Street-Involved Youth in London, Ontario

A review of The Wounded Bricoleur: Adversity, Artifice and the Becoming of Street-Involved Youth in London, Ontario, Canada, by Mark Stewart Dolson.

Highlighting how various forms of trauma can manifest in the lives of youth involved in street culture in a small city of 400,000 people in Ontario, Mark Stewart Dolson’s highly reflexive research gives much needed insight on the consequences of social suffering in developed urban spaces. A distinguishing feature of this endeavor — involving 12 months of research among youth, who often were homeless or had varying degrees of addiction, as well as diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness — is how they have been impacted by the changing Canadian welfare system. In each of the life histories analyzed and recollected using participant observation, the multitude of causes for such tragic realities were found to be located in “a climate that favors productive, methodological individualism over the collective benefit and aid of universal social programs,” (p. 3), which are demonstrated to be influenced, directly and indirectly, by neoliberal governmental policies enforcing workfare-style programs. Hence, this dissertation of nine chapters is an excellent addition to classic texts on homelessness such as Irene Glasser and Rae Bridgman’s Braving the Streets: The Anthropology of Homelessness (Oxford: Berghan Books, 1999), as well as recent literature focusing on similar issues and mental illness. (See, for instance, Ivan Christensen and Henrik Vinther, “Exit from Homelessness: Individuals with Substance Abuse or Mental Health Problems” in International Journal of Mental Health 34, 2005: pp. 3-34; Christopher Jewell, Larry Davidson and Michael Rowe, “The Paradox of Engagement: How Political, Organizational, and Evaluative Demands Can Hinder Innovation in Community Mental Health Services” in Social Science Review 80, 2006: pp. 3-26; Sarah Johnson, Jon May and Paul Cloke, “Imag(in)ing ‘Homeless Places:’ Using Auto-Photography to (Re)examine the Geographies of Homelessness” in Area 40, 2008: pp. 194-207; Leah S. Steele et. al., “Measuring the Effect of a Large Reduction in Welfare Payments on Mental Health Service Use in Welfare-Dependent Neighborhoods” in Medical Care 43, 2005: pp. 885-891; Aloen L. Townsend et. al., “Families of Persons with Substance Use and Mental Disorders: A Literature Review and Conceptual Framework” Family Relations 55, 2006, pp. 473-486.)

Mark Dolson’s research attempts to explore the philosophical and administrative paradigm shift pitting benefit receivers against painful memories of their pasts, many of which are full of “loss, failure, and existential trauma” that has affected them “on a deep and penetrating level, ” (p. 27) in order for them to navigate within a system fraught with contradictions. Focusing on the effects of policy changes in both healthcare and the welfare state on the lives of an impoverished segment of the population, Chapter 1 examines the core neoliberal policies that continue to destabilize local systems of being and knowing with their emphasis on the individuation of members over group-bound social practices. As Dolson argues on behalf of his subjects, “these uneven processes of inclusion and exclusion have led to political decisions that have abandoned certain marginalized and disenfranchised groups, thus placing them outside the role and scope of political normativity” (p. 49). By situating the individual within the society in which they were embedded, he uses an existential anthropological perspective (reminiscent of other phenomenological techniques) to demonstrate how youth construct their identities in opposition to societal expectations. This narrative approach helps to elicit — as much as textually possible — the interconnected experiences at the core of various coping strategies not performed simply to overcome obstacles that these individuals utilize to survive from day-to-day. Unfortunately, these “creative enterprises” (e.g. telling stories full of hyperbole and fabulation, performing spoken word poetry, etc.) labeled by the researcher throughout the analysis differ considerably from the societal expectation to focus on one’s own self-development and maintenance via Ontario Works, the newly reframed social assistance program subsidizing their lives.

