“…provides a rare and well-documented view inside the world of under-housed men in New York City… [It] is an interesting and convincing book.” · H-Urban
For a decade, from 1983 to 1993, homelessness was a major concern in the United States. In 1994, this public concern suddenly disappeared, without any significant reduction in the number of people without proper housing. By examining the making and unmaking of a homeless crisis, this book explores how public understandings of what constitutes a social crisis are shaped.
Drawing on five years of ethnographic research in New York City with African Americans and Latinos living in poverty, Where Have All the Homeless Gone? reveals that the homeless “crisis” was driven as much by political misrepresentations of poverty, race, and social difference, as the housing, unemployment, and healthcare problems that caused homelessness and continue to plague American cities.
Anthony Marcus is an urban anthropologist from New York City, currently a senior lecturer in International Development at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He has done research in New York, Havana, Mexico City, and Nairobi and published extensively in anthropology and American history.
In the summer of 1993, as I neared the end of my contract as staff ethnographer on a massive three-year federally funded demonstration project on homelessness, I faced the difficult task of turning thousands of pages of research data into a doctoral thesis. Throughout my three years on the job, friends, neighbors, in-laws, and just about everybody I met at any social gathering had asked me the same question, "Who are the homeless, really?" When I came to write up my work, I discovered I still was not any closer to answering this simple question, despite having passed three years with hundreds of "homeless" and learning many of the most intimate details of their lives.
"When you got no money, no job, and nowhere to hide, you gotta be a stereotype. Good nigger, bad nigger, ugly nigger. I've been a good nigger and a bad one, but I never want to be an ugly one. They had me looking real ugly." Delaney, a middle-aged homeless man on why he left a community residence for the homeless against the wishes of his social workers
"I want to be one of those 'well spoken' black men. You know, the kind that white folks want to have around them. Ever hear the term 'hankiehead'?" Jeffrey, African American homeless man in his 30s on why he was carrying a copy of Democracy and Education by John Dewey
"Freddy Kruger, nobody ever fucks with Freddy Kruger. He just takes what he wants. He fucks up anyone that gets in his way." Michael, African American homeless man in his mid 20s on how he wants the world to see him
For most of my informants the category "homeless" was tied to both the ritual humiliation that was required to receive resources from state social welfare programs or private charities and the management of black masculinity, which they often identified as one of the key problems in American society. As one of my informants, an early-twenties African American, once said to me, "black men are scary, we even scare each other lots of the time."
New York City And The Historiography Of Homelessness
The First Homeless Book
The publication of Private Lives/Public Spaces by Ellen Baxter and Kim Hopper in 1981 marks the beginning of the homeless crisis and its study in social science, in the United States. Though there had been a brief flurry of articles in national news magazines showing "homeless families living in cars in the Midwest" during the 1979 to 1980 national election period, very little in the way of public policy or debate came from these articles. Similarly, there have been important studies of housing loss, urban and rural American nomads, and semipublic living over the last hundred years. Alice Sollenberger published a 1911 study called "One Thousand Homeless Men: a study of original records." In the same sociological vein, Nels Anderson published a 1923 study called "The Hobo: the sociology of the homeless man." The term homeless has been used in both popular and scholarly discourse in sporadic ways ever since. However, it never emerged as a unified concept, a body of literature, or a major public issue until Baxter and Hopper published their book.
It was not the shockingly large numbers of people sleeping on steam gratings and in shantytowns in parks and under bridges, nor residents of single room occupancy hotels spending their days selling discarded clothing and magazines that created the homeless crisis. They were only the raw materials. Neither was it the creation of Kim Hopper, Ellen Baxter, or later homelessologists such as Joel Blau, Segal and Specht, Ida and Ezra Susser, or Peter Rossi. Public poverty is nothing new and Hopper and Baxter were writing at the tail end of a long tradition of social science/social policy poverty studies. It was in the confluence between academic social science, public policy, and political partisanship that the publicly impoverished people wandering the streets and parks of the United States in the 1980s became the homeless
"Shelterization can be described as a process of acculturation endemic to shelter living... The adaptation to shelter life includes the development of a shelter vocabulary, the assimilation of shelter themes, the acceptance of shelter ideals and beliefs, and an eroding will." Jeffrey Grunberg and Paula Eagle (1990: 522-524)
Like the Star Wars trilogy that appeared during this same period, the homeless crisis became an important national drama, despite its stereotyped characters, hackneyed moral and thin plot. This was because the homeless drama presented a strongly directed seamless and archetypal vision of familiar themes, characters, and moral dilemmas regarding race, poverty and social inequality that was resonant for many Americans. One of the crucial factors that made it possible to realize a new national drama involving so many of the same old actors and story lines was what film theorists call the mise-en-scène, or what is seen in the frame.
