in their early 40s. A little over a third of the cohort had high school degrees, almost half were veterans, 40 percent received government assistance and 45
percent worked in the shadow economy.
The campers in this study, one- to 15-year veterans of the street, shared some of these
demographic characteristics. They were all white men in their early 40s to late 50s with the exception of Stone, a 45-year-old African American, and his white spouse Sue, 32. Joe was married to his stepdaughter from a previous marriage, Duke was widowed, Freebird, divorced and Harry never married. Most of the campers had high school degrees; Duke and Freebird both dropped out after eighth grade. Four of the campers were Army or Marine Corps veterans, three received government assistance and all six did shadow work, some of them combining the work with part-time or day labor jobs.
Sue and Stone were key informants who paved my entry into the hidden world of
the Tucson campers. They introduced me to dozens of street people, often vouching for my trustworthiness by saying that I was a “good kid” or “trooper” with “more courage than most (housed) Joe Blows.” I evidently had earned my street credentials as a researcher willing to dig for some understanding of their world by regularly camping out with the couple and accompanying them on their dumpster-diving forays.
I first met the couple when I singled them out as masters of the social scene that
fleetingly took shape during lunch hour at a Salvation Army soup kitchen downtown.
The couple were greeted on all sides as they rolled into the crowded parking lot on
bicycles loaded with camping gear and dumpster finds. They lost no time in colonizing the place
as their temporary domicile, spreading out their gear, walking their dog around the lot, passing
around a pouch of rolling tobacco and chatting up the diners for the latest word on the street.
After I had introduced myself and the couple had carefully sized me up as we talked, they agreed
to let me tag along on one of their outings because, as Stone said. “the only way to find out what
it’s like out here is to do what we do, live like we live.” DIS COURSE ANALYSIS
To analyze my ethnographic data, I drew on an approach that reads interpersonal talk for the
metaphors, key words and other reasoning devices that are thought to provide clues to people’s
cognitive schemas (Quinn, in press). The approach is rooted in Claudia Strauss and Naomi
Quinn’s (1997) theory that interpersonal talk is a means of generating cultural meaning because it
links the public world to internalized schemas.
The authors argue that schemas are relatively stable networks of neurally linked generic
ideas, learned associations that are built up from infancy and stored in memory where they serve to organize people’s scattered perceptions and experiences. When schemas are widely shared, they become cultural models of reality – simplified, prototypical versions of the world that provide a kind of grammar of signs, symbols and beliefs for the production and reproduction of cultural meaning. The aim of analyzing interpersonal talk is to excavate these shared cultural models across cases; the protocol involves conducting a series of unstructured interviews to elicit free-flowing talk and combing the data for patterns of reasoning that suggest underlying schemas.
The talk in my data had been gathered by means of both unstructured and semi-
structured, oral history interviewing and by jotting down conversations, but it was no less
naturally occurring than if I had purposefully elicited free-flowing talk. I thus followed the
protocol to focus on talk and recurring metaphors and key words in some 500 pages of field
notes and tape-recorded interview transcripts. There was a pattern across cases of using a
particular set of key words to define as “home” or “work” survival strategies that all centered
around the appropriation of city space. Further analysis of these key words showed that they
were the building blocks for a counter discourse on homelessness, and that the discourse was
deeply intertwined with the campers’ use of space as a medium to recreate homes and
workplaces. The narrative that follows shows how the campers’ talk and placemaking interrelated
as productions of meaning that redefined homelessness.
THE LOCAL SETTING
Tucson in the late ‘90s had stepped up its policing of the homeless in conjunction with its
redevelopment efforts. Redevelopment marked a major shift in local growth strategies from
developing the desert periphery to revitalizing profit rates in an urban core that had deteriorated
with the city’s expansion (Logan 1995).
By 1996, city planners had begun working with outside developers on the first drafts of
what would become a $757 million, 10-year master plan to redevelop both the downtown corridor and a 62-acre tract of city-owned, river bottom land that had been “rediscovered” as a prime piece of virgin real estate just west of downtown (Bagwell 1996; Regan 1998, 1999). The plan, adopted by the city council in 2001, called for developing this site into a vast riverfront complex of tourist shops, restaurants, museums, plazas, a 3,000-seat outdoor amphitheater and rows of office towers and high-rise condominiums, all of it anchored by a heritage park glorifying Tucson’s Hohokam Indian origins. The “Rio Nuevo” project was expected to draw up to 3 million visitors a year and turn Tucson, as city planners wrote, into a “world-class city” (City of Tucson 2001, 31).
The year 1996 also saw the opening salvo in an antihomeless campaign, when
the city, citing “crime and sanitation problems,” bulldozed a homeless encampment of 50 or so dwellings made out of canvas, cardboard and construction site scraps (Burchell 1996, p. 1A). The encampment had stood for some 10 years on 26 acres in the heart of the Rio Nuevo riverfront property.
