Thursday, 5 November 2015

Surveillance in supportive housing: Intrusion or autonomy?

Cameron Parsell

University of Queensland, Australia

In my article entitled, ‘Surveillance in supportive housing: Intrusion or autonomy?’, I examine surveillance in supportive housing.

Both our theories of human behaviour and people’s relationship with place suggest that surveillance poses an intrusive force. The experience of home relies on privacy and the absence of surveillance. Home is, or at least is idealised as, a place where we can experience the freedom to live of our own volition. As a place of privacy home is juxtaposed to the city; in the modern city surveillance is omnipresent. Home is positioned as a refuge from the fluid and monitored spaces of our cities.

Theories about home, privacy, and our expectations of being free from surveillance are intuitively appealing. Although children are supervised by parents and significant others, as adults we expect to live as we choose and without scrutiny at home. Home is a place where we can do what we want, including inviting and restricting visitors as we see fit. Indeed, violence and oppression experienced in the home violate our normative expectations that home is a place of peace and order where we can exert control.

The significance of home as a place free from surveillance, on the one hand, and new models of supportive housing that purposefully adopt surveillance mechanisms, on the other, motivated the research driving my article. I wanted to examine the function of surveillance. In the research I sought to empirically study how tenants experienced surveillance, and how housing and support providers understood the role of surveillance in the lives of those monitored.

The research identified two key findings. First, and consistent with existing theories, surveillance was controlling and restrictive. Tenants experienced, and housing and support providers advocated for, surveillance to intervene to restrict freedoms and to protect vulnerable people. It was recognised among tenants and housing and support providers alike that surveillance is counterproductive to achieving independence and self-determination.

Second, the research found that instead of simply being passively subject to surveillance, tenants purposefully used surveillance for their advantage. Surveillance in supportive housing was a resource actively used by tenants to create the conditions to control their lives. Tenants saw surveillance as playing a desirable role. Surveillance, as provided through the concierge and onsite support workers, meant that tenants could achieve safety and security by minimising the threats posed by others. Tenants used surveillance to restrict unwanted visitors. Contrary to what may be expected based on theories of home as a place of privacy, surveillance was a resource that tenants drew on to exercise control and autonomy over how they lived.

The research’s contribution is to demonstrate the desirability and utility of surveillance in supportive housing as a mechanism to achieve safety and control for tenants who had otherwise experienced violence and marginalisation in mainstream housing and as homeless. For people who had experienced unsafe neighbourhoods and forms of accommodation – for people who were unable to draw on informal resources and networks to achieve safety and control – formal surveillance constituted a useful resource. Although surveillance acted to limited autonomy, it was also used as a resource that enabled people to exercise control. Surveillance is thus not the antithesis of home.

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