Reckoning with Homelessness

Reckoning with Homelessness

Reckoning with Homelessness

Reckoning with Homelessness

Synopsis

It must be some kind of experiment or something, to see how long people can live without food, without shelter, without security.-homeless woman, Grand Central Station, winter "Homelessness is a routine fact of life on the margins. Materially, it emerges out of a tangled but unmysterious mix of factors: scarce housing, poorly planned and badly implemented policies of relocation and support, dismal prospects of work, exhausted or alienated kin.... Any outreach worker could tell you that list would be incomplete without one more: how misery can come to prefer its own company."-from the book

Kim Hopper has dedicated his career to trying to correct the problem of homelessness in the United States. In his powerful book, he draws upon his dual strengths as anthropologist and advocate to provide a deeper understanding of the roots of homelessness. He also investigates the complex attitudes brought to bear on the issue since his pioneering fieldwork with Ellen Baxter twenty years ago helped put homelessness on the public agenda. Beginning with his own introduction to the problem in New York, Hopper uses ethnography, literature, history, and activism to place homelessness into historical context and to trace the process by which homelessness came to be recognized as an issue. He tells the largely neglected story of homelessness among African Americans and vividly portrays various sites of public homelessness, such as airports. His accounts of life on the streets make for powerful reading.

Excerpt

Homelessness has long figured as a subject in the documentary tradition of American letters. In fact, participant observation as a method—and ethnography as a genre—may be said to have cut its teeth domestically in the effort to capture the dynamics of rootlessness and mobility apparent in post-Progressive Era America. The University of Chicago's sociology department, in particular, championed urban ethnographic research—of the eight studies W.J. Wilson refers to as evidence of this school's productivity in this period, three dealt exclusively with homeless men. The story is especially well documented for such cities as Chicago and New York, where qualitative accounts complement early survey research. Original and, for the most part, unpublished, studies were done on the Municipal Lodging House (or public shelter) in New York and on the lively reign of “hobohemia” in Chicago. These anticipated, and later Depression-era studies described in great detail, the demoralization (or “shelterization”) that could set in among long-term homeless men. Outside the cities, “tramping”—a pattern of migratory work (laying railroad track, cutting timber, working in mines, and harvesting crops), often done in remote areas—flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was periodically revived during economic hard times thereafter. First-person accounts of tramping begin to appear at the turn of the century and full-fledged guides to (or descriptions of) life on the road were published in the 1930s, when the number of “transients” criss-crossing the country in search of work was estimated at two million. But by 1940, seasoned observers argued that “transiency” was no longer a viable occupational niche: The demand for that kind of rough, rootless laborer had dried up. Shortly thereafter, the requirements of war-

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