Spaces of care and spaces of insecurity: homelessness and precarity at a north London night shelter and beyond
– Ruth Ellenby

“I’m feeling like a bit of a regular now – the briefing – great news that Rodney (1) has been given accommodation by the council! – sad not to see him though.” – 03/03/17.

“Saira lying in bed with her eyes open. I went over and she told me she was scared and tired, and worried about Sunday night, [when it wasn’t certain there would be a bed for her]. She asked if I lived with my mum, I said yes and felt terrible, she looked really sad.” – 10/03/17.

The above notes are from a field diary completed following volunteering sessions at a homeless shelter run by a Christian charity in North London (hereafter referred to as the North London shelter). Homelessness is often considered an exceptional circumstance. Homeless people are situated on the margins of urban life and, due to being homeless, engage in alternative uses of public space. Yet homelessness is an increasingly common and permanent fixture of urban space. In order to respond to this ubiquity, this research has considered both the North London shelter itself and guests’ wider lives by addressing two main research questions:

  • To what extent and in what ways the night shelter creates a space of care.
  • To what extent and in what ways guests are able to manage their precarity in public space.

This article consists of a presentation and discussion of initial findings following five volunteering sessions or a total 20 hours of fieldwork. Research has been conducted through observations of the shelter environment and conversations with guests, fellow volunteers and staff (2).

The research has shown that the North London shelter is an ambiguous space, not entirely one of care as may be presented by charitable organisations but also not entirely one of fear, a possibility warned of by Johnsen et al. (2005). The shelter may instead be conceptualised as a ‘space of rules’ in which care is provided on the condition that certain requirements are met. This article explores the behaviours, interactions and rules that serve to define the shelter in this way. Research on the lives of guests beyond the space of the shelter is based upon conversations with guests while at the shelter. These discussions have revealed significant levels of agency and numerous tactics used by guests to sustain themselves outside of the shelter. This article discusses this agency and situates it within literature on revanchist cities (cf. Smith 1996). By investigating and comparing the two spaces: that of the shelter and that beyond this article offers an insight into the lives of homeless people in contemporary London.

The North London shelter operates between January and March. It is held in the church halls of several churches on a rotational basis (3). The people who stay – referred to as “guests” – receive an evening meal, a bed for the night and breakfast. The number of guests is strictly limited to 15; all are referred to the charity by other organisations and are being supported to find permanent accommodation. The aim is for guests to stay no more than 28 days and to then move on to another shelter or, preferably, a more permanent form of accommodation.

Methodology: observing participation

Research for this article has been conducted in the role of a volunteer at the North London shelter: a methodology of ‘participant comprehension’ (Mikkelsen 1995). The volunteer role involves cleaning, making up beds, laying the table, and eating and socialising with guests. I fulfilled this role completely meaning all observation was conducted while volunteering and interacting with guests, staff and fellow volunteers. As a result discussions were uniformly informal and unstructured. In order to avoid disturbing my work or the shelter environment all note taking was done outside of volunteering sessions. I noted a detailed description of my activities that evening, events I had witnessed and observations I had made as well as reflections on the evening immediately following each volunteering session in the form of a field diary.

My role has provided me with access to a group of homeless people within a specific context and volunteering enables me to rationalise the research through “giving something back”. My positionality as a volunteer, however, impacts on this study: I am part of shaping the environment I am researching, and I recognise that there is an unequal power relationship between myself and the guests. My decision to minimise the impact of the research on my volunteering and the shelter environment has somewhat limited the collection of data, particularly in questions I have chosen not to ask so as not to appear to probe excessively. The choice not to take notes during my volunteering has limited the precise recording of conversations. Latterly, I have noted a hesitancy to be overly critical in my analysis of the shelter given it is a space I was welcomed into and enjoyed spending time in.

There are also benefits to my part-insider, part-outsider role (Mosse 2005) however: as an ‘actor … within [my] object of study’ (Wood 1998:55) I have had greater access to conversations, information and perspectives. I have been able to use this position for ‘participant deconstruction’ (Shore and Wright 1997:16-17) in my consideration of the specific meaning of “care” in the shelter environment and in the context of volunteering. I have also benefited from my positionality in terms of my identity as a young woman. I perceived that some people were more willing to open up to me given my stereotypically non-threatening persona and have overheard comments along the lines of “I want to sit there next to the pretty girl”. Concerns of sexism aside, this has offered me greater opportunities to engage with guests.

