Dissertation Abstracts

Justice, Charity, and Poverty Tourism: Race, Religion, Class, and Volunteerism among Grassroots Homeless Service Organizations in St. Louis

Author: Matthew Jerome Schneider, mjschne2@illinois.edu
Department: Sociology
University: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States
Supervisor: Monica McDermott
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Race , Homelessness , Urban Sociology , Social Inequality
Areas of Research: Racism, Nationalism and Ethnic Relations , Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy , Social Classes and Social Movements


Like many other contemporary cities, St. Louis, Missouri has struggled to cope with a large homeless population. According to the annual point in time count, 1,798 people were experiencing homelessness in St. Louis City and St. Louis County on a single night in January 2017, 77% of whom were black. With city and county governments failing to provide adequate human services and shelter in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, dozens of grassroots homeless service groups have taken to “the streets” in an effort to combat the problem. These groups, comprised of well-intended, mostly white, and otherwise privileged members, are increasingly important subjects of analysis. If racial demographics continue to change at current pace, less than half the U.S. population will identify as white by mid-century. With this transition to a “majority-minority” country underway, it is necessary that researchers examine the ways in which whites encounter, regard and interact with people of color in predominantly nonwhite spaces. In turn, this research project examines predominantly white grassroots organizations providing services to a predominantly black population. Doing so highlights how the power and privilege associated with whiteness are maintained in nonwhite contexts, even if inadvertently. This dissertation makes three interlocking arguments. First, I argue that volunteering should be seen as a practice of meaning making. Although race and racial conceptualization is the product of a long and ongoing social process, participants of this study showed that their understandings of race, urban space, and poverty were up for negotiation. Based on their service experiences with a poor and predominantly black service population, as well as their conversations with other volunteers, their ideas about race and its relationship to poverty and/or urban space were reinforced and modified. Second, I argue that even color-conscious volunteers, many of whom spoke about structural inequality and systemic racism without prompting, struggled to see how their race was important in daily life. When asked how their race might inform their interactions with African-Americans experiencing homelessness, white, color-conscious volunteers were usually quick to admit that it must, but were also unable to say exactly how or provide examples. Inability to speak about interracial interactions despite much practice with it highlights the pervasive power and privilege embedded in the taken-for-granted nature of whiteness. Despite displaying strong knowledge of structural racism and/or antiracism literatures, their whiteness remained invisible to them. Third, I argue that the privileges and power associated with their statuses shape perception about, access to, and interaction in nonwhite urban space. Again, volunteer understandings of homelessness were intimately intertwined with notions of blackness and urban space. And while the slum/poverty tourism literature more frequently problematizes international tourism and volunteering, I repeatedly observed volunteers profess interest in “urban decay” and take photos with such frequency that one volunteer jokingly asked “do you ever feel like a Japanese tourist?” In these moments, volunteers sought to explore their home city in a way few others of their class status would, and in the process, emphasized the difference between themselves and those “on the street.”