BOOK REVIEW: Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco
By Teresa Gowan, University of Minnesota Press, Paperback, 368 pages, $24.95
What an odd country this is. Not only do we have thousands of people living on the streets, but academics make money writing books about them!
That was my first reaction to Teresa Gowan's book, "Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco." I considered just sending it over to Dr. Wes for another adventure in irony. Fortunately, once I got past the chapter on urban ethnography, the book turned out to be an interesting and compassionate description of how three different groups of homeless people in San Francisco think about their own lives. (It also gives a history of attitudes toward homelessness: Did you know that in the Middle Ages giving generously to beggars was essential for any well-off Christian who wanted a chance at getting into heaven?)
A street musician before she went to graduate school, Gowan was inspired in her research by the sound of grocery carts headed for recycling facilities clacking past her apartment window. She spent months -- days and a few nights -- hanging with a group of "recyclers" in a tent and van community they called "Dogpatch." These men had developed great pride in the work they did. For contrast, she made friends with some drug dealers in the Tenderloin District and also talked to people who were going through "reentry" in San Francisco's extensive shelter system.
Gowan intersperses analysis with stories, giving a sense not so much of what it's like to be a homeless person, as what it's like to be making a living (or not) while being homeless. She's most interested in how homeless people see themselves and how their self-perceptions are shaped by the messages they get from the rest of society. She identifies three main ways the homeless men she studied talk about the causes of their homelessness: "system-talk," "sin-talk," and "sick-talk."
"System-talk" finds the cause of homelessness in the way that society is arranged -- for example, "Charlie's tendency was to blame a hostile, fiercely unequal society that left him few alternatives." Our society used system-talk a lot more before the Reagan era, when even some people in power thought it was the government's job to help the poor. Gowan found system-talk prevalent among the recyclers, who worked hard all day to earn a few bucks -- in a sense they were saying, "Look at all we do, look how hard we work, and we still can't get a place to live!"
"Sin-talk" (which Gowan traces back as far as Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation) locates homelessness in moral failings -- a perspective with which Gowan obviously disagrees. Interestingly, she finds "sin-talk" used by panhandlers, hustlers and drug dealers in particular, in a kind of reversal in which they proudly explain that they're just too bad to be in normal society. Thus, "Lee ... saw homelessness as an outcome of his ... orientation toward 'shady places' and life's 'candy.'"
"Sick-talk" is finding the cause of homelessness in a mental, cognitive or addictive disability. As one formerly homeless drug counselor put it, "Ain't no homelessness problem. ... The problem is addiction, period." This perspective has been promoted by what Gowan calls the "homeless archipelago" of service organizations, not necessarily because it's shared by all service providers, but because that's the perspective that gets funding.
As society has shifted away from "system-talk," people who are homeless have also shifted away from that perspective. This is especially true for those interested in making it through the shelter system to becoming housed once again. Unfortunately, there are a lot more resources for treatment groups and shelters than there are for the housing subsidies and low-income units that would actually allow "recovered" homeless addicts to live independently. The treatment options Gowan saw in San Francisco, pretty much limited to 12-step programs, usually didn't take into account individual emotional problems, and were generally carried out by other recovering addicts, not by mental health professionals.
The book describes how government policy shifted away from helping the homeless get housed to managing and containing them; even a very liberal city like San Francisco has shifted to "quality of life" policing: keeping visibly homeless people off the streets in many areas, making sleeping on sidewalks a crime, making it increasingly difficult to live out of a car, tightening the definition of prohibited "camping" and so on.
Gowan's book is pitched toward an academic audience. Though I'm sure she'd like it to affect how society deals with the problem of homelessness, I imagine that it will disappear into the swirl of studies of homeless people. Because of her sympathy and clarity about the causes of homelessness and her commitment to the dignity of people who are homeless, it deserves better than that.