The city followed up the bulldozing with new laws against aggressive panhandling and
sitting or lying on public streets and other, more ingenious attempts to curtail the presence of street people. One was a proposal briefly floated by the city council to privatize sidewalks in a commercial district just north of downtown by leasing them to area businesses for $1 a year (Spitz 1 998b). Another was to effectively zone downtown “off limits” to street people who had been arrested in the area by ordering them to stay out while their cases were pending or for two years after their sentencing (Spitz 1998a).
By 1999 the city was ranked one of the nation’s top five cities with the “meanest streets”
by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (1999) in its survey of antihomeless laws and police crackdowns in 50 cities. The local homeless had few places beside the streets where they could go for shelter. The city received up to $4.5 million a year in federal Housing and Urban Development funds for homeless services, but the money funneled to short-term emergency shelters was too parsimonious to meet half the need (Barber 2001). In 1999, the city had less then 500 shelter beds for a homeless population that was estimated to number up to 3,750 (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty 1999, 5).
City officials meanwhile accounted for the persistent presence of street people by
pointing either to their inner pathologies or to transient “outsiders” who were drawn to Tucson
by its plethora of public services (Bodfield 1999; Hardy 1998). Even the city’s left-leaning
alternative weekly newspaper took up this last refrain, writing that Tucson represented a
“Homeless Disneyland” for the nation’s “chronic, traveling homeless” (Barber 2001, para. 1). THE POLITICS OF STREET LIFE
The city’s war against the homeless had driven hundreds of street people into remote or marginal
areas where they erected tent and cardboard encampments and devised new stratagems to
survive. “Survival out here,” as one camper put it, “is different than it is anywhere else, because
it doesn’t just mean finding food and water. It means fending off the law, fending off John Q.
The war had succeeded in politicizing survival, turning homeless people’s compulsory
occupation of city streets into a daily struggle against police, and an array of institutional forces, for the spaces they needed to meet such basic material needs as eating, sleeping and earning incomes in the shadow economy. The war had also served to spatialize
strategies, orienting them increasingly toward the task of taking back, in tiny, nearly imperceptible increments, what the city was expropriating on a massive scale in its effort to engineer growth through redevelopment.
For many homeless, the war had contributed to the innovation of a whole set of spatial
counter-strategies. These entailed subtly demarcating within the built environment, and within the increasingly militarized urban terrain, the spaces that were “theirs,” that were deployed toward meeting their daily needs and were defined in terms of their use values. The strategies centered on staking out camp sites, meeting places, informal marketplaces, routes for diving into dumpsters and scavenging the streets for recyclable cans, spaces for panhandling, cleaning windshields and hawking newspapers.
To get a sense of the many ways street people covertly appropriated city space, one need
only look at “Toolie,” a heavily trafficked soup kitchen housed in a former warehouse on Toole Avenue downtown.
During the period of my fieldwork, the city leased the building and contracted with the
Salvation Army to run the facility. In its attempt to limit the number of homeless coming downtown for services, the city had ordered the charity to institute new rules, such as requiring people to produce identification before they could receive their boxed lunches of bologna sandwiches and potato chips.
The Salvation Army deployed personnel everywhere inside to check IDs, keep the chow
lines in order and monitor the people eating inside. The exterior parking lot and loading docks, however, belonged to the homeless. They used the area to buy, sell and trade recyclables salvaged from the dumpsters, connect with drug suppliers, exchange street news, retool their secondhand bicycles, restock their water supplies, feed their dogs and generally conduct the “business” of survival with nearly the pace of Wall Street traders.
After operating hours, the daytime marketplace was converted into a nighttime
encampment. A dozen or so street people would line their bedrolls along the loading docks, beneath the “No Trespassing” signs, where they would sleep till the facility reopened at 7 o’clock the next morning.
The example also helps to show how the homeless, in adapting city spaces to their
everyday needs, also redefined the spaces to create meanings that were unique to local street life. Whether they intended to or not, they made the spaces “speak” in their vernacular and in ways that tended to upset conventional ideas about the proper uses and meanings of city space. Their definitions of urban space certainly ran counter to the city’s
definition and conflicted, moreover,
with the exchange value ethic driving redevelopment. PLACEMAKING
For the group of campers I studied, the scramble for city space, while it was compulsory,
desperate, fraught with physical hardships and danger, was never purely strategic nor solely about
“getting by.” It was also a cultural
project of making places, creating alternative homes and
workplaces. These places had real utility as hidden refuges in which the campers could live with a
modicum of privacy and pursue their daily activities outside the range of law enforcement’s
panoptic eye. They had emotional value as self-created habitats and the key coordinates of
meaningful personal worlds. They had symbolic value as so many assertions that the campers
could self-sufficiently recreate what they were materially denied.
