Helping the Homeless through Anthropology

Fox (right) held "art nights" to give women a comfortable environment in which to talk and connect. 

When hoots and hollers emanate from the chapel at the Eugene Mission, it must be Thursday night. Anthropology major Violet Fox and a handful of women who live in the homeless shelter are creating collages and ribbing each other about their “bad art.” Wearing pajamas or street clothes with color-coordinated makeup and hair ties, the women craft their mosaics while sharing stories and telling jokes. The language gets colorful. Soon everyone is laughing and the hoopla prompts passersby to poke their heads in. “Art nights are always a raucous good time,” Fox says. “We are loud and expressive and use the time to bond and create something in the process.”

Homelessness has been on the rise nationally and in Eugene-Springfield. Oregon had the second-highest rate of homelessness in the country last year and, according to the Lane County Human Services Division, 130 local people become homeless every month.

But Fox says there is relatively little research on what life looks like for homeless women in Eugene-Springfield, including how society enables their homelessness or inhibits their escape from it.

Driven by her interest in the topic and a desire to graduate with honors earlier this year, Fox, a PathwayOregon scholar, volunteered at the mission for eight months beginning in September 2018. With funding support from a UO Humanities Undergraduate Research Fellowship, she collected intimate details from women residents and wrote a thesis that allowed her to accomplish her graduation goal. The profiles she assembled lend insight into an often misunderstood population.

Women are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, Fox says. Domestic abuse or financial struggles after a spouse’s death may drive them out of their homes. While they’re not to blame for the lack of affordable housing and health care for mental or physical issues, they often feel responsible for their predicament and don’t seek welfare services. “They are definitely experts on their situations,” Fox says. “Most are absolutely trying their hardest to get out of homelessness.”

Fox conducted formal interviews with women in a mission office but “it was nerve-racking for them,” she says. “The office was too formal, so it was hard for them to relax. There was not a lot of opening up.” She supplemented these recorded histories with casual “friends checking in” conversations.

Having a background in art, she devised a creative way to connect with the women, who ranged in age from 20 to 70. She needed to gain their trust and avoid making them feel ashamed of their lives. One had lived under a bridge and then on an island in the middle of the Willamette River for several months. Another lost her children to welfare agencies while using methamphetamine. Several were victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Few people would willingly discuss these issues with a college student they had never met.

Fox started art night to establish a safe, supportive environment in which the women could open up about their lives.

They told stories about drug-dealing parents and the death threats handed out by drug-dealing ex-boyfriends. Fox heard tales of growing up in abusive foster care homes, battles with drug addictions, losing homes after medical bankruptcy, losing everything to wildfires in California. “Many of the women were my mom’s age,” Fox says. “They were trying to support me and wanted me to succeed.”

Fox didn’t record these informal chats when they occurred but wrote copious notes later. They formed the backbone of her thesis.

Violet Fox

One resident born in California was removed from her parents by welfare services and raised by a family in Oregon. She moved into the homeless shelter to flee an abusive partner. In haste, she left behind all identification papers; she is now trying to replace her birth certificate so she can renew her driver’s license, get a divorce, and apply for disability benefits. Having been born out of state, put into foster care, then adopted by another family, the certificate has been difficult to track down.

“Loss of paperwork and other documentation—or perhaps never even having any—is not uncommon for people experiencing homelessness,” Fox says. “The bureaucracy around things like social security numbers, birth certificates, licenses, and passports can take months to years to replace, and at least one form of identification is required for almost any rental application or government benefit.”

Fox also heard many “catfishing” stories. Vulnerable women meet self-proclaimed dashing, debonair men in internet chat rooms. These men promise to whisk away their newfound loves to a better, brighter life. But first, they require money for car repairs. Or a loved one is desperately sick and money is needed for hospital bills. The women wire their disability checks and the men disappear.

