The Material Symbolism of Rats and Homelessness

Few animals can match the symbolic terror inspired by rats like WIllard.

Few animals can match the symbolic terror inspired by rats like WIllard.

Rats have enormous symbolic power: rats have long appeared in popular culture as loathsome symbols of the power of nature, impoverishment, and disease.  The rat has won our grudging respect for its enormous skill to survive in a vast range of conditions, oddly linked to humans by our shared evolutionary successes.  Rats have gone wherever humans have gone, living and invading alongside us, occasionally surfacing from alley and basement margins to remind us of our waste, inequality, and deadliness as they nocturnally feast on our garbage.

Consequently, rats have often been used as rhetorical if not ideological devices.  On February 16th my local newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, joined in a two-century journalistic tradition of wielding the rat as an emotional symbol when it reported on rats’ migration into homeless camps in the city.  The article opened by circumspectly applauding the resourceful rat, intoning that “You rarely see rats because they’re sly and nocturnal, so if you do happen to catch a glimpse [of] one and it’s daytime, then whoa — you’ve got rats.”  Indianapolis’ homeless camps have, in the newspaper’s assessment, been the victim of “serious rat infestations … and a nasty one,” but for the Star it is “an ironic one, too, because its cause, say homeless outreach workers and county health personnel, is a cadre of well-intentioned people who deliver food to the homeless on a daily basis. Professional advocates wish they would stop.”

A homeless camp in Providence, Rhode Island (image courtesy lahcar1477).

A homeless camp in Providence, Rhode Island (image courtesy lahcar1477).

In this analysis, the rat figures as a rhetorical mechanism weaving a story about homelessness, and the Star’s moralistic narrative casts rats and homeless people alike as opportunistic if not parasitic.  The rat becomes a surprisingly complex symbol in this telling: “Rats may be symbols of poverty, decay and disease, but they also signify a certain abundance, or at least that there’s some extra food lying around.”  Rats are cast less a symbol of affluence as much as they invoke predatory relationships of rats on humans and the homeless on society:  “Professional advocates for the homeless wish volunteers wouldn’t bring food — and not only because excess food attracts rats.  To-your-door food deliveries make life more comfortable for the homeless, make them less inclined to come into homeless shelters where professional counseling and other services are available to them, help that could improve their lives long-term.”

The Star’s shallow sympathy for homeless people mirrors a broader social picture of the homeless as predators.  Rats and the homeless are painted in symbiotic relationships, becoming nearly interchangeable symbols.  In 2011, for instance, Honolulu’s mayor likened the homeless to a “rat invasion,” arguing that the rejection of legal prohibitions on homelessness “`was a complete disaster because now people are out there suffering from their mental problems without us having the ability to coerce them into either the treatment that they need or into a zone that isn’t in conflict with everybody else’s rights.’”  Massive displacements of homeless camps are routinely legitimized by reference to the presence of rats (in a similar fashion, Occupy protestors and their camps have been cast as predators by focusing on the rats in their midst).

A homeless camp in Cincinnati (image courtesy a.r.briggs).

A homeless camp in Cincinnati (image courtesy a.r.briggs).

Rats make easy emotional vehicles to caricature homeless people, but a handful of archaeologists have been conducting systematic material and social analysis of homelessness that pushes beyond facile stereotypes.  The Indianapolis camps the Star lamented have been studied in a project directed by my colleague Larry Zimmerman, who has presented this work with Jessica Welch and Courtney Singleton at the World Archaeology Congress conference and published the research in World Archaeology, Archaeology, and Historical Archaeology.  They and a Cultural Heritage class produced a facebook site and book on one of the most prominent Indianapolis homeless communities.  The Indianapolis project suggests a series of modest everyday interventions in homeless services—providing can openers and socks, for instance, and understanding the everyday physical pathways of homeless people—that expand on simply warehousing homeless people into an undifferentiated shelter industry.  Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield have conducted a similar project in Bristol that they have extended to York as well.  These and a series of similar projects (e.g., Jason De Leon’s archaeology of illegal immigration) approach archaeology as an applied scholarship focused on social justice that uses material analysis to inform contemporary politics.

Homeless communities inevitably require a complex range of services, but superficial stereotypes like the Star’s lament over rats simply prevent effective strategies to address the needs of people living on the streets.  Homelessness and rats both provoke significant anxiety: the former reveals the liabilities of inequality and how society cares for its own, while the latter flourishes in the midst of that very inequality.  Archaeology provides no resolution to the deep-seated structural conditions that have fanned homelessness, but it provides a model for systematic and reflective analysis of material conditions that avoids shallow characterizations of complex realities.


Randall Amster and Martha Trenna Valado (eds.)

2012 Professional Lives, Personal Struggles: Ethics and Advocacy in Research on Homelessness.   Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

Birgitta Edelman

2002 “Rats Are People, Too!” Rat-Human Relations Re-RatedAnthropology Today 18(3):3-8.  (subscription access)

Edward Erikson

2008  Adomizen: A Foucaultian Archaeology of Homelessness in Washington, D.C.’;s Monumental Core.  Master of Arts Thesis, Georgetown University.

IUPUI Issues in Cultural Heritage Seminar

2011 Urban Heritage?: Archaeology and Homelessness in IndianapolisBookemon.

Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield

2010 Digging for (Invisible) PeopleBritish Archaeology 113.

2011 Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and HomelessnessPublic Archaeology 10(1):4–22.

Vincent Lyon-Callo

2004 Inequality, Poverty, and Neo-Liberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry.   University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Larry J. Zimmerman, Courtney Singleton, and Jessica Welch

2010 Activism and creating a translational archaeology of homelessnessWorld Archaeology

Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch

2011 Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1): 67-85. (subscription access)

Archaeopop Homeless Archaeology post

Homeless Archaeology youtube video’s

Homeless Heritage blog

Homeless Heritage York blog

Homeless Heritage of York


Providence Rhode Island Camp image courtesy lehcar1477

Cincinnati camp image courtesy a.r.briggs

Posted on February 23, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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