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Profaning the Past to Salvage the Present: The Symbolically Reconstructed Pasts of Homeless Shelter Residents

Symbolic Interaction

Published online on


Homelessness presents challenges for maintaining a positive self-concept, and those seeking help from homeless shelters face a particular irony: establishing service-worthiness requires them to present themselves as homeless, not self-sufficient, and genuinely in need of help, yet also morally worthy of that help. How do shelter residents manage this tension and salvage the self within the institutional context of the shelter? A theoretical framework linking Mead, Goffman, and narrative helps clarify strategies of self-presentation and salvaging the self within the homeless shelter context. Drawing on interviews with 44 shelter residents, this paper demonstrates that residents construct narratives that symbolically reconstruct the past from the standpoint of the present, and draw on the stages of the shelter's moral career to present a temporally-divided self, allowing residents to strategically profane the past self while keeping the present self separate and sacred. Implications for research on other institutional selves are also discussed.