"You want privacy? Move. This ain't the Hotel California." An overheard conversation between a worker and a resident at the RCCA community residence
"Everybody in New York City is looking for a job, an apartment, and a lover. If they already have one of them they are looking for a better one." A popular saying in New York City in the 1980s
By the early 1990s the municipal shelter system was in terrible disrepute. Perhaps most discredited among all the shelters was Fort Washington, which had such a terrible reputation for violence, drugs, and sexual perversion that a major Hollywood motion picture starring Matt Dillon and Danny Glover named The Saint of Fort Washington had used the shelter as its setting. In 1991 then mayor of New York David Dinkins commissioned a report on homeless policy in New York City that addressed what was viewed by many as a nearly intolerable problem. This committee was chaired by then Governor Mario Cuomo's son Andrew and came to be called the Cuomo Commission, issuing a document that would direct homeless policy for the next decade. Entitled The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy, the Cuomo Commission report featured a call for the city of New York to phase out the municipal shelter system in favor of small not-forprofit community residences.
"Latinos value families more than blacks do. That is why family placements work for the Latinos and not for the blacks. They always find a way to work out their problems, because they value family." Latino supervisor of a federal homeless relief project
"With all the advantages blacks have over Latinos, they should be the ones running all the businesses on Broadway, not the Dominicans. A Latino family will save money for years to buy a business and the whole family will help out until it's a success. Blacks just don't stick together like that, that's why there's so many homeless." Latino social worker on same project
The debate over the nature, function, and dysfunction of the black family has been one of the key questions that Americanist scholars in nearly every field from sociology to comparative literature have argued about. Politicians, political activists, and employees standing by the watercooler frequently discuss it, weigh in on it, and use it as an explanation for a variety of social problems and concerns from crime in the cities to continuing inequality. The debate over homelessness in the 1980s and '90s was no exception to this phenomenon. National magazines ran cover stories about why black men were homeless and what was wrong that black kin networks in the cities were not functioning to protect their most vulnerable members.
It is said that behind every stereotype there is some reality that is either misunderstood or wrongly contextualized. Homelessness also had its poorly contextualized reality. Underneath the discourses of American individualism and race that rationalized and naturalized the categories of poverty studies there was a reality that was related to housing. Numerous scholars, writers, and social critics have documented this obvious connection through work on both underhoused populations and those who researched, designed, and provided services to them (Susser 1996). Up until now, this book has looked at these two categories of people with the goal of deconstructing the seemingly natural connection between homelessness and housing. In this chapter I will attempt to reconstruct the phenomenon of "homelessness" as it was viewed by a third category: the 82 percent who told the New York Times that they saw homeless people every day.
From Downing Street Discord to Washington Consensus
By the end of 1993 New York City had its first Republican mayor in two decades, the Democrats had the White House, and I was finished with my employment as a research associate at the CTI project. Everything was changing, including the homeless crisis. There was talk of closing the Fort Washington Men's Shelter, media coverage of homeless issues was dropping by the day, and it suddenly seemed that everybody, including my employers, was trying to find new areas for research and funding. Some of my colleagues continued with homeless studies, but many realized that it was time to shift directions. Clinton's campaign the previous year had been filled with appeals to "Reagan Democrats." He publicly disrespected prominent African-American Democrat Jesse Jackson and interrupted his campaign to return to Arkansas for a showcase execution of retarded African American Ricky Ray Rector — none of "the usual suspects" in the Democratic Party had raised much protest in response to Clinton's premeditated attempts to marginalize the African American leadership of the Democratic Party. The combination of Clinton's fiscal conservatism as governor of Arkansas, the tremendous sway he seemed to have over the liberals and African Americans, and the weakness of the union movement after twelve years of assault did not bode well for welfare and other social support programs that depended on the support of these sectors.