A Homeless Veterans Shelter is a Total Institution – blog by David M. Boje, Ph.D. Sep 3 2015Fifth,

I want to make a point. Why it is that many shelters, missions, centers for homeless veterans ‘care’ can not help become top-down bureaucratic management, outright total institutions. Erving Goffman’s (1961, Asylums) definition of the Total Institution, has much in common with Homeless Veterans ‘Shelters’ around the world. As we establish Veterans Theater, and do something called ‘making room for veterans stories’ it is important that we go bottom-up and change the nature of total institutions.

Every Shelter captures some of the space, time, and mattering of interests of its members. “in brief, every institution has encompassing tendencies” (Goffman, 1961: 4). There is a barrier to social intercourse, and discourse between those inside and those outside the institution.  A simple chain linked fence, a sign in process, are some of the barriers.  The total institutions come in several types:

  1. A total institution established to care for persons thought incapable of self-care on their own, and harmless to the community, e.g. a Shelter for Homeless Veterans, a Gospel Rescue Mission, other kinds of Day Shelters, a Transitional living facility for veterans  in transitional living (e.g. HUD housing), moving in a path out of homeless veteran towards homed-veteran. I have been volunteering at both such facilities, as well as in public housing, in Los Angeles, e.g. Nickerson Gardens, We can add homes of veterans who are seniors, having health isues.
  2. A total institution that has people there thought to be both incapable of self-care, and a threat to the community, albeit unintended, such as a mental hospital
  3. A total institution organized to protect the community against intentional dangers, such as P.O.W. and concentration camps, and of course jails, prisons.
  4. A total institution that purportedly pursues a work-like task, such as military barracks, boarding school, work camps, colonial compounds, or servants’ quarters. We could add universities that dorm their students.
  5. A total institution that is a retreat, a training station such as abbey, monastery, convent, or some retreat such as, Legacy Ranch, that our foundation would like to set up for veterans and families to decompress after deployment, and acreage for homeless veterans, and homeless to take a break from the first type of total institution, the shelter.

A total institution is an interplay of three or more worlds, such as the world of care, the world of work, the world of sleep, and the world of play.


The four spheres of life come together differently in various places that serve Homeless Veterans, Veterans and Families post-deployment, and just Veterans, or just Homeless.

The staff of such Total Institutions schedule the activities, control the intake, set people into their sleeping quarters, arrange work schedules, even organize play. As the worlds collide, the staff plans while the members find their communication, their storytelling gets controlled.  A distance can form between staff and members. “Two different social and cultural words develop, jogging alongside each other with points of official contact but little mutual penetration” (p. 9). the world of staff and the world of members of the institution, develop separate concerns, and standpoints in the four worlds (care, play, sleep, & work).

The staff-member split is a major implication of the “bureaucratic management” of large numbers of persons.

First, the implication of the bureaucratic management beginning to carry out plans, strategies, programs for the members, under a single authority, of the total institution. Meanwhile the members grow dependent.

Second, a total institution, there grows a split between the members inside the institution, and those outside. In the case of homeless veterans, its a split that grows between the homeless veterans still outside the institution, couch surfing, or being nomadic sleeping rough, and the homeless veterans now in an institution setting. The bureaucratic management (executives, board members, case managers, supervisors of the institution) begin to treat those on the inside and those on the outside with a difference.  Those on the inside, don’t fight, follow the rules, pitch in by volunteering to pull guard duty, must clean up, do not complain, etc.

Third, the work days and play time, the sleep time, and the care time are all tightly scheduled by the staff at prearranged times, and members have to stick around and be available for those activities the staff is scheduling, the events of the institution take priority over individual’s events.

Fourth, the total institutions’s activities, even the name of the total institution come to be identified as “somehow belonging to staff” to the management of the institution (p. 9).

Fifth, a single logic comes to be identified as fulfilling the official aims of the total institution, again from standpoint of the management, the board, and the staff. The logic is of course top-down.

Sixth, the total institution arranges its four worlds of activity so that a lot of it takes placed in a fenced-in or walled-in area. There are sub areas for a garden,, a BBQ, a sink, a place to cool off, that are separate from the sleeping place, and perhaps a horse shoe pit, in a play area. Meanwhile separate eating areas, office and conference areas are just for staff, board and upper management, and those doors get locked.

Seventh, the total institution develops penalties for lack of compliance to the rules, kinds of punishment, that are more or less enforced. It is the supervisory staff that metes out the punishment, and in extreme cases the upper management. The rules vary between tent camps and dorms.

Eight, staff can behave with a superior and righteous attitude to members, who are held to be in a lower-status. I have experienced the reverse, as staff to an Army Officers Training Unity, as an enlisted corporal (Spec 4), I was often shown my place, at Fort Lewis, VA.

