Origins of homelessness: 7 books reviewed by Daniel Kerr FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 7 Feb 1999 19:33:13 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  Sun, 07 Feb 1999
CC Replies to author "Daniel Kerr" <>

>Are most homeless people "mentally ill"?
>Who benefits by psychiatric labeling?
>Who pays?

Dan wrote in reply to my questions above that "all the works I reviewed
disputed the claim...that homelessness is a primarily a result
of deinstitutionalization as well as the claim that the mentally ill make
up the large majority of the homeless population."

His review appears below, reprinted with his permission. -- Tom Boland, HPN

Daniel Kerr
May 6, 1997


	Peter Rossi notes that in 1975 there was not a single article
written on
"the homeless."  In 1984 there were 34 articles written and in 1986 there
were 48.  There were several reasons for this rise in the literature, the
most important of which being the increased presence of people living on
the streets.  Academics from various disciplines attempted to offer
explanations for why this was occuring.  Partly because of the newness of
this phenomenon, many people attempted to understand what its historical
roots were.  This paper will explore the historiography of the homeless
that was developed from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties.  It will
explore some of the areas of consensus as well as conflict among six
monographs and one working paper.  All of the works attempt to grapple with
the history of homelessness in order to present social policy proposals.
	Kim Hopper and Jill Hamberg's work, The Making of the New Homeless:
>From Skid Row to New Poor, 1945-1984, is one of earliest works in the
historiography of the "New Homeless."  Subsquent works in the
historiography have either incorporated its arguments or have disputed
specific claims of its argument.  The main substance of its argument has
remained standing.
 	Hopper and Hamberg trace policies and developments in the housing
from the close of World War II.  They argue that these policies were fairly
successful in securing adaquate shelter for all and by the early seventies
had created the highest degree of income equality.  However within this
context Skid Row as an instituition also developed.  This was characterized
primarily by older white men who were alcoholics.  Close to half of these
men worked and all were housed, "wretchedly to be sure."  Most were housed
in single room occupancy hotels and lodging houses.
	The seventies was a period in which people were "winnowed of housing."
Economic stagnation occured in which high unemployment was coupled with
rising inflation, declining real wages, and stagnant household incomes.
Market values of homes rapidly rose forcing many professionals to compete
for rental housing.  This was coupled with Urban Renewal policies that
reduced the stock of SRO's and eliminated lodging houses.  At the same time
assistance programs contracted and the power of the unions was diminished.
By 1980, half of the population of the lowest income bracket was paying
more than 72% of their income on rent as opposed to 34% in 1970.
	Deinstitutionalization dumped its patients onto skid row areas in two
phases.  The first was from the mid fifties to early sixties and the second
was from the late sixties until the early seventies.  After these two
phases the state hospital population was reduced by 60%.  However Hopper
and Hamburg argue that it is a myth that the majority of the homeless are
pschiatric casualties.  The last phase of deinstituitionalization movement
preceded the increases in the homeless population by a decade.  What
occured was that the "affordable housing linchpin was pulled."
	The twin recessions in 1979 and 1982 along with drastic budget cuts and
regressive tax policies pushed people over the edge.  Even with the
economic upturn following 1982, homelessness continued to rise.  Benefits
were drastically reduced and access was restricted.  An older disciplinary
agenda of relief was revived.  Housing starts plummetted and eviction rates
increased.  Even in areas where vacancy rates were high such as Houston,
homelessness increased as a result of the warehousing of living space by
the real estate industry which speculated on the possibility of higher
future profits.
	The "new homeless" consisted of a substantially higher proportion
of black
and latino people as well as women, children, and family groups.  They were
younger and substantially higher proportions of the homeless were there for
the first time.  They were geographically more dispersed in urban areas
than the "skid row bums" had been and were more publicly visible.
	Hamberg and Hopper feel the public spectacle of the homeless is a
conscious policy choice.  It serves to discipline labor by parading the
spectacle of failure and at the same time attempts to regulate the
spectacle of homelessness in order to prevent it from getting out of hand.
This is done through the old disciplinary logic of charity and relief.
Advocates and reformers often fall into this trap and in many cases promote
the new institution of homelessness by solely focusing on relief and not
looking to larger structural causes.  The true path to reform is to fight
for decent jobs at decent wages as well the implementation of a massive
housing program and the establishment of the "Right to Housing."
	Their work rests on numerous statistical reports by federal, state, and
local government agencies, transcripts of Congressional hearings, reports
of social scientists, articles in labor and social work journals as well as
numerous other secondary sources.  	Peter Rossi's work, Down and Out in
America: The Origins of Homelessness, has been fairly controversial among
advocates for the homeless for his low counts of the numbers of homeless.
His historical account however has not born the brunt of this criticism.
Rossi looks much further back in history than Hopper and Hamburg and also