The campers attached all of these meanings to their places even though the places they
created were so tenuously situated on the urban terrain they could often appear to be more phantasmal than real.
Their homes could be elaborate bricolages of canvas, cardboard, scavenged construction
site scraps and dumpster discards; they could be tents that needed to be dismantled every
morning to hide the illegal camping sites from police; they could be a hole dug into the ground, a
junked refrigerator or a bedroll laid out on some patch of the wide open desert. “If you have a
tent and it’s all you have,” as one of the campers told me, ‘then that’s your home.” Their work
places ranged from more or less stationary sites on traffic medians or the shoulders of freeway
off ramps to the “routes” that some of the campers traveled on secondhand bikes to scavenge
for recyclable cans and “saleable” discards. CREATING WORKPLACES
Harry was a former short-order cook from Syracuse, New York who worked a day-labor job
selling daily newspapers from the traffic medians on Speedway, a major thoroughfare skirting
downtown. Billy cleaned the windshields of motorists at a Texaco
gas station near the Santa Cruz city bike trail. Duke, a former trucker from Nabasota, Texas,
panhandled on an Interstate 10 off ramp with a sign that read, “Do you have it in your heart to
help an old fart like me?” Freebird, a laid-off construction worker from Akron, Ohio, had
commandeered the garage of the charity-run thrift store where he worked part time to set up a
workshop for repairing and customizing the bikes of other street people. He scoured the alleys
of residential neighborhoods to get the bike parts he needed. “I’m an alley person,” he told me
with some pride. “The alleys are where you see things and find things.”
Sue and Stone were a couple from Reading, Pennsylvania who had tried nearly every
tactic in the book on street survival in 15 years of tramping around the Southwest and up along the northern Pacific Coast. Sue had turned tricks and panhandled; Stone, after serving two tours of duty in Vietnam, had worked steel mill jobs, day-labor jobs and black-market jobs selling crystal methamphetamine.
When they moved to Tucson from Albuquerque, New Mexico four years ago, the
couple took up dumpster diving as a way to make a living. They worked a dozen or so routes, each of which took them from dumpster to dumpster along a spider web of bike alleys stretching five to 10 miles across the city. The couple had mapped out the routes in their heads; they had also named and ranked the routes according to their level of difficulty and what each “paid” on average in pounds of recyclable cans and in cash once the cans were redeemed at the Honeybee Recycling Center on the north end of town.
Working the “Fourth Street route” meant dodging the squads of police patrolling the
Fourth Street shopping district just north of downtown, but the dumpsters sometimes contained
“bonuses” in the form of unopened beer cans and bags of marijuana. The “motel route” could pay up to $20 in refunds; the maids at some of the motels even collected empties to give to the couple when they made their stops. But the dumpsters outside the more run-down budget motels often contained the needles of heroin users. One swipe from a contaminated “rig” as you were ripping through bags of garbage inside a dumpster could give you a hefty dose of hepatitis or HIV/AIDS. As Sue explained the hazards of dumpster diving:
You never know what you’re going to find until you dig in there and look. The
dumpsters can have megabucks of cans in them (along with) drug shit and dirty needles.
You’d be surprised what you find in dumpsters. We found a dead baby once (in a
dumpster) in Santa Monica. That kind of,
like, really fucked my head up.When I dig in
those dumpsters, I expect to find anything.
Expect the worst, hope for the best.
For most of the campers, finding places to live was itself an ongoing job of scouting out-of-the-
way locations, scavenging building materials and constructing makeshift homes. Even their more
durable homes were destined to be demolished sooner or later when police came around to
order campers out of the area or when city bulldozers and front loaders unceremoniously
flattened entire encampments.
Stone and Sue lost a home, along with their cat Little Bear, when the city bulldozed an
encampment they shared with 20 or so people in the overgrowth behind Fry’s grocery Store on
the south side. “They said they’d give us a month to move,” Stone told me, “and instead they
swept down and bulldozed the entire camp the next day. We went back to get Little Bear and it
was too late. Found little
pieces of her on the bed, still lying on the bed. Sons of bitches. They’re
supposed to be peace keepers, not cat killers.”
One camper I encountered on the Santa Cruz bike trial had rebuilt his home three times
in the wake of police raids that had also landed him in jail each time on trespassing charges. “Once I get out of jail I’m right back out here,” he explained, “because there’s really no other place to go and no matter where I go out here, I’ll be trespassing.” He had lashed three Coleman tents together to make a “three-bedroom house” with an outdoor kitchen and fireplace. He had furnished the place with dumpster finds and the chairs, carpet scraps and other junk dumped along the Santa Cruz River. “It isn’t ideal,” he said of his house. “I’m still looking for the materials to make it what it’s supposed to be. There’s no law saying you need to make money to get what you need and make you a home.”
