To say Eric Weissman had his boots on the ground while researching his PhD dissertation on homelessness can only be an understatement. He lived in it, slept in it and somehow survived it.
Dr. Weissman’s unflinching documentation of tent cities, shanty towns and homelessness recently received the 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award for the fine arts, humanities and social sciences from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. At 53, he is the oldest recipient of the award, having begun his doctoral studies at the age of 48 at Concordia University. In 1985, he earned a BA and then a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, followed by more than a decade of addiction and periodic homelessness.
“I was really at the bottom,” he recalls. “It’s beyond belief …I honestly only had a couple of months left in me.”
His interest in studying and documenting intentional homeless communities or shanty towns was sparked after visiting Toronto’s Tent City in 2001 and producing a film on the community.
“It was literally a mindbender. You could not get your head out of there once you were in there,” Dr. Weissman says. “This was Toronto – a wealthy place. The contradiction was amazing.
“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?”
Dr. Weissman spun that research into an unconventional PhD combining interviews, text, photography, social media and video. He called it “Spaces, Places and States of Mind.”
This is also the first time the prestigious CAGS prize has been awarded to a student in an Individualized study program.
“He had such an odd biography, that the independent studies program worked very well for him,” says Greg Nielsen, chair of Concordia’s sociology and anthropology department and Dr. Weissman’s academic adviser.
“He was an outstanding student from the very beginning. Between doing his BA in anthropology and his MA in sociology, it’s very interesting to have a base in a discipline and then become very interdisciplinary,” says Dr. Nielsen. “I think it’s really key to the kind of success he has.”
The primary focus of the winning dissertation was another intentional community, Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon.
“I was the first person to live there and study it,” says Dr. Weissman. “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. When you live there, you realize this is a small group that has a lot of problems. You have people who are suffering from PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] from being on the streets, many of whom have mental health and all of whom have addiction problems. They are living in a small piece of land that is under-resourced, so it is astonishing to me that these places manage to survive at all.”
Dr. Weissman is now teaching at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, B.C., where he is continuing his research into homelessness.
“We need to identify the groups that can use housing,” he says. “In the dissertation I finally argue that these tent camps may be important for certain types of homelessness but for people who are low-wage earners and can’t afford their homes, people who are in jeopardy of losing their homes, people who need long-term care for mental health or addiction reasons, we need to give them back the long-term care they used to get.”
His own experience is instructive. “The fact that the government supported rehab and transitional housing saved me. We really need more of that.”
Dr. Weissman will receive a $1,500 cash prize and will describe his dissertation at the CAGS annual conference, being held Oct. 27-30 in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The Distinguished Dissertation Award recognizes doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences and one in engineering medical sciences and natural sciences. The latter was awarded to Daniel Boyce, a PhD graduate in biology at Dalhousie University for his thesis showing an annual one-percent decline in plankton over the last 40 years.