Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

On the island: Marginalized residents of a single room occupancy motel
by Dum, Christopher P., Ph.D., State University of New York at Albany, 2014, 370; 3636108
Abstract (Summary)

One consequence of the punitive turn in criminal justice policy has been an increase in residential instability among previously incarcerated individuals. For registered sex offenders in particular, residence restriction laws severely limit housing options. Many formerly incarcerated individuals find difficulties securing employment, which limits their ability to afford a stable residence.

Other citizens also lack the resources to afford stable housing and they live on the brink of homelessness in part because minimum wages have failed to keep up with increased costs of living. A work or health crisis often drains precious monetary resources and leads to displacement. When this occurs, some turn to friends and family for housing, but others must rely on social services.

Finally, some individuals lack stable housing due to mental health issues or other disabilities that make them unable to function autonomously. Without strong social networks, these individuals rely on public assistance throughout their lives. The task of many social service agencies is to provide these populations with the housing and social support they need to live with dignity.

The task of addressing these issues of homelessness is given to social institutions like the criminal justice and social welfare systems. Social institutions are public and government services that are designed to govern behavior and create social order. The question that these two particular social institutions face is, where do we house those who would otherwise be homeless? One answer has been found behind the walls of American motels. Despite its rise in the years immediately following WWII, the independent motel industry began to collapse in the late 1960s. Motel owners, hearing the death rattles in the distance, found new life as rising incarceration, de-institutionalization, and increased inequality created a pressing need to house individuals pushed to the margins of society. Fueled by a cultural zeitgeist of sanitizing social space, the public discourse on these locations lacks insight into who motel residents are, how they behave, and how social forces influence their lives.

This study examines the results of social and criminal justice policies by using a year of ethnographic research at one such motel. This motel is home to a confluence of marginalized populations representing the divides between American social classes: registered sex offenders and parolees returning from prison, those placed by social services, as well as those who need affordable housing. Drawing on diverse literatures and perspectives, this study seeks to paint an empirical portrait of life at the intersection of social inequality and social institutions.

This research answers several important questions. First, how residents arrive at the motel? Second, how do residents socially organize in the context of stigma and external efforts to sanitize social space? Third, what survival strategies do residents employ to meet the exigencies of daily life? Fourth, how do motel residents interact with a local community opposed to their presence? Finally, what types of societal changes are required to best address the issues of culturally situated marginalization?

Results indicate that motel residents have histories of vulnerability created and exacerbated by social institutions that deal with criminal behavior, and disadvantage such as homelessness, poverty, mental illness, physical disability, and substance abuse. Residents face stigma from the community and other residents as they attempt to go about their daily lives. Because residents are placed in close proximity with each other, they create a thriving culture of community and care, as well as conflict over resources. Finally, findings show that much of the policy governing motel use as a solution to social problems is substantially flawed, and recommendations for micro and macro-level policy, as well as new cultural perspectives are discussed.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Fader, Jamie J.
Commitee: Bailey, Frankie, Ferrell, Jeff, Worden, Alissa
School: State University of New York at Albany
Department: Criminal Justice
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 76/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Social work, Criminology
Keywords: Homelessness, Inequality, Poverty, Sex offenders, Social work, Welfare
Publication Number: 3636108
ISBN: 978-1-321-17523-3
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