Anthropology among the Homeless: Making the Marginalized Visible

May 20, 2020

The corona crisis does not affect all people to the same degree. This much is clear. But little is known about how exactly marginalized groups are experiencing and coping with the pandemic, and what consequences the contact restrictions have for them. First-hand insight into these challenges comes from Luisa Schneider in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, who has been observing the daily lives of homeless people for the last 14 months. Drawing on her experience with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, she has helped to ensure continued assistance and new aid offerings for unhoused people during the crisis.

No Housing Means Fewer Rights
Luisa Schneider is a social anthropologist in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Since March 2019 she has been conducting a long-term ethnographic study of the living conditions of homeless people. For her research she accompanies 27 people in Leipzig during their daily lives over the course of several years. In order to truly understand and describe the conditions of life on the streets, she spends a lot of time among them. One important insight of her research is the way homeless people are frequently not in a position to sufficiently claim their rights. “There are more and more people who do not have housing, and yet numerous fundamental and human rights are tacitly tied to secure housing and tenancy,” explains Schneider. “For example, parenting, family life, privacy and also protection from violence can only be realized to a limited extent for people without housing.”

Crises Exacerbate Existing Vulnerabilities
During the present corona pandemic this problem becomes even more acute. Schneider has seen first-hand how the situation of homeless people has become ever more precarious over the course of the crisis: “Unhoused people have no way to comply with rules like frequent hand-washing or maintaining physical distance. And of course they cannot stay in their apartments, because they have none.” The contact ban in particular is a huge problem. “It led to the collapse of networks that are essential for survival, as well as established forms of solidarity. This in turn reinforces dependence on official aid systems – which, however, cannot continue operating in the accustomed manner,” explains Schneider. The closure of soup kitchens and day centres has made it much more difficult to meet basic needs, and it has left many people struggling to survive.

Research Insight as a Basis for Aid in Leipzig
Between 2011 and 2017 Luisa Schneider conducted research in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa, where she experienced both ends of the 2014 Ebola outbreak: its start and its devastating aftermath. During that time she became familiar with the social effects of major public health crises – experiences which she has been able to draw on for her current focus: helping enable a prompt response to the needs of homeless people in Leipzig. “A productive cooperation between practitioners, researchers, and political decision-makers in Leipzig has helped to find and implement inclusive and effective solutions to assist people,” Schneider says. For example, an additional emergency shelter was set up by the city. Night shelters are now also open during the daytime and offer free meals as well as places to sleep. Individuals suspected of being sick with COVID-19 receive medical care, even if they do not have health insurance. Through her fieldwork in Freetown and Leipzig, Schneider has learned how to effectively bring together the efforts of homeless people, aid workers, and politicians. Schneider: “Together with unhoused people, we develop suggestions to ensure the continued provision of basic necessities to those who most need it, to find ways they can isolate themselves and access medical care.” An impressive example of power of the social sciences to not just identify failures and weak spots in our society, but help to mitigate them as well.

Anthropological Knowledge during the Crisis
Luisa Schneider’s research demonstrates what the social sciences have to offer society – not just during crises. Because of their access to social groups that are otherwise difficult to reach, anthropologists in particular can help to break down prejudices and stigmatization. In Leipzig it was even possible to quickly identify the precarious situation of vulnerable people and react in a timely fashion. “During times of crisis, already marginalized people are frequently marginalized even more and perceived as a danger to society. This makes it even more difficult for them to realize their rights and be recognized as full members of society,” says Schneider. In Leipzig it was possible to prevent this from happening. The existing aid structures proved to be stable and could even be expanded. Schneider: “I very much hope that these most recent experiences help us to better protect vulnerable people from marginalization and a break-down of support in the future. From the current crises, we can see particularly clearly that being unhoused is not an individual problem, but rather a political, ecological, society-wide issue.”

Studying Global Social Change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012. Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

Contact for this Press Release
Dr. Luisa Schneider
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-374

PR Contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and public relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

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