She also discovered that the area’s homeless women often have much in common with broader society. They chat on Facebook with friends and family. They worry about parents who suffer from dementia. Some are college-educated. The older women look out for the younger ones. Many have a source of income, either a part-time job or a disability check, but the amount is not enough to pay for rent.

One woman Fox interviewed has a part-time job that pays less than minimum wage. Medical appointments, counseling sessions, and time spent with her daughter take up the rest of her day; she’s been unable to pick up evening shifts but is still saving some of her $800-a-month salary to move out of the mission.

Although the factors that force women into homelessness are varied, there is often a common thread—a snowballing of unfortunate events.

Fox learned of a woman who ended up in the shelter after a series of medical crises pushed her into unemployment and her house into foreclosure. While applying for disability benefits she worked as a caregiver, but her client died soon after she started. She found a job at a golf course but was eventually fired because her manager complained that she had bad breath. A trip to the dentist revealed that her wisdom teeth needed to be removed. She was in the hospital recovering from bowel surgery when the medical records she had been collecting for a disability claim turned to ash when the house burned to the ground during the California wildfires of 2013. At the same time, she found out she was not eligible for federal insurance and disaster mitigation assistance.

Before ill health besieged her, she had held a university job and owned a home, complete with two dogs. Now, the woman’s siblings call her a hypochondriac and have little to do with her. Her plan is to replace lost medical records to qualify for full disability benefits. She currently receives $910 per month.

“What the housed population often does not understand is how many homeless folks are hard-working people actively engaged in changing their situation,” Fox says. “But increasing their ‘effort’ is not the cure to what may be a lifetime of trauma. You can’t always avoid bad things happening by ‘trying harder’—a common misconception from the public toward homeless folks.”

In addition to personal obstacles, people who are homeless face the absence of affordable housing. The average rent for a single-bedroom apartment in Eugene is $1,300 per month. Due to a lack of available housing, Homes for Good, Lane County’s hub for low-income housing, has closed all subsidized public housing waitlists in Eugene-Springfield, Veneta, Junction City, and Florence. It is currently processing applications for Section 8 housing that are two years old.

Last year, Eugene built 64 affordable housing units but reserved only 13 for the homeless. “This makes shelters into a purgatory space for the situationally homeless—women who have held jobs their whole lives, and then suffered through traumatic events—and cannot afford to leave but feel that they do not belong in a shelter,” Fox says. “They would be able to seek out services, engage in healthy relationships, and manage themselves if they were just able to secure housing again.”

To keep women out of shelters, Fox supports interest-free loans for those facing medical emergencies or the sudden death of a partner. She recommends pairing homeless women with peers and mentors in creative and social environments. Allowing homeless women to take on leadership roles in these situations would give them a sense of purpose and boost self-confidence. Homelessness is dehumanizing enough, Fox says, and not being able to regularly engage in life creatively, spiritually, and socially makes it worse. She sees a need not only for affordable housing but also for “low-barrier” shelters that serve people with drug and alcohol addictions.

Lamia Karim, an associate professor of anthropology and Fox’s advisor, applauded her work. “When Violet came to me she was a newbie to ethnographic research,” Karim says. “Within a year she read more than 50 articles, learned ethnographic interview skills, and received approval from the UO Institutional Review Board for her research on a vulnerable community. She also developed empathy with the women that enabled her to write an outstanding honors thesis. She has all the makings of a great scholar, researcher, and advocate for homeless people.”

Although Fox has set her sights on graduate school to continue her work with the homeless, her motivation goes beyond academics—she has become compassionate for the women she met. “They are our friends, our neighbors, our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters,” she says. “They have talents and interests. They are desperate to find common ground with the larger community and contribute to it.” Whatever circumstances lead women into homelessness, Fox adds, “they are not invisible. They are part of our society. They are human. Their tenacity, vibrancy, humor, and resilience inspired me in the first place.”

--By Michele Taylor

Taylor, MS ’03 (journalism: magazine), BA ’10 (French), is a freelance writer in Eugene.