The campers put a good amount of sweat equity into their homes when they built them
as part of so-called “permanent” encampments. Harry had scavenged all of the materials that he used to make what he regarded as a secure, well camouflaged “geodesic dome” on a utility right of way off the Santa Cruz bike trail. He had strapped together the overhanging boughs of a cottonwood tree to create a dome-shaped roof, draped plastic sheets over the boughs, laced the sheets to blankets and pegged the blankets to the ground. “String holds the whole thing together,” Harry said of his handiwork.
He had hauled milk crates and concrete blocks on his bike from a construction site
across town to make interior shelves and an outdoor fireplace. He even scavenged the fuel for his fireplace, daily foraging for mule dung chips on the grounds of a neighboring farm. The army-navy surplus hammock strung across the interior of his home was the only “store bought” item in his household. It was, Harry said, “the best $10 I ever spent.”
Sue and Stone created a virtual homestead when they moved with campmate Duke to
some undeveloped desert land near the wildcat Littletown subdivision off Interstate 10. They
cleared the ground of rocks and dug trenches to drain the rainwater that flooded the baked ground during the summer monsoons. They erected three tents, hauled in junked futons and other furnishings, and hacked down the branches of the surrounding ironwood trees to build a fence around the compound. They built a fireplace out of concrete blocks and created a “convection heater” by slicing off the ends of a big steal drum. They used charred wood from the fireplace to hand letter the sign that graced the entrance to their compound. The sign read, “Home sweet home.”
Their neighbor Joe had a differently configured home whose construction involved no
less labor nor ingenuity. The main part of his house was a postwar model mobile home that had been gutted of its plumbing and electrical fixtures and dumped in the desert. Joe had commandeered the thing and built a fenced compound around it. He had furnished the home with mattresses and set up water tanks with hoses so his family could bathe in the interior shower stall. They hauled the water by foot at a rate of 20 to 30 gallons a day from the Triple T truck stop about an eighth of a mile away.
Joe had created an exterior “living room” with a central brick “stove,” a couch and a
couple of sofa chairs. Propane lanterns provided lighting at night and extra burners for heating coffee and the like. Joe had scavenged, filched or hustled to get almost everything in his household but the living-room furniture. That had been donated by a housed resident after the resident had read, in a local newspaper article about the dozens of “squatters” camping in the area, that Joe was a fellow ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran.
Joe had grown up in Tucson, dropped out of high school to enlist in the Marines,
worked a number of manual jobs in far flung cities from Toledo to Seattle, lost his first wife to cancer and lost three of his four children to Child Protective Services. He had just moved back to Tucson from up north in Washington with his teenaged son Danny and his third wife Rose, who is his stepdaughter from his second marriage, when police kicked the family out of their camp, arrested Joe for trespassing and impounded his car. When he got out of jail, Joe moved his family to the present site behind the Triple T truck stop where, as far as he was concerned, they lived “like kings compared to the rest of the campers out here.”
They shared the compound with Frank, a camper in his 60s who was left stranded
without a place to sleep or possessions of any kind when he wrecked his pickup truck in a freeway accident. As Frank recounted the events that led him to the streets:
I had a pickup, but I had a wreck. And I was on the streets. And I spent three days in the hospital and I got bus fare down to El Centro (in Southern California). Thought I’d find some work. Couldn’t do it. So, J slept inside of a garbage sack to keep warm.
At a truck stop on an embankment. Made one sign, “Will work for food.”. . . Because I was hungry. I was hungry.
Frank slept in a junked Ford parked off to one side of Joe’s compound. He had
purchased the car for $100, with money he had made panhandling on a nearby freeway off ramp. “He bought that car,” as Joe explained, “and put himself in a home.
So that’s his home. You know, it may not look like much to you, but to him, that’s his home. It’s a solid shell. He can sleep in there. His dog sleeps in there. He has stuff, belongings, that he can leave in there. And it doesn’t leak.
For all of the campers, constructing places was also a symbolic practice of reinventing the uses
and meanings of city land and junked consumer goods. In recycling these things, reassembling them, deploying them in new and unorthodox ways, the campers changed their meanings as cultural signs and symbols. Public land and business properties were converted into quasi-privatized domestic domains; junked refrigerators, cars, mobile homes and cardboard boxes were turned into dwellings; scavenged camping gear, Army-Navy surplus goods, construction site scraps and the like were turned into household furnishings.
