Date of Award

August 2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Erica Bornstein

Committee Members

Paul Brodwin, Thomas Malaby, Douglas Ihrke


affect, care, ethics, pastoral power, subjectivity


This dissertation explores the ethical, affective, and subjective worlds of homeless service providers in a US city. While ample studies have been conducted that focus on homeless populations in the United States, very little ethnographic research has been undertaken that focuses on those who interact most with homeless populations—workers in the homeless service sector. Drawing on fifteen months of ethnographic research and forty interviews with staff conducted in 2017 and 2018, I examine the work of care and the complex experiences that workers faced in their attempts to provide care for homeless clients at a nonprofit homeless shelter for men in an American Midwestern city.My study produced three key findings. First, an ethics of optimism informs the work of care at the shelter. Shelter staff wanted to be effective workers in this institution and hoped their work contributed, in small ways, to making the world a better place. By providing a variety of services for homeless men and doing their part to fulfill the duties of their institutional roles, workers took part in ethical relations guided by optimism. Second, because their optimistic work unfolded amid circumstances often shaped by crisis, front-line workers regularly found themselves profoundly affected by impasses of care in which they could do nothing more to care for clients. Their optimism often became cruel as their routine work wore them down affectively and emotionally. Third, front-line staff persisted despite such cruel optimism by attempting to negotiate fraught and unclear boundaries between themselves and their clients. Given the conditions of crisis of their work and their precarious position at the front-line, workers were constituted as vulnerable and crisis-shaped subjects that negotiated boundaries as a last resort to cope with the often-costly consequences of providing care to marginalized homeless men. Taken together, these three findings contribute to an anthropology of care by illuminating the difficult moral work of attempting to care amid contexts of crisis.