Unsheltered homelessness and the right to metabolism: An urban political ecology of embodied nature-society relations

Authors: Jeff Rose*, University of Utah
Topics: Geography and Urban Health, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: homelessness, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 4:00 PM / 5:15 PM
Room: Spruce, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Unsheltered homelessness has increasingly become part of a standard expectation of the contemporary U.S. socioenvironmental urban landscape. People residing in the public spaces of the city – parks, sidewalks, alleyways, riparian corridors, “frags,” and elsewhere – appropriate spaces in the public realm (temporarily or otherwise) for survival. In this appropriation of public space, those facing unsheltered homelessness lay bare the socioenvironmental relations that characterize decidedly necessary aspects of all human life, including eating, breathing, disposing of wastes, and others. The corporeal, embodied experiences of unsheltered homelessness represent the geographic locations of the most intimate nature-society relations. These human metabolic processes for people facing unsheltered homelessness uncover a justice-focused analysis in which a “right to metabolism” (Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006: 12) is a fundamental necessity for an inclusive and democratic city life.

In this research, an urban political ecology approach is developed to consider the ways in which a right to metabolism demonstrates that the temporary appropriation of space by those facing homelessness is a biopolitical claim to survival. Data from an extended ethnographic engagement with unsheltered homelessness are expanded to consider both the extent and explanations of unsheltered homelessness across U.S. urban areas. Analyses differentiate between environmental, cultural, and historical rationales for understanding unsheltered homelessness in 16 U.S. urban contexts. These analyses help contextualize the extent of unsheltered homelessness as both a social and environmental justice concern, and place contested constructions of nature and nature-society relations as central in materially addressing these individuals’ lived experiences.

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