Nine, over time, in a place, the storytelling, becomes such that the executives, managers, and staff are expected to speak for the institution, give all its official and even unofficial representations.

Ten, now that we are doing Veterans Theater, we are finding some resistance by total institutions to homeless veterans developing their own storytelling, and theatrically developing a play about their life in total institution that purport to combine the worlds of sleep, work, play, and care.

The point I am making is the way that a total institution is organized, and managed, sets up a split between staff and members that functions to control the members communication to themselves, to each other, and to the public.

Let’s look at some examples:

“So what’s life like in a shelter, eh?

“Well, for starters when you first enter the facility, you have to fill out a bunch of papers. Our experience with this part wasn’t too bad considering by this time we had become pros with paperwork. After we were done, the security guard went over the “rules and regulations.”

“Let me go over them with you.

“The first rule is the one I DREAD the most and that is the curfew. You must be in the building by 10 p.m. or you get written up, and if you’re wondering how any one would know, well there’s 24-hour security at the entrance and everyone who lives in the facility is obligated to sign in and out each time we leave or enter the building. There are exceptions for school and work only but you must provide legitimate documents to prove your hours conflict with the set curfew time. Any day that you are not working or in school, the curfew will be in effect. It sounds depressing right? Believe me, it is.

“Another annoying rule is the “10 to 2″ rule. I bet you’re wondering “What the hell is that?” Well it’s pretty simple. Everyone who is living in the facility has to leave at 10 a.m. and cannot come back until 2 p.m. on weekdays. If you fail to leave before 10 or come back before 2, you get written up. If you fail to leave the building completely, it’s also considered a write up. With that said, there are exceptions for the disabled and sick, but you must have documents proving your illness. If not, well then out you go, rain or snow. Actually I’m exaggerating. We don’t have to leave our rooms for the “10-2″ rule if the temperature outside is 35 degrees or lower. I guess they don’t consider 36 degrees as cold.

“By now I’m sure you’re wondering what’s the big deal is about getting ‘written up?’ It’s a pretty big deal. Just think of it as if it were baseball. Three strikes and you’re out. Granted they can’t just throw you out into the streets for nothing, but what they can do is request that you be removed from the facility by a higher power and as you await your fate they move you up to the sixth floor and you’ll be what they call a “next step client.” What’s a “next step client?” Well, the curfew for these clients is 8 p.m. and they’re not allowed to have televisions, radios or cell phones. And here I am thinking 10 p.m. is bad.

‘Other rules include:

No smoking

No drinking

No fighting, which includes really loud arguments

No leaving the facility after 10 p.m.

If your “next step,” it’s 8 p.m.

You MUST sign in and out each and every time you leave the facility”  (source).

Here is another example of Shelters with lots of rules, I counted over 50 rules. Here are a few, less than half:

Admission Guidelines

  • We do not accept persons under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs
  • We do not accept anyone who has a history of severe criminal acts or violent offense(s),
  • We do not accept registered sex offenders
  • We do not accept persons who have obvious or a history of physical or mental health needs beyond the scope of our services
  • Residents must be able to live independently and adhere to shelter rules

Intake Process

  1. Applicants must complete an Emergency Shelter Admissions Form.
  2. Staff will conduct an interview.
  3. Applicants must have two forms of identification are required; one must be a photo ID. (See Attachment A for acceptable forms of ID.)
  4. Staff will perform a criminal records background check, a check of the national sex offender registry, and a search of the N. C. Homeless Assistance Database (CHIN Network).
  5. Staff will administer a breathalyzer test.
  6. All admissions are tentative, until approved by the shelter director.

Staff Duties and Responsibilities

  1. Staff will read Resident Duties and Responsibilities and place a signed copy in the residents’ file.
  2. Inform residents of the N. C. Homeless Association CHIN database and how their demographic data will be used and safe-guarded. A written acknowledgement should be placed in the residents’ file. Enter resident’s data in the CHIN Network.
  3. Inform residents of community resources that that might help their situation.
  4. Inform residents of their responsibility to search for employment and housing and the need to submit daily documentation of their efforts.
  5. Make bed assignments.
  6. Give resident a tour of the facility; identifying areas that are off limits.
  7. Provide clothing, towels, and personal hygiene products, if needed.
  8. Inspect residents’ personal belongings for weapons, alcohol or illegal drugs.
  9. Monitor all phone calls and ensuring long distance calls are not made.
  10. Check-in with the shelter director or executive director when reporting for work.
  11. Put soup on in the morning for the soup kitchen before leaving except on Thursdays.
  12. Make sure breakfast is put out and offered to each resident.
  13. Staff members shall not have any personal outside relationships with residents anytime or exchange personal information.
  14. Supervise resident chores.