These makeshift methods of construction paralleled the methods that the campers used
to construct the meaning
of their places. The symbolic work of making meaning, of defining their
places and their daily survival activities, engrossed the campers at least as much as the work involved in physically making places, finding spaces or meeting other material needs. Indeed, defining things to make their world personally meaningful sometimes seemed to come first in their hierarchy of needs.
One of the most basic linguistic strategies that the campers deployed was appropriation.
The campers appropriated the words ‘home” and “work” and a set of related terms from their conventional contexts and applied them to new, street-world contexts in ways that subtly subverted their dominant meanings.
In applying the word “home,” for example, to desert compounds, tents, a junked car, a
geodesic-domed contraption or whatever they were able to assemble, the campers were implicitly saying that home was where you made it. They also explicitly defined home as something that could be created however one could, in whatever space one happened to occupy. As one camper suggested, a home need not have any materiality:
“See, I don’t consider myself homeless, because the whole world’s my home. I’m not
stranded, because the world’s my home.”
In deploying these terms, the campers redefined them to counter dominant definitions
of home, workplace and work and to confound the classifications separating them from the rest of society. They were acutely aware that they did so. Recall how the camper who was evicted three times from his camp on the Santa Cruz bike trail asserted that money was not a prerequisite for having a home, and how Joe asserted that a junked car was a home regardless of how it “looked” to outsiders.
That the campers were intentionally redefining the meaning of home was made clear to
me during a casual conversation with Sue and Billy at their camp on the Santa Cruz bike trail. The pair had seized on my passing reference to the “homeless” (a word the campers also used on occasion) to instruct me on what my use of the term erroneously took for granted:
Sue: Oh yeah, I forgot to say something about that. A lot of people don’t like to be
called “homeless,” because homeless means you don’t have a home. (She swept her hands around the circle of bedrolls, blankets and bikes.) We have a home here. We just don’t have a house.
“Home” and “work” were key words in a lexicon of terms that the campers used in their
everyday talk to designate their places as homes and workplaces and their daily survival activities as work. They defined some of the main components of their homes thus: outdoor camping areas were “living rooms” and “kitchens;” tents were “bedrooms;” bushes were “bathrooms;” tent flaps were “doors;” fire pits were “fireplaces,” “stoves” or “ovens,” coolers were “refrigerators” and milk crates were “shelves.”
They defined as workplaces the spots where they panhandled or hawked newspapers and
the routes that they traveled to scavenge for recyclable cans and other discards. Pursuing any one of these survival strategies entailed the use of a set of terms that served to designate what they did as work. When they went dumpster diving, for example, the campers described their runs as following a “schedule.” The people they routinely encountered on their runs were “contacts” or “connections.” Finding trash that could be sold or traded was “scoring” and the trashed goods were “saleables.” The days on which they rested up in the seclusion of their camps were “days off,” “breaks” or “vacations.”
The campers explicitly defined all of their survival strategies as “work” and the pursuit of
any one of them as earning a living. Survival itself, as Stone told me, “is a constant, 24-hour,
The use of such commonplace words may not look like an act of appropriation, but as Mikhail
Bakhtin (1981) argues, all discourse involves seizing words out of other people’s mouths and
other people’s contexts and transforming their meanings to make them comply with one’s own
intentions. “Language is not a neutral medium,” he writes, “that passes freely and easily into the
private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions
of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult
and complicated process” (p. 294).
For the campers, the process entailed struggle against a formidable set of political and
news discourses that stigmatized the homeless as worthless, deviant and out of place. Their appropriation of words to denote that they had homes, workplaces and jobs, and their attempts to redefine these things in the face of such powerful negations of their lives and personal worlds, were all contentious activities. These linguistic moves signaled a refusal to bow to their stigmatization or to accept their positioning as worthless bums and outcasts. They were parts of a dialogue in which the campers “talked back” to the powerful on a day-to-day basis, deploying their definitions to transform the stigma of homelessness into an affirmation of their self-sufficiency as survivors.
Their way of talking back had various features which clearly distinguished it as a
combative dialogue with a wider public. The focus of the talk was on “other people’s” words and the way housed people talked about the homeless. The pronoun “they” figured prominently, usually referred to all of housed society, and signaled that their talk was pitched at the level of public discourse. The campers would often reenact the public discourse by conversationally playing the part of housed people, mimicking their tone of voice, facial expressions and even posture. These performances served both to symbolically conjure up housed people as interlocutors and to bring them to the ground for a direct, one-to-one exchange.
The campers would then almost invariably pick apart the words of their phantom
interlocutors to show how grievously the public as a whole had missed the point, the real meaning of their guerrilla warfare to survive. The campers thereby “deconstructed,” in minute, conversational exchanges, the Goliathan public discourse on homelessness, redefining “homelessness” to mean self-sufficiency, know-how and daring-do in the face of staggering levels of deprivation and political repression.
