The Guardian this week reported on new kinds of outreach work for homeless people, with mobile laundries and shower units, reported in Australia, New Zealand and Greece as well as my own city of Brighton, England. A Christian charity in Brighton – Off the Fence– has kitted out several vans allowing people to wash clothes and even take a shower, thus addressing a key practical problem for people without a permanent home under the slogan ‘Hygiene for All’. This was the first time I’d encountered the charity – though it is one of our mayor’s four charities of the year, and partners with other organisations I do know in city-wide initiatives on homelessness. Beyond that local interest, however, I began to wonder what we might be able to say sociologically about this form of social action? For example, is it best understood as a revival of Victorian or 19thcentury philanthropic responses to poverty, as state involvement declines? Or is there something new going on?
Sociology often declares itself to be on the side of those marginalised by the rest of society, exploring how such marginalisation occurs through processes of exclusion and stigmatisation, with an emphasis on how people are judged to have failed to meet social norms. Homelessness is an obvious site for this. As Rose describes in his book Powers of Freedom, the fact of not having a home is translated in neoliberal regimes into a suggestion that people have made a choice with the designation of the ‘roughsleeper’, and people without an address find themselves struggling to deal with numerous organisations not least potential employers and welfare agencies. As for other areas where people find themselves marginalised and excluded, sociologists might explore the topic through the attempts to create public concern and political interest for the issue – posing homelessness as a social problem – and as a troubling experience. Unlike some other factors creating social exclusion, such as race and disability, there is less of a tradition of social movement action here.
But what other forms of mobilisation might interest the discipline of sociology? The actions of charities and pressure groups have been studied and may form part of social movements, but they often seem less enticing than a more activist approach. Off the Fence is not only local but also grounded in a tradition of service rather than advocacy, narrating key moments in its history through the desire to respond to religious calls to reach out to those in need, and the desire to offer ‘ministry’. The appeal to ‘hygiene’ also seems to recall older tropes of charity – efforts to encourage bodily and domestic cleanliness, – and evoking the temperance and the ‘social hygiene’ movements in the 19thand early 20thcentury. Much like contemporary food banks, it can draw on a rich tradition in the UK of confessional philanthropy, and indeed, ‘Off the Fence’ partners with the Salvation Army (one of the key actors in that history) for this project. And the charity’s other activities bear out the importance of this confessional background, offering space for prayer activities in local schools, and a centre that uses craft and other activities to create an opportunity to talk and support local women.
But to describe the charity in these terms misses some of the more day-to-day innovations in what it offers. In addressing people’s difficulty in keeping themselves and their clothes clean in the Hygiene for All project, taking washing machines and showers to them, the group offers a way to combat the embodied process of stigmatisation, as well as the health issues that affect people living precarious lives on the streets. They also offer other practical support – lending an address, phone and access to the internet to people seeking work or housing. And they suggest that the time taken to wash clothes is a valuable space in which to start conversations with people. In talking about the charity, they also claim more political ambitions, calling for an end to homelessness, through partnership and solidarity: and describing themselves as ‘radical about seeing a positive change in the lives of marginalised individuals all around Brighton and Hove’ (Off the Fence Impact Report 2017/8).
In some sociology, there is perhaps a degree of caution in relating to the notion of a religious impulse behind voluntary work. We have as a discipline seemed to move between relationships with social movements – often those on the left – or the relatively secular state. But more might be done to understand more ordinary forms of social action in the voluntary sector, and the old and new forms of social action that are located in churches, and other religious organisations. This should avoid the temptation to only evaluate such action, or critically examine the motivations of people drawn in as volunteers. Instead, we could offer more nuanced accounts of how the secular state has always related to religious action (see the work of Saba Mahmood), even at the high points of the welfare state. In the UK this would no doubt involve discussion of religious schooling, but also those other organisations who have often worked with the most marginal groups like homeless people. On the ground, we would certainly need to ask how these organisations relate to state bodies, but also businesses which increasing people a market in social services of different kinds. We would need to ask what forms of conditionality accompany these welfare interventions, when or how different kinds of categorisation of need, desert or attitude are enacted in street-level welfare, and how they are received by clients. Finally, we should explore when and how offering these rather mundane interventions could be understood as political or having political effects, not only in creating particular forms of citizenship among recipients but also offering the starting point for issue-raising and activism of other kinds.