Care in the shelter environment

The number of people sleeping rough in England on a snapshot night in 2016 was reported to be 4134, a 133% increase on 2010 (Department for Communities and Local Government 2017). Charities consider this to be significant underreporting (Crisis n/d). Regardless, it excludes huge numbers of “hidden homeless” people, staying on friends’ sofas, in squats, hostels or night shelters. By offering homeless people an alternative to sleeping outside shelters may conceal homelessness (DeVerteuil 2006), or be an expression of failure to confront an entrenched crisis (Jencks 1994). But they can also be spaces of refuge from exhausting and dangerous lives. While volunteering I have considered to what extent and in what ways the night shelter creates a space of care. I discuss this through the gestures of care and personalisation made in the organisation of the shelter and by volunteers, and the respite offered. I then assess to what extent the religious context of the shelter and the requirements placed on guests complicate this space of care, and contextualise this in theories of care-giving and reciprocity.

‘Shelters represent an important social welfare response to homelessness’ (DeVerteuil 2006:111) and the charitable impulse is often underplayed (Johnsen et al. 2005). Volunteers are vital to many shelters: the North London shelter has few paid employees. Donations and volunteering point to the fact that people “care”, something demonstrated during my final volunteering session by the unprompted arrival of a member of the public with donations of underwear and socks for the guests. This act of caring does not, however, automatically create a ‘space of care’ (Johnsen et al. 2005:787). Lancione (2014a) describes the impersonal treatment of homeless people in Turin being asked formulaic questions and rushed through overcrowded soup kitchens. The North London shelter offers a clear counterpoint: small but important details, epitomised by referring to those who stay as “guests”, amalgamate to construct the shelter as a space of care. This begins with the shelter set-up when volunteers make significant efforts to match sheets and pillow cases (observation at shelter 13/1/17), materially rejecting the idea that guests ought to be grateful simply to have a bed. Each evening there is a detailed briefing which personalises the environment. The Manager asks if anyone speaks any of the guests’ first languages and shares the guests’ interests: ‘make sure to ask Mark about his bike’ (volunteer briefing 10/3/17). The Manager then welcomes each guest with a handshake, an act she described as reaching out both socially and physically (North London shelter end of season service 8/4/17). Social engagement is key to the North London shelter and minimises feelings of otherness (Johnsen et al. 2005). The North London shelter’s success in attracting volunteers contrasts with a generally under-resourced sector (ibid.) and allows time to sit, eat and play games with guests. Some of my most in-depth interactions took place over a pile of dominos or jenga bricks. This peer-to-peer interaction creates a sense of normality, akin to an evening with friends: something exemplified by our sharing a cake for a guest’s birthday (observation at shelter 13/1/17).

Shelters offer crucial respite from daily struggles (Cooper 1997). Staff at the North London shelter described guests who had come to shelter from sleeping rough as ‘entirely new people’ after a few good nights’ sleep in a safe, warm environment (conversation at shelter 31/3/17). Saira found the confidence and energy to begin the challenging process of applying for asylum after just three nights at the shelter (email update, shelter Manager 20/3/17 ). The importance for one guest of seeing that volunteers cared was described by the Manager as a moment of realisation that they were valued by others as a fellow human being (North London shelter end of season service 8/4/17).

Notably in the discussion above, the guests whose stories are celebrated are those who make progress towards a “normal” life of permanent accommodation and paid employment, or those who express sentiments pleasing to staff and volunteers such as of feeling cared for and valued. It is important not to homogenise homeless people (DeVerteuil et al. 2009) meaning successful shelter environments must be accepting of unusual norms (Parr 2000). The North London shelter encourages volunteers to take social cues from guests and accept that some may wish to sit quietly (volunteer briefing 13/1/17) and ‘simply be’ (Johnsen et al. 2005:795). This suggests, however, that experiences of the shelter vary from person to person. For every guest who chats and plays games, there are several who eat and go straight to bed. These guests may all be experiencing “care” but the impact is not uniform.

The success of creating an environment of care is similarly not absolute. In many areas most homeless shelters are run by religious organisations (ibid.) and there is an overt message of care in Christian teaching, such as Isaiah 58:7 (4). The North London shelter is unquestionably religious: it operates in church halls and the majority of volunteers are churchgoers. The notion that homeless people are Christ, identified by Lancione (2014a) in the work of religious charities in Turin, was expressed at the service marking the end of the North London shelter season (8/4/17). In contrast to Lancione’s (2014a) analysis of Turin, however, the North London shelter makes no overt references to Christianity: grace is not said before meals and guests are not pressured to pray or spend time in the church itself.

