Homelessness, social relations and institutional logics: property rights without property?

John M Luiz & James Rycroft

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Luiz, J. M. & Rycroft, J. (2018). Homelessness, social relations and institutional logics: property rights without property?. Socio-Economic Review. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ser/mwy031

homeless , homelessness , intersectionality , property rights , social norms

We explore whether there is evidence of property rights among the homeless, and if so, how these rights are governed. By conducting interviews with 52 homeless people in Cape Town, we show that although the homeless are able to derive some value from assets, and can exclude other members of their community, these rights are precarious and dependent upon state agents not seizing the ‘property’ and overriding the community’s rules of the game. We demonstrate the intersectionality of claims with respect to the same physical property from the varying perspectives of the claimants involved and how this differs depending on the property. Homeless people rely on a community logic to develop rules of the game which results in the appearance of a market logic. In the absence of formal institutions effectively operating in their spaces, they have constituted social norms which provide some semblance of property rights respected intra-group.

Main finding
Although the occupation of spaces occupied by homeless persons is precarious and insecure, it does entail certain entitlements, obligations, and partial recognition of territorial rights for the homeless individuals occupying it. The homeless population exercises rights over spaces and resources that offer economic benefits, such as searching through garbage bins. However, the formal ownership and control of property remain dependent on the legal owners, whether public or private entities, and this is respected and recognized by the homeless population. Homeless persons exercise control over property by restricting access and use to other homeless persons. The failure of the formal market to construct meaning for such property leads the homeless population to take it upon themselves to build a local context that constitutes social norms and determines memberships, hierarchy, rules, and sanctions to be applied within the local homeless population. Property rights were defined in this article by the ability to derive value from the asset, the exclusion of others from the asset, and the transfer of the asset to another individual.

Description of method used in the article
This article employs a qualitative methodological approach that entails semi-structured interviews with 52 homeless individuals in Cape Town, South Africa. Areas of heavy use by the homeless population were identified as recruitment sites in part by participants. Researchers spent enough time in these locations to establish relations and credibility with respondents, and conducted extensive observations. The interviews included a semi-structured questionnaire that aligned with key research questions, allowing the participants’ responses to determine the interview's pace and nature. The questionnaire addressed issues relating to the relationship between a place and motivations for occupying it, time allocation for establishing property rights, and the link between property rights, tradability, entry, and exit. Interview data went through five stages: familiarization with data, creating a thematic framework, coding, indexing data, charting, mapping, and interpretation.

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