If there were genes for homelessness

Photo by Flickr user St Stev. Click for SourceThis month’s British Journal of Psychiatry has a quietly powerful poem by psychiatrist Sean Spence which highlights the sometimes uncomfortable misconnection between the problems we study and the problems we face.

Spence is well-known for his work in cognitive neuropsychiatry although has had a long-standing interest in treating mental health difficulties in those living on the street.

If Homelessness Were Genetic
by Sean Spence

If homelessness were genetic,
Institutes would be constructed
With tall white walls,
And ‘driven’ people (with thick glasses)
Would congregate
In libraries

And mumble.

If homelessness were genetic
Bright young things
Would draft manifestos
‘To crack the problem’

Girls with braces on their teeth
Would stoop to kiss
Boys with dandruff
At Unit discos

While dancing (slowly)
To ‘Careless Whisper’.

Meanwhile, upstairs, in the offices
Secretaries in long white coats
And horn-rimmed spectacles,
Carrying clipboards,
Would cross their legs
And take dictation:

  ‘Miss Brown, a memo please,
  To the eminent Professor Levchenko,
  “Many thanks indeed
  For all those sachets you sent to me,
  Of homeless toddlers’ teeth.”’

If homelessness were genetic
Rats from broken homes
Would sleep in cardboard shoeboxes
Evading violent fathers,
Who broke their bones,
While small white mice
With cocaine habits
Would huddle in fear,
Sleeping in doorways,
Receiving calibrated kicks from gangs of passers-by

(A “geneenvironment interaction”).

If homelessness were genetic
Then the limping man, with swollen feet,
A fever,
And the voices crying out within his brain
Would not traipse
Between surgery and casualty
Being turned away
For being roofless

Because, of course,
Homelessness would be genetic

And, therefore,


  1. Twist
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Needs some work.

  2. Dr Graham Pluck
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I worked with Professor Spence on research projects into homelessness. He was very well known for his work on brain imaging and on volition. He needn’t have bothered with clinical or research work with the homeless, but he did.

    It was sad then that I learnt of his death on Christmas day. He really was a very good scientist and a caring clinician.

  3. Posted January 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Great Poem. The psychology behind “interesting” and worthy of research is often a sad duality. I’m glad to hear he practiced the latter.

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