As a quasi-participant observer, I dropped in on dozens of conversations among the
campers in which some aspect of “talking back” was evident. One conversation in particular helps to illustrate almost all of the features of this line of discourse. I was visiting Sue, Stone and Duke at their camp on the Santa Cruz city bike trail when neighboring campers Josh and Tracy, a
couple in their 20s, stopped by after spending a dispiriting day panhandling on the medians along Speedway. The pickings had been slim and the passing motorists, especially abusive. Their complaints stirred the usually close-mouthed Duke to say:
These people, living in their houses, running us down ‘cause we’re sleeping out here. What they don’t realize is, they’re one paycheck away from where we are. I asked Duke: How do they run you down? Duke: They shout out at us, “Get a job, get off the streets.” Tracy: They’ll try to run you over. If you have a dog with you, they’ll tell you, “Eat your
Stone: What I don’t understand is, why do you run me down and you don’t even know
me. You don’t know my name. You don’t know anything about me.
Tracy: I’ll be honest, I cannot wait
for the day when someone that has told me
(shouting), “Get a fucking job!” comes to me and says, (whining) “How do I live out here?” (She snorts.) I’ll tell him, “You done slipped and bumped your head if you think I’m
going to help you. You
get a job.”
have a “job.” We are
The conversation begins with Duke defining the housed to negate the difference
between them and street people. A paycheck is all that separates the people who stigmatize from those they stigmatize as worthless bums. Stone enters the conversation to turn it into a dialogue with imaginary interlocutors. The pronoun “they” becomes “you” as Stone directly addresses his interlocutors to argue against their negation of him as the nameless Other.
The way in which Tracy seamlessly takes up the combative dialogue suggests how often
the campers must have rehearsed this “talking back” discourse in the seclusion of their camps. Tracy not only enacts a dialogue with a personified male “someone,” but also scripts a whole implicit scenario in which she gets to talk back directly to her tormentor on that red-letter day when he is reduced to circumstances like hers.
Sue delivers the coup de grace of the whole dialogical argument by countering the slur, “Get
a job,” with her redefinition of working. Like all of the words that the campers appropriate, the
words “job” and “working” are deployed here as homonyms. Much as
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1989) described the use of Black homonyms like “signifyin(g)” in a
vernacular trope of talking back, the campers used words that were identical in sound and
spelling to their counterparts in the housed world to signify different, even opposite, things in a
parallel discursive world. Working, as Sue defines it, is street “survival” – that is, making do with
nothing, producing the things one needs to survive without
jobs in the formal economy or regular
paychecks. THE MEANING OF SURVIVAL
“Talking back” describes a common and dramatic method that the campers used to develop a
counter discourse on homelessness. The gist of their struggle against dominant constructions of
homelessness, however, was laid out even more fully in the recurrent themes of their everyday
discourse. One of the two most prevalent themes was the meaning of survival. This was
explicitly defined as “work,” but it was implicitly conceptualized in much more complicated
terms as a measure of personal worth in which almost all of the conventional, middle-class
standards of success were inverted.
The campers rejected the set of market-driven values that held that having jobs, money,
possessions, titles or credentials were signs of social status or attainment. These things were regarded as hollow tokens that said nothing about one’s ability to make it on the streets, where nothing stood between the self and starvation. During a chat at his camp on the Santa Cruz bike trail, Stone put the matter succinctly:
That George Washington (on a dollar bill) is not a god. It’s only a tool to get what you need. But now, when you stop off into that dark forest, the only thing that matters is endurance, survival …. A survivor is somebody who can make it no matter what, somebody who is willing to get down and gritty. See, this here is not Gloryville, Hollywood, or walking down the boardwalk on Sunset Strip. That ain’t what this is about. This is a (whole way of) life out here. To us, it’s a life. It’s about the art of survival.
The true mark of success for
the campers was having that combination of know-how,
ingenuity, independent mindedness and guts that would enable one to practice the art or “play the game” of street survival without money or any of the social props that sustained housed people, and without succumbing to the regime of “helping” service industries that reduced people to dependent “bums” or overmedicated zombies doing the “thorazine shuffle.” Survival, as Sue defined it, meant first and foremost not “sinking down into the system” of homeless service provision. “Like me and (Stone), we’ll go out canning, scavenging, anything it takes to survive, but you won’t see us on the breadlines very often.”
Their conception of a survivor was like a revisioning of the Cooperian frontier myth of
the white hunter, the solitary Leatherstocking who fronts the savage wilderness armed only with his musket, his wits and a self-devised, personal code of honor. The campers did have a set of personal codes they followed, more or less, depending on what the day brought in the way of complicating hardships, in the belief that adherence to the codes established one’s credentials as a survivor.
