Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America

Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America

Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America

Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America


According to current projections, the number of homeless in the United States will continue to swell in the 1990s unless more aggressive efforts to combat the problem are initiated. Based upon a thorough analysis of the underlying social and political causes of homelessness in this country, this study takes a a hard look at the realities and misconceptions that surround the victims. Barak demonstrates how current public service programs inadequately address the issue and proposes governmental policy changes that could prove beneficial. Related issues of criminality, injustice, and constitutionality associated with the treatment of the homeless are uncovered as the discussion searches for both short and long term solutions to this burgeoning crisis.


During the last 15 years of his life, homeless activist Mitch Snyder--who committed suicide in July 1990--struggled valiantly on behalf of the nation's homeless, destitute, and powerless. There were pray-ins, eat-ins, cage-ins, jump-ins, and, yes, laugh-ins. But most of all, there were Snyder's fasts; the danger of his condition and the size of his risk had captured the hearts and minds of the American people. There was even a TV movie made about his life with the homeless. As part and parcel of this human struggle, Snyder "pricked our conscience about a group of people Americans didn't see, and didn't want to see" (Rader, 1986: ix).

Conservatives will contend in contradictory fashion that the protests by Snyder and the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) were too confrontational. However, had Snyder, CCNV, and others not adopted the tactics that they did for resisting homelessness in the United States, does anybody think in these times of "modest expectations"--as Mitch used to call them--that literally every branch of the U.S. government would respond to the short-term (as opposed to long-term) needs of the homeless as they have? Without Snyder and company we would not have the few, inadequate pieces of federal legislation on homelessness and housing that we do.

I would agree with the assessment of homeless activist Robert Hayes, founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who said following the news of Snyder's death that he "created, almost single-handedly, a movement" on behalf of homeless people (Keil, 1990: 4A). There is no doubt about it, homelessness and the efforts by Snyder and others had put the homeless on the agenda, during the 1980s, at a time when the Reagan administration was busy counting catsup as a vegetable in the federally funded lunch programs for the nation's millions of poor children.

Snyder was also the person responsible for making Ronald Reagan act contrary to what he really believed in (helping the rich get richer) while he was president, when Reagan and his chief of staff, James Baker, eventually capitulated to Snyder's hunger strike demands that the administration do . . .

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