It is difficult for a total institution to implement a bottom-up, a democratic way of instituting rules, and allowing communication to be both ways, and to have a space, time, and mattering, where members speak for themselves, theatricalize their own Situation.

For most of the homeless veterans’ shelters, missions, dorms, transitional units, I have volunteers at – its a top-down storytelling.  And asking about the other side of a storytelling by a staff or manager, is considered a matter of resistance to the established administrative order.

The ways of storytelling, who tells for whom about whom, is often from the top-down, and is a way of control of the co-operativeness of the new member, and the old ones, who are expected to be “routinely pliant” and compliant, giving deference to the staff” being obedient is apart of the socialization experience of the new members, and a strong expectation of the total institution (Goffman, 1961, 17).

So that is why we think that Veterans Theater is helpful, and things we think about in creating Legacy Ranch, and Tent City Solutions


How you can help: Click on GoFundMe – thank you!


We are called the “Antenarrative Foundation.” David Boje (2001) invented the word ‘antenarrative’ to get at what is behind and below usual official narratives of care-giving about veterans, homeless veterans, and homeless.

Antenarrative is a five-fold meaning of the word ‘ante‘ in relation to ‘narratives’ that have formed in the public sphere. Ante means (1) before, (2) bet, (3) beneath, (4) between) in (5) becoming of care. We have a whole totality of involvements that took place over the past 18 months, and more are taking place today, plus what involvements are still to come, and are outstanding.  For more on the meaning of Antenarrative, please see ANTENARRATIVE BLOG.

Mission Statement of Antenarrative Foundation: ‘Making Space for Veterans Stories’

Organization Chart

Our Bylaws provide for four programs:

  1. Veterans and Theater (http://veteranstheater.com ) is the first program of Antenarrative Foundation. This is education and outreach by the veterans and/or homeless to the community, using theater skits to showcase the ‘Living Story Web’ of veterans and/or homeless own lived experience here and now, in relation to ‘Dominant Narratives’ (& counternarratives) that stereotype or stigmatize them, along with the ‘Antenarrative processes’ that connect them.
  2. Legacy Ranch (http://davidboje.com/eagle ) is the second program of Antenarrative Storytelling Foundation. Legacy Ranch has Equine-Assisted-Growth-Learning-Events (EAGLE) activities as well as spaces for veterans and family members to decompress after employment. It is initially one, and in the long-term several ranches dedicated to services and ongoing research that help veterans (& their family members) make the transition after deployment to sustainable- economics, living, health, and community participation. One of the activities is equine-assisted care for veterans (and family members) using groundwork. Veterans and family members stay in cabins for weekend, week-long, or month-long decompression activities. Decompression means being in nature, being with animals, and being with family and friends to decompress after combat or post-combat military experiences. The purpose is to help veterans and family members who experience the stress of deployment to reintegrate. Another activity is ’embodied restory process’ that is part of ‘material storytelling’. Material storytelling uses sandtray events, and can include equine-arena work, where material objects are places in a space, by facilitators and/or by veterans (& family members) to depict their past, present, and future. Other activities include working with nature, with ranch animals, and having counselors available for confidential help with veteran and family issues.   We also use acreage to do homeless retreats. It is initially one, and in the long-term several ranches dedicate to services and ongoing research that helps homeless make their transition to sustainable socioeconomic living and community participation. Activities include ’embodied restorying process’ of ‘Material storytelling’ using sandtray, and/or arena work. Homelessness does not end when a homeless person gets a tent, a cabin, an apartment, a trailer, or a home. Homelessness ends when the person enters a sustainable economic, health, living, and societal relationship. Such a Homeless Ranch would be managed and directed by Veterans Theater.
  3. Tent City Solutions – A third program includes writing of books based on our involvements with and do consulting that brings about Tent City Solutions (http://tentcitysolutions.co ), and also helping other veterans and homeless to write books focused on antenarratives of their experiences, that are beneath or covered over by the official or public narratives of a city or its agencies..
  4. BIGstory Conference (http://bigstoryconference.com ) is conference program of the Antenarrative Storytelling Foundation. It is an annual conference that connects academic scholars with something to say about ‘antenarrative’ research, theory, and method to corporate applications of ‘antenarrative’. Those applications include the field of ‘organization storytelling,’ ‘storytelling organizations’, ‘Material story’, ‘Material storytelling,’ ‘quantum storytelling,’ ‘fractal change management,’ and related topics. BIGstory Conference is the 2015 iteration of Quantum Storytelling Conference, now in its fifth year. The Antenarrative Foundation, through Bigstory Conference, and other activities described next, raises money to support Antenarrative Foundation programs.