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In this ethnography, we report three tales written from our perspective of retelling them. There are numerous ways to represent ethnographic data. Wolcott (1994) suggests using some combination of description, analysis, and interpretation. Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995) discuss organizing findings around a "thematic narrative," using a series of thematic units of fieldnotes, excerpts, and analytic comments. Some ethnographers tell types of "tales," such as tales that differ by audience (Richardson, 1990), "thrice-told" tales of feminism, postmodernism, and ethnographic responsibility (Wolf, 1992), and tales that incorporate different researcher perspectives such as realist, confessional, and critical tales (Van Maanen, 1988). The realist tale employs an impersonal point of view, conveying a concrete, scientific, and objective perspective. The confessional tale focuses on the researcher's fieldwork experiences, while the critical tale addresses larger social, political, symbolic, or economic issues.
This study presents our perspective on writing an ethnography using Van Maanen's (1988) realist, confessional, and critical tales. But our narrative is more than these three tales--we have found that another dimension has added to our understanding of a soup kitchen for the homeless: Our multiple tales have been shaped by the retelling of the tales to different audiences (Mitchell & Charmaz, 1996). We initially wrote the realist tale of the soup kitchen to provide an objective account that had not been written, and one that presented a description, analysis, and interpretation of the culture of one soup kitchen for the homeless. As we reflected on our fieldwork experiences and presented our realist tale to students in our qualitative research classes, the confessional tale about our fieldwork experiences emerged. These confessional stories took on a life of their own as we considered our own biases and backgrounds, questioned our motives for conducting the study, struggled with the issue of reciprocity and what we could give back to the soup kitchen and guests, and confronted issues related to our safety as researchers. Then we presented the study at a regional conference on social justice. Once again our study shifted, this time toward the reexamination, of our work from a critical perspective, raising questions relating to what benefits the soup kitchen and its guests received from our presence there, and how we might advocate for the homeless population. In the end, we have taken note of how our ethnographic tale of the homeless has shifted as a result of retelling it to different audiences. Our visualization of the overall conceptualization of the research process is represented by a funnel-shaped picture (see Figure 1). The funnel incorporates the three types of tales leading to the identification of the need for advocacy. The dotted lines indicate the permeability of the narratives and our inability to separate them, and the brackets on the outside of the funnel illustrate the evolution of this project through the retelling of the tales.
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
All three tales address the larger concerns and issues of the homeless population in the United States. Several studies address problems associated with this population, such as depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, and substance abuse (Bachrach, Santiago, Berren, & Hannah, 1987; Johnson & Barrett, 1995; Johnson & Parsons, 1994; Parsons, Johnson, & Barrett, 1993; Toro & Wall, 1991). Other studies explore the general assistance given to the homeless population (Rogers-Dillon, 1995), and the myths and stereotypes people ascribe to this group of individuals (Mowbray, 1985; Ostrow, 1995). More specific studies examine subcultures of the homeless population and sites where these individuals congregate (Burt & Cohen, 1989; Dordick, 1996; Kramer & Barker, 1996).
One useful site to gain a better understanding of the homeless population is the soup kitchen, where individuals develop social groups and interact with others like themselves (Glasser, 1988; Glasser & Suroviak, 1988). Problems and issues surface both for the guests and for those who support the kitchen (Chaiklin, 1985; Kahn, Hannah, Kirkland, Lesnik, Clemens, & Chatel, 1992; Muller, 1987; Schilling, El-Bassel, & Gilbert, 1992). A few studies address how these kitchens are run (Bowering, Clancy, & Poppendieck, 1991; DiFazio, 1991), the extent of their use by the homeless or near-homeless (Thompson, Taren, Andersen, Casella, Lambert, Campbell, Frongillo, & Spicer, 1988), and issues related to volunteers in the operation of the soup kitchen (Holden, 1997). The soup kitchen becomes a microcosm for studying the homeless population (Glasser, 1988; Glasser & Suroviak, 1988), and we can learn much from an ethnographic study that explores alternative narratives about the culture of a soup kitchen.
The purpose of this ethnographic study was to describe and interpret the cultural setting of the St. Tabor Soup Kitchen, located in a small Midwestern city called Midtown. St. Tabor is housed in a multipurpose complex with Daily Refuge (a daytime shelter for the homeless and near-homeless) and Community Thrift Shop. Three research questions emerged during the study: How might the soup kitchen, as a cultural setting, be described/? What are the cultural themes of the soup kitchen? How can we become advocates for the soup kitchen, day-shelter and the homeless population?
The Setting for the Tales
We observed homeless guests for 4 months during the noon lunch hour at St. Tabor Soup Kitchen. Our methodology was qualitative, involving ethnographic procedures (e.g., Fetterman, 1989; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995; Wolcott, 1994), and an evolving design to best understand the culture of the soup kitchen and the needs of the low-income and homeless population in Midtown. The noon lunch at St. Tabor was provided by Daily Refuge. Gaining access through the director of Daily Refuge, we volunteered for 4 months, serving meals in the soup kitchen and helping with clean-up. Data collection consisted of 35 observations, and formal and informal interviews. In addition, we collected documents describing the low-income population in the city, sign-in sheets that provided census data about guests, written materials about Daily Refuge, daily food menus, and we took photographs of the facility, town and guests. Our personal fieldnotes included conversations with guests, volunteers, and staff; notes from our research team meetings; and our interpretations and personal reflections.
Information-rich key informants were purposefully selected to participate in the study, including the director of Daily Refuge, the facility manager, and a homeless man who volunteered as a cook for many day's during our visit. With these individuals, we periodically shared our emerging cultural description of St. Tabor. Throughout the study, we verified the accuracy of our account by taking our report back to key informants and by triangulating among multiple participants, investigators, and data collection methods. We use pseudonyms throughout this report to protect the anonymity of the site and participants.
THE REALIST TALE
Realist tales are characterized by the absence of the author, representation of the native's point of view, and "a documentary style focused on minute, sometimes precious, but thoroughly mundane details of every day life among the people studied" (Van Maanen, 1998, p. 48). Another convention of this type of tale is interpretive omniscience where "the ethnographer has the final word on how the culture is to be interpreted and presented" (p. 51). Realist tales provide direct, matter-of-fact portrayal of culture and are the most familiar form of ethnography. This realist tale describes the setting for the study, discusses three cultural themes, and identifies interpretations in the form of cultural rules.
The Cultural Setting
Midtown is a small, Midwestern city of almost 200,000, with a predominately White (94.45%) population. Considering the relatively small size of the community, homeless individuals are often visible on the streets. At night they sleep on park benches, under bridges, on porches, in doorways, and with friends who have a bed. During the day, several gather at Daily Refuge, which opens its doors at 7:30 a.m.
St. Tabor soup kitchen is located in a complex that also houses Daily Refuge and Community Thrift Shop. It is four blocks from downtown Midtown and two blocks from a major university. The large, modern building is impressive. It occupies almost one quarter of a block, with the visible entrance to St. Tabor marked by a crisp green and white striped awning that covers a recessed doorway. This could be the entrance to a small business, not a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Walking around the complex provides a contrasting picture, one less modern, more rundown. The day-shelter entrance is located beyond a tall chain-link gate, up a slightly inclining gravel drive, and past a weathered picnic table where "guests" congregate. Community Thrift Shop is located at the back of the complex and here the contrast with the rest of the facility is most striking. Piles of lumber, stacked appliances, disassembled bed frames, mattresses, and assorted carpet pieces litter the grounds, resembling a salvage yard.
Daily Refuge was created in 1989 …