A survivor, as Duke explained, repays in kind when anyone does him a favor or shares a
scarce commodity like food or pouch tobacco. A survivor may on occasion panhandle the rich but he never bums things off fellow street people. He does not snitch on his fellows to “the people who are in charge of things,” the people who run the soup kitchens, shelters and social service agencies. He steers clear of all governmental institutions, goes his own way, and “does things for himself, without asking anybody for a damn thing.”
In attempting to carve out a positive identity for themselves as rugged
individualists, the campers ended up drawing new lines of exclusion. What ethnographers David A. Snow and Leon Anderson (1993) describe as a historical distinction in street culture between migratory, seasonally employed “tramps” and stationary, skid row “bums” was reformulated here as a distinction between people who made a go of it on their own and people who depended on homeless services for their day-to-day survival. During a confab at their desert compound, Stone, Sue and Duke all joined in to instruct me on the difference between these two categories:
Stone: There’s two types of homeless people out here. There are your tramps. They
move about from time to time, from place to place, and take what they need and go about their business, but they don’t really want to get involved with the scene or the structure of the system. Okay? And then there’s your bums. They’re the ones who don’t give a shit. A bum, he’ll run from soup line to soup line and never
do anything for himself. He’s got a bad case of the “give-mes.” What he don’t know is that “give-me” died--.
In other words, you can’t get something for nothing out here. Bums will go to Toolie, Holy Family, Seventh Day Adventist Church, anyplace where there’s free food, but you’ll never see them in a dumpster.
Duke: The ones that stay in shelters, we call them “shelter bums.” See, the ones that stay
in shelters, they’re afraid to sleep out like we do, because they know they can’t make it out here.
While the bum category was part of a time-honored street taxonomy, one can see from
this exchange that the campers deployed the category primarily to differentiate themselves from a popular stereotype of the homeless. They projected onto the figure
of the “bum” all of the negative characteristics that public discourse attributed to the homeless. They also illustrated, by way of contrast with the stereotype, all of the positive characteristics that constituted a self-sufficient survivor.
Their self-identification as survivors, their allegiance to a set of codes, and indeed their
entire conception of survival as a way of life, cannot be dismissed as purely symbolic, face-saving “talk.” The fact is that these concepts and codes powerfully influenced the campers’ day-to-day actions and adaptive strategies. They guided the campers’ decision to undertake the high-risk and arduous task of recreating homes and workplaces.
Their placemaking, on the other side of the coin, cannot be viewed as purely
materialistic. A good deal of symbolic work was involved in turning scavenged trash into the signs and symbols of personal agency and an autonomous way of life. The campers’ survival strategies were inextricably bound up with strategies to make meaning and to counter dominant definitions of themselves and their condition. In redefming their condition as a separate way of life with its own codes and values, the campers also made a statement against a whole regime of subordinating discourse and practice. As Freebird put it:
People like (Stone), (Duke) and myself, see, we don’t depend on the system to take care of us. We know better. It’s the system that keeps the homeless down. When I finally woke up and realized what time it was, I said, “Fuck it, I’m through with it.” No food stamps, nothing. I’m free.
“IT’S THE SYSTEM”
The other recurring theme in the campers’ discourse was a critique of what they uniformly called
“the system.” The system, as Stone defined it, denoted all of the forces working to subordinate
the homeless: “It’s the cops, the government organizations that want to shove one foot up your
ass. It’s the (housed) Joe Blows who don’t know you, who don’t want to see you, or who want to
come up with a gun and blow you away.”
The campers regarded as part of the system the shelters, soup kitchens, drug counseling
centers and other places that were purportedly in the business of helping the homeless. Indeed, these places were seen as the street incarnations of power, as institutions that directly intervened in their lives to regulate in the guise of helping. As Joe said of the shelters:
You go to a shelter, you’ve got to sign in. You’ve got to have ID. They run (the ID). Supposing you’ve got a warrant for a fine you didn’t pay? They’ll hand you right over (to the police). They think they’re doing you a favor: “Yea, you’re going to jail. You’ll get three hots and a cot.” People don’t go to the shelters because the shelters are part of the
system. They’re all tied in through the police department. This is a police state we live in.
“Critique” is the right word to describe how the campers talked about the system,
because their talk was primarily oriented toward identifying the social causes of their predicament. All of the campers rejected individualistic explanations that obscured the role of powerful institutions to displace the blame for deepening poverty onto the homeless. They saw that the “system” produced homelessness, and that it reinforced its own power by keeping the homeless in their subordinated position. This was evident in the way Freebird, for example, reacted when I told him that I was on the streets to do research on the homeless. He looked to the ground and shook his head:
See, sissy, you got the wrong concept. What we’re dealing with is a system
that controls the wages, that has created the homeless. The system places people on the streets. They wipe out jobs and displace people and they want to keep things this way. They’ve destroyed generations of people, and millions more will be out here. It’s not the homeless that’s the problem. They’re using them as a scapegoat. It’s the system.
