Although homeless populations are mentioned in studies of disaster vulnerability, discussions of their unique experiences, capacities, and vulnerabilities are often referred to tangentially. In an effort to address this gap in the literature, this research explores the experiences of predisaster homeless individuals and homeless-serving organizations (HSOs) during and following the 2013 floods in Boulder County, Colorado. I present data collected through over 100 hours of participant observation at HSOs, roughly 100 documentary sources, 28 semi-structured interviews with community stakeholders (e.g., staff from HSOs and public officials), and unstructured interviews and focus groups with 27 homeless individuals who were present during the floods.

To situate my research, I draw upon social disaster vulnerability and political economy perspectives. Using the Pressure and Release (PAR) model introduced by Blaikie et al. (1994; Wisner et al. 2003) to organize my theoretical approach, I define political-economic root causes that lead to dynamic pressures, which produce unsafe conditions for homeless individuals and the organizations that serve them. I demonstrate how processes of neoliberalization have resulted in unequal urban design and policy, subsequently criminalizing homeless persons and increasing their vulnerability to disaster. At the same time, these processes have shifted responsibility for social welfare from the state to non-state actors, such as nonprofit community-based organizations, that are often strained in the ability to serve an increasing number of clients in need of their services. Further, in moving beyond social vulnerability studies that tend to homogenize marginalized and underserved groups, I demonstrate factors that increase and decrease homeless individuals’ and HSOs’ vulnerability and resilience to disaster. The broader implications of this research speak to the need to understand structural factors that create risk and vulnerability while simultaneously hindering efforts to enhance community resilience.

Committee:
Kathleen Tierney (Chair)
Lori Hunter (Co-Chair)
Liesel Ritchie
Leslie Irvine
Don Grant