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Reckoning with Homelessness

Reckoning with Homelessness

Kim Hopper
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    Reckoning with Homelessness
    Book Description:

    "It must be some kind of experiment or something, to see how long people can live without food, without shelter, without security."-Homeless woman in Grand Central Station

    Kim Hopper has dedicated his career to trying to address the problem of homelessness in the United States. In this powerful book, he draws upon his dual strengths as anthropologist and advocate to provide a deeper understanding of the roots of homelessness. He also investigates the complex attitudes brought to bear on the issue since his pioneering fieldwork with Ellen Baxter twenty years ago helped put homelessness on the public agenda.

    Beginning with his own introduction to the problem in New York, Hopper uses ethnography, literature, history, and activism to place homelessness into historical context and to trace the process by which homelessness came to be recognized as an issue. He tells the largely neglected story of homelessness among African Americans and vividly portrays various sites of public homelessness, such as airports. His accounts of life on the streets make for powerful reading.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7161-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Part I: Classification and History

    • 1 This Business of Taking Stock
      (pp. 3-24)

      As introductions to homelessness go, mine as a newly arrived graduate student in New York in 1972 was hardly traumatic. But it was an uneasy mix of the grim, the wrenching, and the comic. There were, first of all, those inescapable images of the city’s forsaken: the half-naked man cavorting in the steam pouring out of vents at a street construction site early one morning, wraithlike in the glow of mercury-vapor lights; the sobbing figure of a woman sitting on the stone steps of a church, the still body of a man lying prone on a sidewalk, the plaintive importuning...

    • 2 Unearned Keep: From Almshouse to Shelter in New York City
      (pp. 25-54)

      When tradition stubbornly resists change while all around evidence mounts that change is needed, an anthropologist’s curiosity is piqued, especially one working on the home front. Such appears consistently to be the case with cultural images of vagrancy in the United States for the last two centuries. An idiom of impairment (mental, moral, or physical) has dominated official discourse in the face of persistent indications that a contrary, more complicated picture is warranted. Homeless men did the dirty work of early industrialization—laying track, cutting timber, building bridges, digging irrigation ditches and canals, working mines. But they also swelled the...

  5. Part II: Fieldwork and Framework

    • Introduction: Ethnography in the Annals of Homelessness
      (pp. 57-59)

      Homelessness has long figured as a subject in the documentary tradition of American letters.¹ In fact, participant observation as a method—and ethnography as a genre—may be said to have cut its teeth domestically in the effort to capture the dynamics of rootlessness and mobility apparent in post-Progressive Era America. The University of Chicago’s sociology department, in particular, championed urban ethnographic research—of the eight studies W.J. Wilson refers to as evidence of this school’s productivity in this period, three dealt exclusively with homeless men.² The story is especially well documented for such cities as Chicago and New York,...

    • 3 Streets, Shelters, and Flops: An Ethnographic Study of Homeless Men, 1979–1982
      (pp. 60-116)

      This chapter revisits early years of research in the largely unedited words of original fieldnotes and observations. If it reads at times like a portrait of the anthropologist as a young crusader, fueled by equal measures of naiveté and outrage, it also captures something of the fitful bouts of disbelief (fading nervously to acceptance) with which homelessness was met at the time.

      By the fall of 1979, when our research got under way, it was apparent that vagrancy was undergoing a sea change in character and numbers, though few observers were reckless enough to hazard any but approximations of either....

    • 4 The Airport as Home
      (pp. 117-130)

      No theme has so dominated and distorted contemporary discussion of homelessness as that of disability. In some quarters, the notion that most homeless people are badly damaged and that this damage is what best explains their homelessness has become something of a talisman, the hidden key to the otherwise vexing mystery of enduring street poverty. Severe mental illness and chronic substance abuse are the usual impairments cited. Evidence to the contrary—that although many homeless people suffer from severe psychosis and/or addictions, this does not constitute a majority; nor does the disability of those afflicted alone account for their homelessness...

    • 5 Out for the Count: The Census Bureau’s 1990 S-Night Enumeration
      (pp. 131-146)

      The Constitution provides for a decennial enumeration of all the country’s residents and, as a court might put it, “all means all. “The Census Bureau’s interest in the numbers and demographies of homeless persons, and in the institutions catering to them, dates at least from the time of a special enumeration of New York’s Bowery men in April 1930. With the exception of a few research projects, so targeted an effort lapsed in the intervening years. But in the late 1980s, the Bureau stimulated renewed interest in the problems of enumerating such populations by funding several pilot studies prior to...

    • 6 Homelessness and African American Men
      (pp. 147-172)

      Thirty-five years ago, Elliot Liebow drew an unforgettable portrait of a group of African American men in Washington, D.C., who congregated at a carryout shop in a poor section of town. The men of “Tally’s comer” were largely unskilled or low-skilled workers, intermittently employed at “hard, dirty, uninteresting and underpaid” jobs. It was the quietly corrosive effects of such marginal work that most interested Liebow. For one of these men to contemplate the job, he surmised, was “to see himself as others see him, to remind him of just where he stands in this society.” Over time, the damage done...

  6. Part III: Advocacy and Engagement

    • 7 Negotiating Settlement: Advocacy for the Homeless Poor in the United States, 1980–1995
      (pp. 175-203)

      Although many groups were barred from that masked ball of false pros pelity that was the United States in the 1980s, few proved as successful at crashing the party than the homeless poor. They were the spoilers, insistent reminders of the unruly night outside. Try as its officials might—by denying their existence, ascribing it to pathology (alcohol, drugs, and mental illness), interpreting it as a perverse exercise of “individual choice”—the state was hard pressed to conjure away the evidence of the streets. Most of the damage done to the poor in that decade took the form of a...

    • 8 Limits to Witnessing: From Ethnography to Engagement
      (pp. 204-218)

      For over twenty years now,¹ ethnographers have plied their trade in the briar patch of homelessness across the United States. Working against a cultural tradition of denial and confinement, one that readily accommodates unobtrusive poverty, we seized on this novel spectacle—rude, visible, burgeoning homelessness—as a vehicle for reopening the book on poverty and dysfunction. If we had a guiding preoccupation, it was to bear witness: to render faithfully the “Minute Particulars” (William Blake) of a reality that, structurally, was not supposed to exist (not in these numbers, at any rate). We never sought t o segregate these margins,...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 219-240)
  8. References
    (pp. 241-268)
  9. Index
    (pp. 269-272)