Most of the campers were also aware that they were subordinated in part by their
stigmatization in public discourse, though they would never call it a “discourse.” They recognized the discourse in the concrete shapes it took on the streets, and analyzed it and refuted it as a form of interpersonal talk promulgated by cops, preachers, social service workers, housed “Joe Blows” and motorists shouting slurs as they passed. Joe used the trope of “talking back” to describe the discourse thus:
Society shits on us daily. “Homeless, go home.” This, from a goddamned snowbird from New York. What do you mean, “go home”? I am
home. I’ve been here (in Tucson) all my life. Fuck you. Go home to New York yourself. They yell that all the time. They yell all kinds of crap: “crack head,” “trash,” “get ajob.” You know, give
me one. I don’t see you hiring me. The homeless take a badgering from society, because society doesn’t want to acknowledge them. If society acknowledges them, then they’ve got to do
something about it.
The example shows how in talking back to spectral housed figures, the campers also frequently addressed a wider discourse on homelessness, and that they recognized the discourse as a form of power. For Joe, the discourse was a “badgering
from society.” For Stone, it was the talk of housed “Joe Blows” that served to constitute the homeless as deviant or dangerous Others:
They harass us because we’re eyesores. We’re not human beings. We’re not considered products of society because we don’t have a nine-to-five job, we don’t wear a suit, or we don’t wear clean clothes every fucking day. We don’t have a set program, we don’t have a set address, we don’t have a set life. That to them is being uncivilized. Outside the norm. Outside the realm. The campers’ critique of the system was not only a theme in a counter-discourse on
homelessness, but also the beginnings of a counter-ideology. Their critique provided the rationale for creating alternative homes and workplaces and fashioning a separate way of life. It also helped to transform their compulsory struggle to survive into a purposeful, political struggle
for autonomy against an enemy they could name and a power they could see behind the
obfuscations of the dominant discourse on homelessness. CONCLUSION
This study found that the campers contended against new sociospatial forms of control in a
fiercely fought symbolic struggle that was inseparable from their material struggle to survive.
Their everyday talk and placemaking practices were oriented at least as much toward making
meaning as making do on the streets; their production of meaning was almost entirely oriented
toward redefining homelessness.
The campers defined their condition to self-affirmingly assert that they lived a whole,
autonomous way of life, that they had the right and the will to recreate personal worlds that had been demolished, and that they refused their positioning as worthless outcasts. The campers constructed these oppositional definitions of homelessness by means of two interrelated productions of meaning: They covertly seized city space to recreate homes and workplaces in a cultural project of place making. They appropriated the words “home,” “work” and a cluster of related terms from their conventional contexts to construct the meaning of their places as public signs of self-sufficiency, agency and autonomy.
Their appropriation of these words suffused them with new meanings that subverted
dominant definitions of home and work; the appropriations, in turn, provided the basis for the construction of a counter-discourse in which the campers “talked back” to the powerful to reverse the negation of their identities and personal worlds. The recurrent themes of their counter-discourse were survival and the system. The campers defined survival as a whole way of life, a cultural practice governed by a separate set of values and beliefs.
They defined the system as a mode of governance oriented toward policing and
punishing the homeless. They talked about the system in terms of the forms it took on the streets, but they also recognized the police sweeps, the “helping” services and the condemnations by housed citizens as forms of pervasive structural power. They thus rejected individualistic explanations of their plight to blame the system for producing homelessness, stigmatizing its victims and depriving them of their human rights to homes and livelihoods. Their critique of the system showed that the campers were able to penetrate the mystifications of dominant discourse; they saw the social problem of homelessness for what it was, and clearly understood the injustice of their condition.
These findings argue for the pivotal role that discourse plays in formulating resistance in
the everyday and in the midst of what looks like pervasive political disempowerment. “Discourse” is broadly conceptualized here as both language in use and everyday symbolic practice. Among the campers, it constituted their only real means to resist in the face of a revanchist political regime. Their everyday talk and placemaking together functioned as a powerful “weapon of the weak,” which the campers deployed to disarticulate dominant definitions of homelessness, to reassemble their meanings, and to construct a contesting version of reality (Scott 1985).
Their construction of reality was not likely to enter the public record, or to directly
intersect with dominant discourses. But it is nonetheless important as evidence of how
disempowered people build a collective sense of political agency, how they create autonomous
spheres of action and how they challenge dominant ways of seeing things. It suggests where, or
in what obscure nook of repression, resistance begins. Acknowledgements
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