The Dignity of the Unhoused

How the homeless find respect

Pierre is an African American man in his 50s and he is homeless. To make a few bucks, he sells what some might consider junk. He tells folks that he has an apartment, which he calls home, but he says he can’t move in yet because of a government snafu. 

“I’m not homeless, homeless,” Pierre said. “I consider myself displaced, because my dad died and I’m waiting on my attorney to get my apartment back.”

In the meantime, he arrives at the donut shop around 6 p.m., about every night of the week.

We witness how the homeless, who some call the unhoused, struggle every day for necessities: good food and clean water, a safe place to sleep, and a steady, livable income.

What we don’t see is their struggle for dignity. Dignity is how society defines one’s worthiness of respect and honor, and society perceives homelessness as an undignified state. To acquire dignity, the homeless attempt to disassociate themselves, as much as possible, from the label of homelessness. This raises a question:

How do men and women free themselves from the label of homelessness, while being homeless?

The Regulars

Ethnographer Samuel L. Perry spent seven months off and on and in and around a 24-hour donut shop. He took note of happenings and interviewed the donut shops’ homeless regulars. Most of his interviewees were men (11 out of 15, most of whom were black). Dr. Perry (himself white) showed up three or four days a week, late at night or early in the morning.

He adopted what is called the “buddy-researcher” approach: he told these men and women of his academic intentions, but he also hung out with them. He gave them spare change and helped with cell phones. He told his own life stories. Still, trust was not total. Dr. Perry anticipated that, if he had tried to record his interviewees, they would clam up; so, he just jotted down notes.

Dr. Perry’s donut shop regulars were aged 40 or older. Very few had a mental state that was less than clear, and very few were regularly intoxicated (drugs or alcohol). To afford their own food or coffee, some panhandled, sold stuff (bootleg DVDs, Streetwise magazine, scented oils, and the like) and got government assistance. In the warm months, they’d sleep in parks and school yards. In the winter, they trek to a shelter, or try to find a warm, dry place on a neighborhood street.

The donut shop is in the lobby of a multi-story building. It has wooden chairs, ten tables, a front counter, a bagel station, and a restroom. Patrons enter from the street and, once inside the building, pass a foyer to the elevator that leads to a dentist’s office. All-night patrons have to clear out by 6 a.m.

What did they do there? They talked. Some played chess. Some napped. Some bought coffee and slowly sipped it, talking to no one.

Distance & Outcasts

In their bid for dignity, the donut shop denizens seek to distance themselves from the trappings of homelessness. For starters, they chose to spend their time far from official institutions dedicated to helping the homeless. Their preferred donut shop, the one discussed here, is in a mixed race, economically diverse neighborhood seven miles from the nearest homeless shelter.

To them, shelters are like jails.

David is an African American man in his 40s and a donut shop regular. He earns money through panhandling and government support and he is known to drink alcohol. Sitting with Pierre, he talked to the ethnographer about his recent shelter stay.

“It’s real nice,” David tells him. “But it’s probably the last time I’ll stay there again.”

Dr. Perry asked why.

“I’ve been in jail only once,” David admitted, “But this reminded me of being in jail.”

Dr. Perry, sounding surprised, asked him to speak further on the topic.

“Well, there are 500 guys there and it’s like ‘Do this, do that, don’t do that, go here, go there, don’t go there, eat this.’” David punctuated the point by repeatedly jabbing his finger in the air. “You’ve got to take a TB test just to stay there and, you know, I went there to get some help, clean up, maybe shave, but when you shave they take your razor.”

“You can’t take no chances when there are 500 guys there,” Pierre chimed in.

David seemed to agree. “Yeah, they said someone got stabbed there, because someone was able to sneak in a weapon.”

Shelters do not provide the freedom afforded to dignified men and women, and so the unhoused try to avoid them. Then again, shelters also provide basic resources that help people to feel dignified – like a shower and a warm meal. The dignity of personal hygiene is important to the unhoused, and it becomes a way to distance themselves from the undignified among them.

The donut shop regulars also distanced themselves from the severely mentally ill who, from time to time, made an appearance. Persons with severe mental illness can be outcasts of the homeless world. The ethnographer told one such story.

One night after 8 p.m., a man left the donut shop. Pierre and a colleague immediately talked about the man, whose name they did not know. They talked about how he is certifiably crazy. They talked about his foul smell. Shelters can be trouble, but so long as shelters exist, they said, there’s no reason not to take a shower. And, the man eats out of the trash – also unnecessary since shelters provide three meals a day. A well-dressed homeless woman walked into the shop and joined the men. She reported that the man outside was digging through the trash cans. She thought it a shame.

Homeless person sleeps on a cardboard box on the street

Home Is Where Your Identity Is

Though we label people all the time, most try to resist labelling, especially when the label has negative connotations, like “homelessness.” Over the course of a life, over the course of an hour, labels change. “Human identities,” Perry writes, “may be fluid, malleable, multiple, multidimensional, marked, unmarked, reoriented, and transcended depending on the context.”

We know who we are, it just depends on when and where.

What the donut shop regulars discovered is that the route to dignity is to be at home in a legitimate, private business. It is to be homeless yet think of oneself as having a home. True, their home is temporary, and they have to clear out early in the morning, but the donut shop is safer than the streets and more dignified than jail. It gives the unhoused a new and preferred identity. So thinks Andrew, a homeless man in his 40s who sells freestyle rhymes.

When asked why he stays in the neighborhood, Andrew replied:

“I’ll always come back here, because this is where my family and friends are.”



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Samuel L. Perry’s “Urban hybrid space and the homeless,” published in Ethnography 14, no. 4 (2013): 431-451.

“I’m not homeless, homeless…” p. 432.

Dignity definition from “Oxford Languages.”

Descriptions of Perry’s donut shop regulars, p. 437. On p. 436 Perry drew a map of the donut shop. He sat at a middle table with a good view of the place.

“It’s real nice…” p. 443.

Story of the mentally ill man, p. 442.

“Human identities…” p. 432.

“I’ll always come back here…” p. 446.

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

%d bloggers like this: