The Politics of Prevention and Government Responses to Homelessness

Recently, the logic of public health prevention has found a foothold in research and advocacy about homelessness. From a commonsense perspective, the prevention of a social problem like homelessness is an objectively positive aim. However, in the realm of social and health policy, the concept of prevention is not simply a common-sense word. It is part of a wider set of rationalities and technologies of governance which operate in and through the institution of public health.

Research demonstrates that state-driven interventions designed to advance the health of a population often pose problems for particular groups. Prevention efforts, and their differential effects, thus have the potential to illuminate how state-interventions pursued with the objective of safe-guarding the public in general may simultaneously exacerbate specific structural and systemic forms of inequality. In this article, we probe the ethical, empirical, and political dimensions of state-driven responses to the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) public health crisis, surfacing some of the ways these interventions posed problems for people who are homeless and experience intersecting health and socio-political disparities.

From this vantage point, we then look critically at moves to frame homelessness as a public health crisis, as well as government efforts to prevent homelessness by drawing on public health rationalities. Although our focus is homelessness prevention, as constructed and pursued by governments, our analysis is inspired by critical public health scholarship that challenges the apparent impartiality of prevention as a central logic and set of practices in public health contexts.

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