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

By Irene Glasser and Eric Hirsch

Homeless Women

Most of the work on homelessness has focused on homeless men, traditionally the most visible members of the homeless community.  Therefore, the several important books that analyze the situation of homeless women are welcome.  Kathleen Hirsch spent three years working at Pine Street Inn (then and still the largest homeless shelter in Boston) in the 1980s.  In Songs from the Alley, she chronicles the lives of two homeless women who found shelter there.  The book covers aspects of the women’s life histories, what it is like to live in a shelter, and the problems with the housing and job programs designed to help them.  Hirsch also sets her subjects’ plight in historical context by providing details on homelessness throughout American history.

In Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women, Elliot Liebow provides a rich description of two women’s shelters in the Washington, DC, area.  One shelter, which he calls “The Refuge,” was staffed mostly by volunteers and housed in the fellowship hall of a church.  It was a “low-demand” bare-bones shelter.  Liebow found that women appeared to be comfortable there, despite the physical limitations of the space.  The other shelter, “The Bridge,” was conceptualized as a therapeutic house, providing shelter for women but with the understanding that the women would be actively working on a case plan to return to permanent housing.  The staff was paid and well educated and, according to Liebow’s observations, were more burned out than the volunteer staff at “The Refuge.”  Liebow wrote, in part, with the collaboration of the homeless women and staff of the two shelters, who read and commented on the manuscript.  Liebow includes this commentary in footnotes throughout the book.  This is one of the few works in contemporary anthropology that takes the idea of collaboration with the community under study seriously and literally.

Another interesting ethnographic account of women who are homeless is Love, Sorrow, and Rage: Destitute Women in a Manhattan Residence, by Alisse Waterston.  In this case, the women were in a transitional housing program meant to address the women’s mental health and substance abuse issues and help them find and keep permanent housing.  The relationships among the women in the program were often positive, but Waterston could not document many instances in which the women did indeed gain housing.

In No Room of Her Own, Desiree Hellegers has collected fifteen oral histories of homeless women living in Seattle; she interviewed each several times during the 1990s and 2000s.  Hellegers met the women at shelters and day respites for homeless women, and most were also involved with homeless advocacy groups in which Hellegers herself participated.  This gave the author and women a camaraderie that one does not often find.  Hellegers had the opportunity to follow up with seven of the women immediately before the book was published.  Most were housed and had cherished relationships, and some were working as advocates in homeless and mentally ill communities.

Works Cited