Positioning both the institutions under study and the investigator within the historical processes that led to their creation, the second and third chapters explore the formation of otherness and lay the foundation for an anthropological endeavor within one’s own cultural domain. Specifically, Chapter 2 examines the field site by describing the physical locality funded by Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), a non-governmental organization formed to increase skill development of street-oriented youth. YOU’s services continue to be delivered at multiple locations, but the Youth Action Centre (YAC) was the main research location where this at-risk population received social and basic needs services, including, but not limited to, food, shelter, health, and safety. In an effort to go beyond a simple dialectic of self and other, Chapter 3 explores the anthropologist’s perspective with a detailed commentary on the distinctions between the researcher and his informants “to expose the sharp contours of my experience that differ from those with whom I engaged daily in my fieldwork” (p. 99), invoking a creative methodological lens in which to view youth in this predicament as well as to give credence to the ethnographic representations generated in the process of abstraction.

Furthering the critique of traditional ethnographic data collection techniques, Chapters 4 and 5 elaborate on the author’s deconstruction of the process of reflexivity, where his many encounters amongst informants sparked a greater interaction with the realization “that each of these people — through my recognition of their engagements and experience with me — forced me to recognize something about myself” (p. 123). The results of these interactions manifest as artfully crafted life histories, narratives forming a central part of the investigator’s method to lessen the extent of any powered relationship between himself and his subjects. In addition, this writing style makes for a richer and nuanced ethnographic approach intensified by “the role of corporeality in serving as another means of conveying meaning” (p. 113), essentially blurring the artificial lines between subjective and objective matters of social processes and resembling, to a degree, those found in the diversity of everyday discourse.

Giving great attention to the survival strategies used by street-oriented youth, Chapter 6 unveils the multiple layers of complex social issues routinely endured by four of Dolson’s informants. In giving voice to the ways in which they coped with tragedy — ranging from the deaths of family members, to acts of prostitution, to suicidal thoughts of their own while dealing with substance abuse — a fraction of their daily struggles are illuminated. Through what he terms “existential turbulence” (p. 163), referencing the heartache and sorrow expressed within these narratives, it becomes evident how their identities in the forms of fractured selves emerged as partial memories from the past interacting with imaginative attempts to reconcile present circumstances.

Thus, in fashioning social tools to navigate within the “powerfully moralizing tenor to neoliberal discourses” where “people ought to be fully self-sufficient, no matter what their predicament is” (p. 213), the various modes of being and becoming experienced by these welfare recipients are demonstrated to indeed be reactions to an already disenfranchised social positioning. Accordingly, the last three chapters give an in-depth treatment of informants’ survival strategies who “were constantly struggling to get by financially and existentially” (p. 291); Chapters 7 and 8 evaluating the creative enterprises these survival strategies were composed of, with the final chapter calling for a reevaluation of the very notion of individual agency as solely a positive social impulse. Instead, it is suggested that, on the one hand, agency can be a “motivating force for reconciliation, for some kind of health, through creative becomings,” (p. 331), on the other it diminishes “possibilities, through the confrontation of memory, the chains of anxiety, and the slow and throbbing ache of failure” (p. 332) under certain social conditions.

While this dissertation was clearly written for an academic audience, Mark Dolson’s work would be beneficial reading for practitioners in contact with youth who face similar circumstances, either in a clinical or administrative setting, or legislators designing public policy around issues of financial benefits and mental health. One of the key findings of this provocative research was how certain focused societal attitudes — that define others in moral terms and rely on idealized assumptions of how to help people become productive members of society — contribute to why these individuals have difficulty adjusting in the first place. It is, after all, these various assumptions collectively held at a societal level that “can be at odds with what keeps people relatively sane and out of hospitals” (p. 340).

Brian J. O’Hare
Department of International and Transcultural Studies
Teachers College
Columbia University
bo2114@columbia.edu

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork with street-oriented youth (ages 17 to 23 years old), including participant observation and interviews in various contexts throughout the downtown city area. Specifically, a youth drop-in center, the central branch of the public library, Victoria Park, amongst other locations, as well as observations of concurrent disorders group therapy sessions at a local community mental health organization.

Dissertation Information

University of Western Ontario. 2012. 342+xi pp. Primary Advisor: Regna Darnell.

Image: Homeless Youth Day Shelter in Downtown London, Ontario, Canada. Photograph by Mark Stewart Dolson.

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