adresses the impact and development of social science literature on hoboes,
tramps, bums, skid row, and the "new homeless."
	Rossi points out that in the second half of the nineteenth century,
homelessness was masculinized.  The percentage of women sent to houses of
correction for vagrancy went from 40-50% before the Civil War to 15% by
1899.  He traces the rise of skid row to the end of the nineteenth century
and understands it to be in a period of decline after World War II.  He
argues that the trucking industry and development of superhighways played a
role in the decline of skid row as industries became less dependent on the
railroads and moved out to the suburbs.  He draws a similar profile of the
skid row population of the sixties to that which Hopper and Hamberg
describe.  However he feels that alcholism was only present among a
minority of the population in spite of all the focus put on it by the
researchers of the era.  He feels that this was a rhetorical strategy
employed for the purposes of demolishing Skid Row as Central Business
Districts expanded.  The researchers all recommended scattered housing be
provided for the remaining Skid Row tennants.  The numbers of extremely
poor old people declined as Social Security was expanded, the benefits were
increased, and they were pegged to the Consumer Price Index.
	Rossi argues that the effects of deinstitutionalization were
diluted over time and discovers only a slight increase in the percentage of
mentally ill
among the homeless before and after it occured.  He notes that even before
deinstitutionalization the population of Skid Row had a 20% proportion of
mentally ill people.  Rossi argues that the decriminalization of public
drunkenness and vagrancy was significant however in allowing for the
existence of the "new homeless."
	Like Hopper and Hamburg, Rossi sees a distinction between the "new" and
the "old" homeless.  He argues too that the new homeless have significantly
less shelter and the present shelter system is worse than the previous
system of SRO's and cubicle hotels.  He argues that real incomes of the
"new homeless" are one third of the incomes of the skid row homeless.
There has not been an increase in pathologies and there exists among both
groups high degrees of disaffiliation, meaning few family ties and networks
with friends.  Rossi also places the blame for the "new homeless" on the
housing market, labor market, and the welfare system.
	With reservations, Rossi calls for increased funding for shelters
and an
easing of restrictions on involuntary confinement.  He feels that benefits
need to be increased and made more accessible.  For the longer term public
sector employment is necessary and subsidized housing for single unattached
people should be provided.  He recommends the creation of a program called
Aid to Families with Dependent Adults to provide subsidies to families who
provide housing for other family members who are homeless.  His low count
of the homeless is clearly designed to make these programs more palatable
as he estimates their costs.
	Rossi work depends on his own statistical research of the homeless in
Chicago as well as the statistical work of numerous other social
scientists.  He compares his own research to research done in the sixties
and the thirties.  His earlier historical descriptions rest on the work of
Michael Katz, Joan Crouse, and Sylvia Clements.
	In Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary
America, Greg Barak takes a more global look at changes in world capitalism
in order to understand the rise of the "new homeless."  As a criminologist,
he bases his book on the work of other criminologists, as well as lawyers,
economists, other social scientists (except anthropologists and
historians), and government reports.  He describes a decline in U.S.
dominance that occured in the seventies as Western Europe and Asia lay
claim to increasing market shares.  This resulted in the federal government
playing a large role in subsidizing profits for corporations.  Barak argues
that the U.S. federal government should be held criminally accountable for
the rise of homelessness.  Taxes were dropped on corporate taxes from 46%
to 21% between 1960 and 1986.  In the same period taxes for the rich
Americans dropped from 70% to 28%.  He labels this the expansion of
"well-to-do-fare."  The 1986 Tax Reform removed incentives for the
construction of low-income housing and redirected capital to produce
housing for the rich.  In the eighties federal expenditures were cut 80%
for low-income housing.  Barak describes the government's response to the
rise of the "new homeless" as being one of reducing costs of maintaining
the population while at the same time keeping them ready for employment in
order to depress wages.
	Barak details a few other factors he feels contributed to the rise of
homelessness.  He talks about changes in family structures and shows an
increase from 11% to 24% of single person households between 1980 and 1986.
 He points to a new trend of warehousing buildings by real estate
speculators and a rise in the use of arson in inner city neighborhoods
which was simultaneously coupled with a closing down of numerous fire
stations.  As housing was destroyed and rents tripled, day labor without
benefits was expanded and wages declined.  In concert with Rossi, Hopper
and Hamburg, Barak feels the effects of deinstitutionalization have been
overstated.   	Barak's work also details the rise of movements of
resistence in response to the rise in homelessness.  He talks about the
resistence in Tompkins Square Park, the rise of Mitch Snyder's group
Community for Creative Non-Violence, the organization of the Union of the
Homeless and The National Coalition for the Homeless which organized the
Housing Now! march on Washington.  He looks at various legal struggles
fought on behalf of the homeless and the legislation that was passed and
culminated with the McKinney Act of 1987.
	Barak uurges us to go beyond calls for more housing and shelter and
