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Understanding Homelessness: From Memoir to Pathways Home (May 2014): Homelessness Outside the United States

By Irene Glasser and Eric Hirsch

Homelessness Outside the United States

A few books address homelessness outside the United States.  One is Irene Glasser’s Homelessness in Global Perspective, which is useful in pointing out that the challenge in such a perspective is that the concept “homelessness” is not a universally understood or appropriate concept.  For example, the millions of people around the world living in squatter settlements, in which they usually do not have legal title to the land and have made their housing out of found materials, are not “homeless,” though to the First World they would seem so.  Drawing from governmental documents and scholarly sources, Glasser reviews the state of so-called homelessness on an international scale—for men, women, families, and children—and also discusses innovative pathways out of such circumstances.

In Needed by Nobody: Homelessness and Humanness in Post-Soviet Russia, Swedish anthropologist Tova Höjdestrand provides an in-depth ethnographic view of homelessness in modern St. Petersburg.  Most of the homeless Höjdestrand meets have lost their propiska, i.e., internal passport, through imprisonment, family dissolution, or migration and therefore do not have permission to live in St. Petersburg.  Vova, a former doctor and an intractable alcoholic, is Höjdestrand’s community guide among the homeless, who work in the underground economy of  St. Petersburg’s large old train station and live in stairwells, attics, basements, and the night shelter.  The author’s ability to let the participants speak for themselves makes this an engaging book.  Whereas some ethnographers of homeless populations see a sense of community, Höjdestrand sees only fleeting sociability.  For example, when she inquires about the well-being of an individual’s friend, the person often looks at her blankly, having lost track of the friend in the daily search for food and shelter.

Jürgen Von Mahs, in Down and Out in Los Angeles and Berlin: The Sociospatial Exclusion of Homeless People, compares the responses to homelessness in Los Angeles and Berlin.  He expected to find a much more effective response to the problem of homelessness in Berlin, given the German government’s more interventionist role in social welfare issues.  In fact, he found a similar percentage of the population homeless in the two cities and more long-term homelessness in Berlin.  Homeless people in both cities experienced “socio-spatial exclusion”; their survival-oriented behavior was criminalized, they were warehoused in “homeless service ghettos,” and they suffered from inability to access stable living-wage jobs.

Works Cited