Former homeless man wins CAGS dissertation award

Work focuses on shanty towns, need for long-term care

A former homeless man and addict won the 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) for his multidisciplinary work on shanty towns and tent camps in North America.

Eric Weissman earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Toronto—followed by about ten years of addiction and periodic homelessness.

Government-supported rehab and transitional housing saved him, says Weissman, who went on to earn his doctorate from Concordia University.

His dissertation, "Spaces, Places and States of Mind," combines interviews, text, photography, social media, and video. He is the first student in an individualized study program to earn the CAGS award—and, he says, the first researcher to live in the communities he studies.

"A lot of people come in and study it for long periods of time, but they’ve never slept there. They never tried to live there and get to know what it is like," says Weissman.

He argues that tent camps may be important for certain groups of homeless people, but low-wage earners and those suffering mental health or addiction problems need long-term care and support.

The dissertation's primary subject is Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. It was inspired by a film Weissman produced on Toronto's Tent City after visiting in 2001.

"The film opens with a scene of Tent City and all around it are cranes building condominiums,” he continues. “Then there’s this shanty town and this is Toronto. So that’s the subtext for all my work. How is that possible in the rich West?"

Weissman now teaches and continues his research at College of New Caledonia in British Columbia. In honor of the award, he will receive $1,500 and present his dissertation at the annual CAGS conference later this month (Rynor, University Affairs/Affaires Universitaires, 10/1). 

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