"We Know What the Problem Is": Using Oral History to Develop a Collaborative Analysis of Homelessness from the Bottom Up

Article excerpt


Using audio, video, and radio interviews, the Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project (CHOHP) has sought to foster the development of a collaborative analysis of homelessness from the bottom up. Designed to overcome problems with traditional academic research on homelessness, CHOHP explicitly seeks to share research with those living on the streets and in the shelters in Cleveland, Ohio and involve homeless people in the process of analysis. Rather than focusing on the personal pathologies of the homeless, the analysis that emerges from CHOHP suggests that trends in downtown and neighborhood real estate development, the criminalization of the poor, the growth of the temporary labor industry, and the retrenchment of the welfare system have led to the emergence of powerful interests invested in perpetuating homelessness. Beyond analyzing these trends, CHOHP's formal research setting has emboldened homeless people to act and become agents for social change.

It takes the efforts, man, of all of us homeless people to get together and try and come up with solutions. But they don't want to hear our ideas. We go on homeless marches. We go on homeless outings. And we tell them what's the problem. We know what the problem is. But they don't listen to us. You know why? Because there's big dollars involved now.



In the fall of 1996, after eight months of working with a group I founded that provides food to people living on the streets and in the shelters of Cleveland, I initiated what has become the Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project (CHOHP). Intrigued with the possibility that oral history could promote dialogue on the streets among the homeless, I bought a thirty-dollar mini-cassette recorder and brought it to our weekly picnics. The initial audio interviews examined the life histories of four homeless men. The project coincided with my entrance into the graduate program in history at Case Western Reserve University and I used the interviews in a seminar paper, a performance piece and pamphlet, "A Complete Perfect Nothingness." (2)

As I transcribed these interviews, however, I realized that my goal of promoting dialogue on the streets was only partially fulfilled. While the individuals I interviewed knew they were being recorded, they were clearly talking to me. I was the one who had collected and compiled their profound words, which I now had before me at my desk. My desire to have the interviewees talk to each other resulted in some unconventional theoretical approaches in my first paper. However, the limitations of the printed format, measured in terms of its cool reception by the most important intended audience, the homeless themselves, prompted me to switch over to video. I began to see this project more explicitly as a collaborative one, unlike mainstream academic research on homelessness.

Advocates and academics studying homelessness in the United States have primarily sought an audience of public officials, civic leaders, and middle and upper class progressives, who they believe have the power to create change. In part this focus has been structured by the public officials themselves who have encouraged this approach, seeking advice on the homeless problem almost exclusively from social service providers and academic experts. (3) There is little incentive for academics to work collaboratively with the homeless. Those who have had the most success having their voice heard at the national policy level, such as Martha Burt of the Urban Institute, have devised solutions without the input and oversight of the homeless and have done little to generate support for their solutions among the homeless. Burt's highly touted report, "Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve," garnered no attention from the homeless in Cleveland, Ohio. Although Burt and the Urban Institute boast that all their research undergoes extensive peer review, they have not sought criticism or evaluation from the homeless. …