Negotiating spaces: A study of street life, peer involvement, and homelessness in Harvard Square

Date of Completion

January 2009


Sociology, General




Though researchers acknowledge that not all youth and young adults who engage in street life are actively homeless, and that they correspond to different subcultural styles, little is understood about this diversity and the dimensions and dynamics of their peer involvement (Caputo et al. 1997; Kipke et al. 1997a). Drawing on theories of social capital, delinquency, subculture, and networks, I explored interactions that occurred in one urban street congregating area (the Pit in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts) where a collection of homeless and non-homeless youth and young adults of various ages and subculture affiliations congregate. ^ I conducted participant observation over one 6 month period (June-November, 2006). During this time I also conducted 56 in-depth interviews with participants. ^ Congregating here provided a social experience for marginalized young people who came to identify with one another through their participation. Despite their differences, participants found commonalities with one another and interacted. While they engaged in various forms of delinquency, peers provided practical and symbolic resources for one another, alleviating harms associated with street life and homelessness, while providing a source of solidarity. The negotiation processes that underlie these intergroup interactions shaped identities, social relations and norms and consequently benefited the multiple groups that participated. ^ Young homeless populations are neither isolated, nor exclusive groupings. An analysis of their street peers in a setting where they congregate offers insight into a highly evolved world of diversity and dimension. I offer a new way of looking at homeless street youth and young adult populations as participants in extended heterogeneous social networks of transitioning young people and offer suggestions for future research and theoretical development in these areas. ^