While there are no religious demands placed on guests, there are other requirements. The shelter Manager explained that guests must be ‘ready to be helped’ (volunteer briefing 11/2/17). The North London shelter therefore operates with an ideological emphasis which means that entry depends on seeking rehabilitation (Waters 1992). Similarly the shelter environment is not entirely laissez-faire: there is zero tolerance of drugs and alcohol. The presence of such requirements is a reminder that shelters are not always spaces of care but can be spaces of fear (Johnsen et al. 2005). Shelters may be considered spaces of fear because they are places in which homeless people must behave in a certain way which may not be natural or comfortable for them. There is also a constant, if low-level, risk of confrontation with fellow guests or volunteers especially given the multiple challenges faced by many guests (ibid.). To ensure safety, many homeless shelters operate such regulations, as well as utilising CCTV surveillance (Cooper et al. 1999). Given the level of care provided and the careful management which minimises both the risk of confrontation and the visibility of regulations, the North London shelter could not be described as a space of fear. It is, however, a space in which guests must behave in a certain way and as such may be conceptualised as a ‘space of rules’.

The numerous small gestures of care carried out at the North London shelter can be considered ‘the proactive interest of one person in the well-being of another’ (Conradson 2003b:508). Acts such as ‘listening [and] feeding’ (Conradson 2003a:451) contribute to the construction of the North London shelter as a social space. It is important, however, to interrogate these notions of care: in the context of homelessness they can present a romanticised image of messianic charity. Despite the fact that guests are treated as individuals, at one with Christ, rather than as ‘medium[s] to reach God’s love’ (Lancione 2014a:3070), the North London shelter retains a sense of being a mechanism to demonstrate Christian virtue. One volunteer reported that in previous years, prayers have been said during the volunteer briefing, something that made him feel uncomfortable as a non-Christian (conversation reflecting on the shelter 18/4/17).

Mauss (2002:3) suggests that many pre-market systems relied on ‘in theory … voluntary, in reality … obligator[y]’ exchanges of “gifts”, with the expectation of return enhancing social solidarity. Contemporary homeless shelters can be considered extra- (rather than pre-) market systems given an absence of financial incentives. The idea that support for the homeless is given for nothing is critiqued (Lancione 2014a) because the carer and the recipient are constructed figures (Green and Lawson 2011). This social construction can stereotype homeless people and render them voiceless. In his analysis of social media commentary surrounding a New York policeman’s gift of shoes to a homeless man, Jeffrey Hillman, Lancione (2014b) demonstrates that the focus is on the care rather than Hillman. This focus risks constructing homeless people as “other” (ibid.). While the organisation of the North London shelter goes to great lengths to avoid othering, a focus on the care provided is visible in the highly congratulatory rhetoric used to celebrate the work of volunteers (volunteer briefing 31/3/17). This is partly a motivational tactic, but it points to the fact that, as with many instances of charitable donation and volunteering, a significant impetus for volunteering at the shelter is the assuaging of guilt about our privileges or the “warm glow” of having helped, particularly in a Christian context.

Beyond the shelter: insecurity and agency

The North London shelter provides a short, predominantly caring, interlude in guests’ wider lives. Much of their time is spent outside the shelter, in what I will broadly term public space. As a result, my conversations with guests have explored beyond the shelter and through this I have considered to what extent and in what ways guests are able to manage their precarity in public space. It is important to note, however, that people often also spend time in semi-public spaces such as libraries, and semi-private spaces such as their friend’s homes.

Eugenie told me that she was concerned that people knew she was homeless because she carried a sleeping bag (conversation at shelter 13/1/17). This is consistent with not feeling welcome in cities (Johnsen et al. 2005) which have become increasingly ‘revanchist’ (Smith 1996), or inhospitable for homeless people, with spikes, sprinklers (Davis 1992) and police harassment (Mitchell 1997). These trends remove homeless people’s right to the city (Lefebvre 1996), in terms of their right to ‘ “habit” (…[the] ability to make a life) and to “inhabit” (…to dwell…)’ (Mitchell and Heynen 2009:615). The lack of a place to dwell is evident in the uncertainty of guests at the North London shelter over how to spend time: when I asked Abdul what he done that day he replied ‘just walking’ (conversation at shelter 10/3/17). This aimlessness is representative of homeless people’s inability to ‘possess the city’ (Mitchell and Heynen 2009:617) and demonstrates the limits placed on people’s agency in public space.

