Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sociology and Anthropology

Department name when degree awarded

Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology

Committee Chair(s)

Leon Anderson


Leon Anderson


Derrik Tollefson


Erin Hofmann


Jen Roark


David Snow


Social service outreach workers serving homeless populations exemplify what Michael Lipsky calls street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) who exercise discretionary power in the performance of their professional roles. This dissertation draws on over 200 hours of ethnographic fieldwork in an urban center in the Mountain West to examine the challenges faced by homeless outreach workers and case managers in serving the needs of homeless clients and the practices they use to manage those challenges. Using a grounded theory analysis of participant observation and interview data, this dissertation focuses on what is termed “aggressive advocacy” in which social service SLBs creatively and actively pursue work arounds and solutions to potential barriers to homeless services for their clients. The analytic concept of “fitting stories” is used to describe the ways in which SLBs assist their clients in developing service-worthy narratives. They implement the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool in ways that probe clients’ conditions and experiences to capture potentially missed vulnerabilities and enhance service-eligible vulnerability scores. Homeless SLBs also invoke discretionary power in negotiating with other agency gatekeepers and landlords, and they may go beyond their official job descriptions to spend time helping homeless clients who are resistant to services or at risk of losing them. In each of these aggressive advocacy activities, homeless SLBs demonstrate discretionary power in supporting their clients and fulfilling their agencies’ mission to serve homeless clients. Several implications of these findings for better understanding social services for the homeless are addressed as well as the broader implications of this study for understanding street-level bureaucracy more generally.



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