Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Studies

First Advisor

Kenneth Zagacki


The central question this dissertation seeks to answer is: What does homelessness mean, and how is that meaning rhetorically constructed? What homelessness means is not fixed nor static, but varies with use. To discover and develop these different meanings, three sets of data were examined: a judicial opinion, an advocate's congressional testimony, and testimonial narratives by the homeless. This data includes rhetoric produced from three distinct points of view--one that is sympathetic to the homeless, one that is hostile to the homeless, and one that has experienced homelessness. A Burkean methodology was employed, supplemented, where appropriate, with insights from postmodern theorists. The goal of this research was to articulate the multiple voices which make up the text of homelessness. This study departs from traditional rhetorical studies by focusing on the homeless, a marginal group. It also embodies tradition by examining the official text of the dominant group. Four conclusions can be drawn from this research. First, the rhetoric of the homeless is unique, for through it, the homeless work to overcome liminality. The act of testifying is a means of asserting one's self. Second, the site of the discourse is an important component of a speaker's legitimacy. Homeless individuals speaking on Capitol Hill are considered legitimate; those speaking on the street are not. The site confers legitimacy. Third, the presence and absence of the homeless are rhetorically significant. Presence was used rhetorically to justify laws making the homeless absent, to urge action on their behalf, and as proof that action can be effective. Absence was used rhetorically to make the homeless go away and to deny responsibility for the problem. By testifying, the homeless became a presence which could not be ignored. Fourth, something is undeniably lost when others speak for us. Telling one's own story may be the ultimate means of empowerment. The homeless, however, may never get access to the political apparatus without representation by an advocate. The key to the success of any social action is to control, as much as possible, the way the audience perceives it. The means to this end is rhetoric.