address the issues of power, justice and democracy.  he feels that we need
to first and foremost address the issue of the large inequality of wealth
through the establishment of a progressive tax as well as the establishment
of a maximum and minimum wage.  He urges us to work towards "Free-Market
Socialism," which attempts to achieve the greatest degree of liberty for
each person as opposed to the greatest aggregate good.  He also calls for a
massive housing program that gives greater degrees of tennant control as
well as ownership.  Barak argues that money can be found when the President
and the Congress desire to find it.
	Martha Burt's work focuses on many of the same issues as the cause of
rise in numbers of homeless people.  She argues that between 1984 and 1988
the numbers of shelter beds tripled across the country from 100,000 to
275,000.  She notes that these increases have occured both in booming and
declining cities.  The problem in booming cities has been one of rising
rents and real estate speculation and in stagnating cities it has been one
of extremmely low incomes.  She argues that the Federal policies having the
greatest impact on homelessness have been the changes in the tax codes,
deficit spending and policies linked to inflation control.  These policies
have removed incentives for investing in low-income housing and resulted in
a loss of 1.2 million units from the low cost stock.(54)  She feels that
the cuts in HUD have been less important than decreased and restricted
benefits because she believes that there is plenty of housing.  The major
problem is that there is too little income.
	Incomes in the lowest bracket declined during the eighties as
incomes in
the upper brackets rapidly grew.  This was a result of the shift to a
service sector economy and the decreased wages that went along with this
shift.  It was further aggravated by cuts and increased eligibility
restrictions on income support and benefit programs such as AFDC, GA, SSI,
and SSDI.  The limited access to these benefits by single adults has made
them particularly vulnerable to homelessness.
	She concurs that personal pathologies are not the cause of homelessness
but perhaps a contributing factor in deciding who becomes homeless.  There
has not been an increase in pathologies over time, just a decrease in
support for people who need assistance.  Burt argues that in order to
address homelessness we need to raise benefit levels and increase housing
subsidies for those who can not support themselves.  These subsidies need
to be made an entitlement and accessable to single persons.  They also need
to reflect local housing market rates.  She adds that we still need to
address issues of housing segregation and discrimination.  And finally the
Federal government needs to provide more low cost units.
	Martha Burt's work is based on her own national survey of shelters and
providers for the homeless as well as federal and local governmental
reports.  She supplements this with the research of other social scientists
and historians who have studied housing markets, labor markets, poverty,
mental health, substance abuse, and well as the work preceeding hers on
	Stephanie Golden takes a different approach from these four works.
In her work, The Women Outside: Meaning and Myths of Homelessness, she
more on the question of what are the origins of all the superstitions and
beliefs about homeless women.  Golden argues that the way we view homeless
women today has its roots in ancient superstitions about single women's
involvement with witchcraft.  These rise from Christianity's supression of
older pagan spirits and relegation of nature to the realm of the devil.
This was coupled with fears of women's sexuality and knowledge.  Fear of
single women related to fears that they might upset the "rank and order"
and theologically enforced dominance of men over women.  Golden looks to
these ancient myths after a homeless woman is burned alive on the streets
of New York and another homeless woman has all her belongings burned by the
	Golden feels that these myths have been revitalized as the collapse
of the housing market in the 1970's and early 1980's forced many women to
live on
the streets and be highly visible to the public.  There was a presence of
homeless women on Skid Row in the 1960's, however they were largely hidden
from public view and most researchers of the era chose to ignore them.  By
the 1980's this was impossible.  Fears of their illicit sexuality, mental
deviance, magical powers and criminality began surfacing.  This has
resulted in homeless women having to negotiate pervasive levels of sexual
violence, protection rackets, and prostitution in order to survive.
	Golden feels it is necessary to go beyond the charity model, which is
based on ideas of social control and fear, to an entitlement model.  She
feels that we need to take the de-institutionalization movement to the next
level and see value in different forms of mental being and reintegrate
homeless women into our lives by bringing them inside.
	Golden's work makes the most extensive use of the work of
historians.  She looks at the history of withcraft, welfare, insanity,
prostitution and also
employs works on ancient mythology.  She supplements this with contemporary
work on homelessness as well as her own interviews of homeless women.
	David Wagner takes the ethnographic approach in his work Checkerboard
Square, Culture and Resistence in a Homeless Community.  He studies a
homeless community in a small Northeastern town for two years.  He takes a
quite different approach from all of this work and instead of studying the
history of homelessness, he studies the personal histories of numerous
homeless people.  Using this approach he comes up with several conclusions
that brings into question several fundamental conceptions of prior research
on homelessness.
	Wagner's work draws into question the entire literature of
which suggests that homeless people are homeless because they have no
