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Transcending Homelessness: Religious Neoliberalism and the Discursive Negotiation of Agency in a Faith-Based Shelter


Previous research on homelessness has been inconclusive in determining the extent of homeless individuals’ own agency in their rehabilitation. At secular shelters, neoliberal ideologies of self-sufficiency and opportunism inundate the discourses surrounding homeless individuals’ use of shelter services; as individuals who are dependent upon the assistance of others, homeless people must operate within the framework of the service organization if they wish to gain access to needed resources (Desjarlais 1996; Lee, Tyler, and Wright 2010; Meanwell 2013; McCarthy 2013). However, the unquestioned supremacy of homeless individuals’ agency as constructed within neoliberal discourses is complicated by research that indicates that homeless individuals lose agency when participating in faith-based rehabilitation programs (Mulder 2004). This dissertation thus proposes that scholarly understanding of homeless individuals’ agency is best served by an analysis that takes both neoliberal and religious ideologies into account. In the United States, these ideologies intersect in the form of conservative faith-based homeless shelters, which are largely unexamined by research (Hackworth 2012). This discussion of homeless individuals’ agency is therefore situated within an Evangelical, corporate-structured shelter that offers long-term rehabilitation programs for homeless adults. The data for this study come from eighteen months of ethnographic work and twenty-two audio-recorded interviews with the shelter residents and staff. Given the importance of language both in neoliberal ideologies of self-marketability and in Evangelical practices, the sociocultural-linguistic analysis employed in this dissertation focuses on shelter residents’ discursive construction of their identities at the intersection of religious-neoliberal ideologies. Drawing on linguistic-anthropological understandings of agency as well as the anthropology of Christianity, this dissertation argues for an expanded understanding of agency that allows for residents’ discursive negotiation of concurrent agencies as individuals actively engaged both in their spiritual recovery as born-again Evangelicals and in their neoliberal pursuit of self-sufficiency. Through this process, residents establish their own understandings of worth and individual transformation that are based on a combination of the shelter’s religious and neoliberal ideologies and firmly embedded in their experience as homeless individuals undergoing long-term rehabilitation processes. This dissertation concludes by problematizing the discourses and impersonal nature of the religious-neoliberal homeless shelter.

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