Dissertation Abstracts

Captain of the Ship, Not Master of the Sea: The Social Organization of Service Delivery to Sheltered Homeless Families

Author: Tézli, Annette , atezli@ucalgary.ca
Department: Sociology
University: University of Calgary, Canada
Supervisor: Dr. Liza McCoy
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: homelessness , family homelessness , homeless shelter , service delivery
Areas of Research: Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy , Professional Groups , Family Research


Despite decades of research, homelessness remains a paradoxical feature of even the most affluent societies, including Canada. Since the early 1980s, there has been a renewed academic and policy interest in homelessness. Existing research is predominantly quantitative in nature and focuses on the identification of individual-level factors contributing to homelessness. A growing body of research focuses on the ways in which institutional environments produce “the homeless” as knowable subjects and shape their day-to-day experiences. My dissertation explores ethnographically the social organization of service provision to homeless families at the Guest House, a Calgary family shelter. I conducted in-depth interviews with shelter guests and staff, engaged in participant observation, and analyzed various documents, such as institutional records, policy documents, and news reports.
My discussion begins with an account of individual experiences of becoming homeless and shelter life, which is based on nine in-depth interviews with shelter guests. My attention then shifts to the social practices that shaped these experiences. To understand the context in which services to homeless families are provided at the Guest House, I examine the processes that shaped the institutional foundation of the Guest House. My discussion continues with an examination of the complex, socially organized processes, such as policy mandates, funding stipulation and structures of accountability, that shape day-to-day practices of shelter staff and administrators. This discussion is based on data I generated through extensive participation in those shelter practices as a volunteer and frontline staff member.
Using the example of shelter-admission decisions, I show how homeless families are transformed into shelter residents. While staff members have the discretion to admit or reject shelter-seeking families, their decisions are shaped by realities that are beyond the control of individual actors, such as economic conditions, the real estate market organizational stipulations, funding provisions, and political mandates imposed by Calgary’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. My discussion demonstrates that institutional practices do not originate exclusively within the institution itself, but are organized by principles located outside the organization. In other words, shelter staff might be the captain of their ship, but they are not the master of the sea.

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