It's Not Who We Are

Book cover
Reckoning with Homelessnessby By Kim HopperCornell University Press. 271p $19.95 (pbk.)

I have only once in my life lacked shelter. I was visiting a friend in Rome to join him on a tour to Assisi. He was supposed to book me a room at his hotel. My friend, a well-meaning but proverbial innocent abroad, told me he figured to save me money if I shared his room. He had obviously never heard of a concierge and how hawk-eyed they can be in Europe. Late in the evening, I could never, unwatched, ascend to that room. So I ventured by taxi to explore any still-open hotel. It was high tourist season. As it turned out, I slept rough that night in the piazza near the train depot. Out of nowhere creatures of the night, like surreal denizens of a Fellini film, descended. I quaked, feared robbery and fought off sleep. When in early morning the train station opened, I ambled inside. I watched in horror as two street toughs repeatedly poked a schizophrenic old lady—like me, a street exile—who had come in out of the cold.

It is not easy to be homeless. It takes a lot of work to negotiate the mean streets. The homeless have grasped the “terribly complicated” business, as George Orwell once put it, of learning to survive on next to nothing. They deserve credit for their ingenuity and doggedness in searching out public spaces and discarded waste products.


Kim Hopper, a psychiatrist, lectures at the Columbia University schools of public health and law. For over 20 years he has probed the scope and causes of homelessness. He possesses the fine touch of an ethnographer, going native with the homeless in airport terminals, subways and shelters. He has a novelist’s knack of evoking lives of gritty substance. But he also has a scientist’s desire to know: accurate numbers, measures of pathology of those without shelter, reasons for use of shelters and/or rejection of proffered help, the design of durable solutions to the problem of homelessness. He provides us an unusually rich “thick description” of the phenomenon.

Homelessness re-emerged in the 1980’s in almost every American large city. We have learned to live with a newly minted shameless contempt for the poor. The causes of the post-1980’s homelessness are multiple. Among the main factors has been scarce “disreputable,” cheap lodging. Flophouses and single-residency hotels have been depleted, the detritus of gentrification. In 1970, the number of low-rental units (6.8 million) roughly equaled the number of those who needed them (6.4 million). By 1990, the number of low-rental units had shrunk to 5.5 million, while the need had grown to 9.6 million. De-industrialization yields more dismal prospects for work. Surprisingly, a sizable percentage of the homeless do work. Poorly planned and badly implemented policies for the relocation and support of former mental patients flooded our streets with people lacking durable coping skills. A mean-spirited welfare reform leaves a social safety net that has dipped below humane subsistence.

Hopper conducts a historical tour of earlier American homelessness: the tramps and hobos, the “citizens” of classic Bowery and skid row districts. The new homeless population includes younger persons, and more women and African Americans than earlier populations. Studies show that earlier homelessness among African-Americans was more transient and episodic, because backup resources of extended kin eased the burden.

Together with his research assistants, Hopper systematically visited men’s shelters. He found that many of them were managed on the theory that their inhabitants were bums. The staff was often abrasive, if not outright abusive. There was the ever-present danger of assault and theft. Informants who avoided the shelters in favor of the steam tunnels or streets claimed that they found more dignity and self-respect on the street. They found the shelters overly regulated.

Research visits to train stations and subways at night uncovered a different population. Here the researchers found many acts of mutual support; a sense of responsibility for shared spaces; the complicity of cops, clerks and security guards in simple acts of looking the other way or even providing food and kindness. Still, living on the street is precarious. The routine indignities of street life include questions about where to wash and urinate, capricious enforcement of anti-loitering laws, the scorn and verbal abuse of passersby and constant vigilance against possible violence. Hopper notes that often when street persons exhibit what looks like “crazy” behavior, they are really utilizing a defense mechanism against assault. One of his informants, a Jamaican man, put it poignantly: “It’s a terrible thing but you have to understand that we survive; we take care of each other. You have to understand that this is a condition, this homelessness. It’s not who we are.”

At best, life in a shelter is a stopgap measure. Eighty percent of the formerly homeless who receive assisted housing at the end of a shelter stay have maintained a stable relocation in their new housing. Hopper points out that we know little about the transitional resources that enable people to avoid homelessness (even if only one paycheck away) or to escape from it. Doubling up in public housing units (or elsewhere) shows that literal, visible homelessness is but the tip of an iceberg.

In chapters that deal with advocacy for the homeless poor, with the time period 1980 to 1995 and with the limits of witnessing by advocates for homelessness, Hopper addresses larger structural issues. He explores the various stereotypes of the homeless. Homelessness triggers primordial American responses of ambiguity about dependence, resentment by ordinary working people and a slouching encroachment of social disorder.

Litigation has wrought some victories. In 1967, for example, a New York court famously struck down a vagrancy law because people were being moved for “disturbing, by their presence, the sensibilities of the nicer part of the community.” There are some 40,000 programs nationwide to assist the homeless. Some homeless entrepreneurial initiatives, like street vending, have proved successful. The Stuart McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1986 provides federal money for shelter programs. Still, argues Hopper, advocates for the homeless face daunting challenges: the need that goes unmet because of degradation exacted as an intrinsic condition of its satisfaction; the bureaucratic practice that routinely sabotages hard-won statutory remedies; the grotesque inequities in state-mediated housing assistance; the citizenry’s refusal to “see” when faced with a suffering that is gratuitous, even if not necessarily readily correctable.

Hopper lays down a gauntlet to our conscience as he asks: “What is it about us that has learned to ignore, then tolerate, only to grow weary of, and now seeks to banish from sight, the ugly evidence of a social order gone badly awry?” Perhaps it is the sheer visibility of the homeless that most affronts us.

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10 years ago
I read Hopper's work on Google Scholar. It's so good to see a sympathetic, intellectual, well-written piece on the topic. I've stayed in dozens of shelters, doing grad school research and have found little literature that presents an informed view. Now, the call for new Hoovervilles requires such a voice. I hope Hooper and those of similar intellect and sensitivity gain the attention of the new administration.Right on!


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