David Wagner and Gemma Atticks provides an overview of the causes and cures for homelessness from an often-neglected perspective — the experiences of people on the streets.
You can’t always judge a book by its title. In the case of “No Longer Homeless,” that’s a good thing. The subtitle, “How the Ex-Homeless Get and Stay Off the Streets,” definitely sounds like this is a book destined for the self-help (or maybe the social work) shelves, implying that getting off the streets is a matter of individual initiative and discipline.
However, once readers get into the section titled “The Causes of Homelessness,” they’ll know there’s a different perspective here. The section lists, in order, the “decline of industrial labor in the United States”; “a steep decline in affordable housing” and “a decline in the value and ... existence of social welfare programs and benefits,” followed by “deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals and facilities” and the “war on drugs.” Only at the end of the list does the book talk about drug and alcohol abuse itself as a possible factor, but points out that “the fact that a homeless person ... takes a drink does not mean that this was the cause of his or her homelessness, and the same goes for drugs.”
It’s a self-help book, all right, but it’s aimed at helping Americans get over the idea that homelessness is mainly the result of personal failings. Wagner and Atticks’ purpose in writing the book was to use personal stories of formerly homeless people to both show that most people on the streets eventually go on to have functioning lives, and that what makes the difference is financial and other support to stop being homeless and stay housed.
It’s a self-help book, all right, but it’s aimed at helping Americans get over the idea that homelessness is mainly the result of personal failings.
Not surprising, given the list of causes the authors give, the solutions are equally social in nature. An important factor in whether people can get off the streets is the ability to secure low-cost, and, generally, subsidized housing. Equally important is receiving some degree of dependable income — usually SSI or Social Security — and other social benefits. As the authors point out, “getting a job” by itself, given how low wages generally are in the casual labor market, is often not enough to pay even the lowest available rents.
An important factor in whether people can get off the streets is the ability to secure low-cost, and, generally, subsidized housing.
A third major factor is the existence of supportive community, including access to what Wagner and Atticks call “social capital.” It includes information about benefits and programs, access to people with contacts and resources, and belonging to organizations that both give homeless people more social standing with service providers, and allow them to experience being valued and explore “trust, tolerance, and reciprocity” with others.
Together, they found that these three factors were the most important, not just in getting people off the streets, but also in keeping them off the streets.
This kind of perspective is probably not news to most readers of Real Change. In fact, Real Change itself falls into the second and third categories of solution — it can provide a degree of dependable income to some vendors and it helps create a supportive community that includes vendors, customers, volunteers, and others.
The authors go on to discuss what they call the “therapeutic” model of overcoming homelessness, in which many service providers and homeless people themselves use a language of “recovery” that derives from “self-help groups such as AA, NA, and their many offshoots.” The authors concede that this model “has many positive components ... a spiritual awakening, an introspective ability to reinterpret ... life, a new language ... and a growing group of like-minded people.” They also observe that “to be ‘recovering’ seemed to have status in the community, whereas being a poor person ... or other potential roles stemming from low social class may well have seemed more stigmatizing.”
They might have added that focusing on individual behavior, rather than the broader social factors, is one way someone can feel in control of the process of getting housed; however hard addressing addiction, mental illness, or finding and staying in a low-wage job or marginal housing situation may be, it probably feels easier than changing the politics and economics that have generated large-scale homelessness in this country. However, as the authors point out, a focus on the individual may reduce the ability of poor people to recognize the political and economic factors shaping their lives, and therefore to organize to change things.
“No Longer Homeless” provides an overview of the causes and cures for homelessness from an often-neglected perspective — the experiences of people on the streets. In addition, the descriptions of community organizations such as the Los Angeles Poverty Department, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, and the Amistad Center in Portland, Maine give detail and color to different options for organizing and helping people who are homeless, and are a reminder of the uniqueness of what can be done on the local level.
Unfortunately, the individual stories are more disappointing, reading more like case studies than real lives. Wagner and Atticks do better at summarizing their experiences up to the social policy level, and that’s the strength of the book.
Check out the full Oct. 10 - 16 issue.
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