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“An Especially Thankless Work”? Filtering Practices in Emergency Shelters and Ethical Dilemmas for Street-level Social Workers in Western Switzerland

Béatrice Bertho and Hélène Martin


Based on an ethnographic survey conducted in services for the homeless in French-speaking Switzerland, this paper examines street-level social workers’ struggles between the implementation of official policies and their direct work with people. Beyond their common condition of homelessness, people looking for shelter are a very heterogeneous group: undocumented migrants and foreign workers rub shoulders with poor, local pensioners, or with persons suffering from drug addiction or mental illness. Guided by national and international residence and labour legislation, local authorities and institutions have their own policies – more or less strict in their exclusion of poor migrants – regarding the legitimate beneficiaries of a place in the emergency accommodation system. In this article, we analyse the encounters of street-level social workers with homeless people and examine the practical, value-based and ethical dilemmas they face, as well the use of their discretionary power in making more - or less - appropriate shelter available for destitute migrants.


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Published Online: 2021-02-26
Published in Print: 2020-12-16

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