Despite exclusion from the city, conversations with guests revealed a variety of tactics (5) used to manage time spent in public space. Many tactics are intensely practical such as Natalia’s detailed studying of her routes across London (observation at shelter 11/2/17) and Dave’s account of the easiest spot to climb over the fence at the local park (conversation at shelter 13/1/17). These practical tactics are a response to the constant need to secure shelter in unwelcoming public space. Others of guests’ tactics are both practical and psychological: Eugenie and Sabina always stick together, for both safety and comradery. Similarly Dave knows the route of the Hari Krishna food van particularly well as he tries to be vegetarian where possible (conversation at shelter 13/1/17). The blending of the practical and psychological is epitomised by Anton’s description of the library: practically it is somewhere warm with internet access but it is also a space Anton considers his “office” (conversation at shelter 10/3/17). Further tactics had little overt practical value: between two volunteering sessions, Rodney gained several piercings which he said were a release for him when he’s feeling down (conversation at shelter 11/2/17).

All of these tactics, however, are ways guests try to take control and maintain a semblance of “normal life”. While recognising the ways homeless people are ‘rendered “out of place” in public space’ (Johnsen et al. 2005:787), it is important to appreciate people’s agency. Homeless people manage and survive despite the barriers placed in their way (Wright 1997). The tactics of the North London shelter guests – many of which focus on ways to stay off “the street” – constitute a ‘geography of survival’ (Mitchell and Heynen 2009:628) that includes routes across the city, and places to eat, stay warm, keep connected and sleep.

In this article I have considered data collected during volunteering sessions at a North London night shelter. Much of the discussion has focussed on the shelter environment itself. The shelter, however, must be considered only a momentary space of respite in the wider lives of the guests who stay there. Discussions with guests inevitably turn to their time outside the shelter and the ways they survive both physically and psychologically in public space. To address this I have considered two spaces: that of the shelter and that beyond it. I conclude that the shelter environment is one of care but that this care is predicated on certain rules. The caring nature of the North London shelter is founded in the desire of the organisers and volunteers to offer care to homeless people. This environment is created through micro-gestures that demonstrate a personalised and respectful attitude, in spite of complicating factors such as the religious backdrop of the shelter, the requirements of entry and the rules of stay. Public space is presented by many guests as a space of insecurity and uncertainty. I have assessed that this is due to a severely limited right to the city: an inability to properly habit and inhabit it. But I have sought to emphasise the agency of this particular group of homeless people in the multi-faceted ways they manage their precarity in public space. The analysis of guests’ use of public space is based purely on discussions while in the space of the shelter. Further research should seek to obtain more information about guest tactics and the ways they are excluded in public space through spatial analysis of their practices and movements. The guests of the North London shelter move between spaces of care and spaces of insecurity, but neither are as simple as they appear, just as the motivations behind charity, volunteering and the giving of care are complex and heterogeneous.

1. All names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
2. I announced my presence as a researcher formally to the shelter organisers and informally in all conversations with guests and volunteers.
3. Research was conducted at only one of these locations.
4. ‘Is it not to share your food with the hungry / and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –/ when you see the naked, to clothe them, / and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’
5. I use this term following DeCerteau (1984) in emphasising the ingenious ways in which the disadvantaged can appropriate space.

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Ruth Ellenby is currently completing her MSc in Urban Studies at University College London. Research interests include housing, gender and public space and the accessibility of cities. Her research dissertation is entitled ‘The US female “gunman”: a victimised woman in a dangerous city?’ and focuses on representations of urban female gun owners in the United States in order to question stereotypical depictions in the media, popular culture and advertising. She has previously received a BA(hons) in Geography from the University of Cambridge where she focussed on the urban conducting a research dissertation on the social, cultural and psychological impacts of the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand on the fabric of the city’s community. Outside academia, she has worked in social housing with a particular focus on social care, gaining first-hand experience of the particular challenges of providing suitable accommodation and care for populations in large cities.


Volume 1, no. 2 Summer 2017