Heterotopias: The Homeless Lens

Posted: April 21, 2011 by michelleavila in Michel Foucault

Under the Bridge

The location of someone’s home means somewhere comfortable to end a long day, a job is to have somewhere to make a living off of, a day of relaxation can mean just a day to stay in your pj’s all day and watch movies, but in the Los Angles area there are 82,000 people are homeless on any given night, location, work and relaxation is nothing but an everyday struggle. Through their eyes the streets become heterotopias for them to live in and make the streets a lifestyle to the best extents that they can. According to Michel Foucault in “Of other spaces, Heterotopias” “there are real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault) The following goes through the process of comparing six principles that show how unused spaces are converted into useful necessities and how the homeless might take advantage of these heterortopias and make the spaces accommodate for them.

Principle I: In the so-called primitive societies… crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis. (Foucault)

“There are privileged or sacred places, reserved for individuals who are in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live in, in a state of crisis.” Almost suggesting there are places in the world meant for people to occupy. When it comes to being homeless, there are now many options for them to have a place to go to and actually have a place to sleep over night. Homeless shelters and homeless campsites offer temporary housing for them to take advantage of. To society that includes the upper class, middle class and even some lower class, the working class, a space such as this would not be for them. But in the eyes of a homeless, it is an opportunity to start all over the next day.

Homeless man getting a check up

Principle II: A society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion… have one function or another. “Everyone has the right to their own little box for their own little personal decay.” (Foucault)

 When a homeless person is sick and needs immediate attention to their illness they are allowed to go to the hospital, just as any other individual would. in some cases there is a group of doctors that have developed a mobile clinic, that acts as a heterotopia, that now drives to homeless areas and parks anywhere to assist these people with free Medicare and assistance on the spot.

 Principle III: The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. (Foucault)

 For a homeless person a place in the street during the day means a space that has to work for the day and change constantly to make time pass fast. A park can be a place for them to past time during the day. It has multi purposes as far as different times of the day for them. For a while they can sit in front of a basketball court, for example, and take this as entertainment. Later they can talk a walk through the park and take it as exercise, maybe they have an instrument they play and they stand at a park entrance and play, which can mean work to them. All this can happen in one location for them. A park is also a place where interactive conversations and experiences can occur for them which can then give this a heterotopia purpose.

Entertaining for money

Principle IV: Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time – which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterotopias. (Foucault)

 For a homeless person who does not have a place to call permanent it is hard to create a space of memory. Many of them carry very small amount of belongings because they look at it as never knowing what can happen and so they do not want to have a lot of belongings to loose. Others take this space as an opportunity of travel. Whether it was for fun or for necessity. The time span of a homeless, getting from one place to another, represents the heterotopia space.

Principle V: Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. (Foucault)

The heterotopia that can be a nightmare for the homeless is the spaces that isolate them from society. A space in which is open for certain class and not optional for the homeless. Many times in places that the homeless roam there is a certain limit that they stay or they are simply not welcomed to hang out at. Persian Square in Down town Los Angeles, is a park where throughout the day you’ll see any homeless sleeping and spending time, but at night it’s known to be a place where the homeless go to take baths. It is obvious that they made it approachable and it makes sense that the homeless would be tempted to take baths there but if they get caught doing so they will be arrested.

 Principle VI: The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains. This function unfolds between two extreme poles. Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory. (Foucault)

The most personal space one can create. A park, a freeway underpass, a bridge, an alley etc… These are all examples of locations that the homeless tend to pick to make a space that would represent their home for a long-term stay. A place in which people notice walking down the street but would never appreciate like the homeless and would never imagine to put up a unit type space to live in.

A Homeless House in Los Angeles

Being homeless is a challenge within itself, but is also as much as a challenge as someone would let it be for them. Though they have harder times being accepted by society and certain places will not let them use their services, they are still human and as humans we strive to survive and make the best of what is put in front of us so that we can create the space around us to what fits right for us as individuals. The spaces mentioned do have a purpose for the homeless who occupy them but for people of higher class, these spaces had never meant anything. You would have to experience them through the lens of the homeless to actually understand the capabilities of these spaces.


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