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Understanding Homelessness: From Memoir to Pathways Home (May 2014): Homeless Ethnographies

By Irene Glasser and Eric Hirsch

Homeless Ethnographies

Ethnographies have some of the same important benefits memoirs offer; they are a window into life experiences that many people do not know much about.  Still, it is important for ethnographers to avoid the ethnographic fallacy—i.e., becoming so immersed in the lives of one’s research subjects that the larger economic and political forces causing their plight are ignored.  The best ethnographies take this context into account, and, fortunately, they generally do not require a tale of redemption to get into print.

You Owe Yourself a Drunk by James Spradley is an early ethnographic description of the men who lived on skid row in Seattle, Washington.  With this pioneering ethnographic work, Spradley inspired a generation of anthropologists because he talked with the men who frequented the cheap hotels and single-room-occupancy hotels (“flophouses”), taverns, and gambling houses.  When not on skid row, the men spent time in jail and in detoxification units.  Interviewees told Spradley that after being institutionalized “you owe yourself a drunk.”  Spradley brought his skills as a linguistic anthropologist to a study of the insider’s worldview of life on skid row.

In More than Bread: Ethnography of a Soup Kitchen, Irene Glasser describes life inside a soup kitchen in which more than a hundred poor and homeless individuals, some in family groups, spent much of the day with only a few staff.  This was a community that formed around the centerpiece of the noontime meal.  The book charts the spontaneous networks that formed among the diners.  Glasser presents the soup kitchen as a place for sociability for people, some of whom had few other social contacts.

David Snow and Leon Anderson’s Down on Their Luck is a comprehensive ethnographic study of homeless street people in Austin, Texas.  The authors cover a variety of dimensions of street life, including work, range of movement, sleeping arrangements, substance use, identity work and talk, and time spent on the street.  They describe paths into and out of homelessness and make the point that most homeless people have had a streak of bad luck, a series of misfortunes that ultimately lead to their homelessness.

David Wagner looks at a homeless community in New England in Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community.  Wagner writes of the roles of the labor market, family ties, and the social welfare system in causing people to fall into homelessness.  He argues for a more radical approach to homelessness, one in which housing, services, and jobs are located in the physical and social community that the homeless have already created.

In Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood among the Homeless, Robert Desjarlais focuses his attention on the corrosive effects of shelter life on the homeless person.  What he found was a sense of “struggling along,” or just existing, which could be seen as a shelter-induced adaptation and not primarily due to the mental illness suffered by most of the residents.  He observed the many forms of social control that staff had over the residents, including the threat of ejection from the shelter.

Michael Rowe analyzes the interaction between mental health outreach workers and homeless street people in New Haven, Connecticut, in Crossing the Border.  Utilizing a symbolic interactionist social psychology, Rowe analyzes the physical, social, and psychological gulf (the “border” of the title) between the world of mentally ill homeless clients and that of middle-class professional outreach workers.  He includes in the book the voices of homeless people, and he makes good use of insider knowledge, avoiding the usual myths associated with homelessness.  Echoing Snow and Anderson, Rowe points out that homelessness is often the result of a series of crises involving bad luck, missed opportunities, and loss of support from family, friends, and social institutions.

In Inequality, Poverty, and Neoliberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry, Vincent Lyon-Callo clearly articulates the relationship between the political economy in the United States and the emergency shelter industry.  The book is informed by five years of ethnographic fieldwork in a homeless shelter in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Like Wagner’s Checkerboard Square, Lyon-Callo’s book discusses why homelessness persists even when the U.S. economy expands and money is spent on shelters.  Lyon-Callo argues that a solution to homelessness can come only with acknowledgment of the problems that result from depending on a capitalist market economy that generates mainly low-wage jobs, and a political system that fails to provide low-income housing and an adequate social safety net.

In Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness, Randall Amster discusses what occurs when formerly public space is privatized, leaving homeless communities—in a city with no shelters and few daytime respites—with no place to sleep, rest, use the bathroom, or socialize.  The contestation of public space he looks at is in Tempe, Arizona, and the case study highlights the needs of an often overlooked community of citizens as the city proceeds with its plan for redevelopment.  Another book on contested space and homelessness is StreetCities: Rehousing the Homeless by Canadian anthropologist Rae Bridgman.  Bridgman follows homeless people who squat in an old factory in downtown Toronto.  Ultimately, the factory is turned into homeless transitional housing and is run by the residents themselves.

One of the few books that focuses on African American and Latino homeless individuals is Homeless Not Hopeless: The Survival Networks of Latino and African American Men.  Here Edna Molina Jackson documents social networking through a qualitative study of 41 African American and Latino homeless men in Los Angeles.  Through the social bonding of these networks, homeless men give and receive material and emotional support often overlooked by those who observe survivors of street life who appear to be “alone.”  Molina Jackson argues that in the rough terrain of the street, an exchange of information (e.g., about jobs, soup kitchens, shelters) is crucial for survival.  She also believes that these social networks should be tapped by those seeking solutions to homelessness.

In Righteous Dopefiend, Pierre Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg draw on ten years spent observing and photographing homeless heroin injectors who were living in alleys, cars, trucks, tents, and factories in a warehouse and shipyard district near San Francisco.  This written and photographic ethnography is especially graphic regarding the toll on the human body and spirit of living in filthy surroundings while injecting heroin into any vein possible.  Clandestine injection drug users, who were constantly running from the police, were vulnerable to multiple and repeated infections that invaded their bodies through the needles, cotton, and other paraphernalia they used to administer the drugs.

Teresa Gowan’s Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco provides a thorough account of “canning,” collecting and recycling discarded cans.  This book is unique in considering how homeless people themselves analyze the causes of their plight.  Gowan divides these explanations into what she calls “system-talk,” i.e., blaming homelessness on the inequality within society; “sin-talk,” blaming homelessness on one’s own moral failings and bad decisions; and “sick-talk,” blaming homelessness on one’s mental illness and/or substance abuse—a conceptualization that in itself makes this book well worth reading.

In At Home on the Street: People, Poverty, and a Hidden Culture of Homelessness, Jason Adam Wasserman and Jeffrey Michael Clair argue that programs and policies often fail when they do not take account of the actual lives of homeless persons.  Homeless services are usually designed with stereotypical notions of homeless persons in mind.  Critiques of the usual approach to such services often present a simplistic structuralist analysis.  The authors argue for a more nuanced explanation of homelessness, one that takes into account the economic, political, and social system as well as individual adaptations to circumstances.

Several books have focused on homeless individuals who live in the subway system of New York City.  Among those books is Tunnel People, in which Dutch photographer and journalist Teun Voeten documents two years of work with the men and women who lived underground in a New York City train tunnel from 1992 to 1994.  Most of the book is a chronological presentation of Voeten’s extensive field notes, written while he lived, part time, in the tunnel himself.  The book’s epilogue and pictures of his former bunkmates taken thirteen years later are touching.  The author experienced the stress of living underground without clean water, bathrooms, privacy, and cooking facilities.  In addition to homeless people, many journalists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers were also present, and they competed with one another for the affection and cooperation of the underground community.  Voeten documents the slow and tedious process by which most of the tunnel dwellers were able to leave their underground community and finally get an apartment above ground.

It might seem surprising that homeless individuals share their meager resources with animal companions.  In My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals, sociologist Leslie Irwin demonstrates the central role that animals (primarily dogs) play in the lives of some in the homeless community.  Animal companions allow the homeless individual to feel and be needed, to be seen as an approachable and competent person, and to give and receive love.  Most of the interviewees in this book appear to be taking good care of their animals, including seeking the attention of veterinarians and having their animals vaccinated and neutered.

Works Cited