“No matter how you word it, it’s for me”: Mandated writing practices in a homeless shelter for mothers in recovery


This case study is part of a larger investigation of literacy practices at New Beginnings shelter, a long-term transitional homeless shelter for addicted mothers and their children. We asked, “What is the nature of writing in a homeless shelter committed to the rehabilitation and recovery of mothers from addiction?” At New Beginnings, mandated writing serves as a way to help women confront their addictions and develop necessary skills to live independently. The social nature of writing is partly determined through explicit norms and routines for purpose, format, and audience and includes regular feedback from shelter staff and/or peers. Of the various writing practices undertaken, we discuss (a) required letters addressed to one’s inner child, one’s body, and one’s disease; (b) “staff actions,” which is on-demand writing on a required topic due to a shelter infraction; and (c) daily journaling. Drawing upon complementary theories of literacy as a social practice, literacy events and practices, a community of practice, and Foucault’s concept of power as relations, we explore the social processes surrounding mandated writing among members of this shelter community. We note how writing can be a signal of legitimate participation in the rehabilitation process and how it serves as a form of dialogue between participants. Although these practices were sometimes filled with tension, their shared nature strengthened the shelter community through a productive process.

Publication Title

Journal of Literacy Research