social networks.  He uncovers an extensive network among homeless people
and their interactions with social services, support groups (especially
mental health and substance abuse groups), concerned community members,
political groups, former homeless people, and among themselves.  He
suggests that these networks are far more extensive than the networks that
exist among most middle-class people.
	As opposed to writing what the history of these homeless people is, he
asks them where they see there own historical roots.  Most of the people he
studies place themselves in the context of various social movements
including the Vietnam veterans movement, various counter-cultural
movements, and the anti-psychiatry movement.  This contradicts Rossi's
assumption that the de-institutionalization movement had been forced on the
homeless.  Wagner's work makes Rossi's proposal for easing the restrictions
on forced confinement especially repugnant.  Wagner argues that his own
research points to the overall success of de-institutionalization and the
subsequent rise of mental health support groups that largely stemmed from
the anti-psychiatry movement.
	Wagner also suggests that solutions for homelessness that solely
focus on providing jobs and strengthening family ties will be ineffective.
He finds
that most of the homeless he interviewed had fled both pathological family
situations and exploitative jobs.  Most preferred jobs that incorporated
some form of gang labor as opposed to jobs that left them socially
isolated.  He argues that the solutions to homelessness do not lie in jobs
and housing for individuals, but should take into account the networks of
support and friendships that are already in existence and build upon them
with collective housing and job opportunities.
	Wagner supplements his own work with work produced in the fields of
work, sociology, anthropology/ethnography, and history.  Most of this work
focuses on homelessness, welfare, mental illness, and social movements.
	Joanne Passaro draws from Wagner for her own work, The Unequal
Men in the Streets and Women in Their Place.  Her work is based on hundreds
of interviews of homeless people as well as works on feminism, gender
theory, masculinity, and urban history.   She argues that in order to
understand homelessness, one needs to understand gendered conceptions of
the meaning of home and family.  She argues that these conceptions and the
policies that have been created as a result of them have largely determined
the present structures of homelessness.
	Passarro feels that the Hoover Commission Report in 1931 which
resulted in the federal government only publicly funding mortgages for
homes has been one of the corner stones of public policy that has led to
the presence of large numbers of single black men on the streets of our
cities.  She argues that homelessness is a result of the "nuclear family
normative pattern of social and spatial organization."(68)  This has led to
policies that give housing primarily to homeless families.  This has been a
result of advocates efforts to focus on homeless families to both elicit
empathy as well as avoid Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) campaigns that have
been organized to prevent public housing being offered in suburban
neighborhoods for homeless single men.
	The result of these policies has been that homeless women, who are
fleeing pathological family situations, are forced back into the feminine
roles of domesticity and submisiveness in exchange for a greater degree of
access to resources than single men would receive.  "Renegade" women who
fail to embrace these notions of domesticity are generally forced to live
outside.  They are relegated to the margins of this world as well, which is
dominated by men as a result of public policy.  Men are left to the streets
to fend for themselves in a "manly" fashion.  The desperate situations
these men are forced into necessitates that they be more aggressive in
meeting their needs.  This desperation leads them to be viewed as "untamed"
and "hypermasculine."  Passaro feels that black men bear the brunt of this
gendered ideology because they are twice removed from dominant conceptions
of the domestic realm of home: they are men and they are black.
	Passaro documents fundamental demographic shifts away from the nuclear
family as more and more people are living alone.  She argues that the
ideology of the nuclear family central to present social policy has failed
to reflect this change and is stuck promoting outdated forms of social
organization.  Universal policies that recognize housing as a right and an
entitlement are necessary as well as class based affirmative action
programs.  These programs would be of benefit to both homeless women and
men and would also assist people of color who are over-represented among
the extreme poor.

Barak, Gregg.  Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in
Contemporary America (New York: Praeger, 1991).
Burt, Martha.  Over the Edge:  The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980's
(New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992).
Golden, Stephanie.  The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness
(Berkely: University of California Press, 1992).
Hopper, Kim and Jill Hamberg.  The Making of America's Homeless: From Skid
Row to New Poor, 1945-1984 (New York: Community Service Society of New
York, 1984).
Passaro, Joanne.  The Unequal Homeless: Men in the Streets, Women in their
Place (New York: Routledge, 1996).
Rossi, Peter.  Down and Out in America:  The Origins of Homelessness
(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989).
Wagner, David.  Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistence in a Homeless
Community (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).

Daniel Kerr
2902 W. 11th St. (up)
Cleveland, Ohio 44113
(216) 694-2169
CWRU Graduate Student
Department of History
Food Not Bombs, Cleveland

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