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Shelter Blues

Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless

Robert Desjarlais
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Shelter Blues
    Book Description:

    Desjarlais shows us not anonymous faces of the homeless but real people.While it is estimated that 25 percent or more of America's homeless are mentally ill, their lives are largely unknown to us. What must life be like for those who, in addition to living on the street, hear voices, suffer paranoid delusions, or have trouble thinking clearly or talking to others.Shelter Bluesis an innovative portrait of people residing in Boston's Station Street Shelter. It examines the everyday lives of more than 40 homeless men and women, both white and African-American, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s. Based on a sixteen-month study, it draws readers into the personal worlds of these individuals and, by addressing the intimacies of homelessness, illness, and abjection, picks up where most scholarship and journalism stops.Robert Desjarlais works against the grain of media representations of homelessness by showing us not anonymous stereotypes but individuals. He draws on conversations as well as observations, talking with and listening to shelter residents to understand how they relate to their environment, to one another, and to those entrusted with their care. His book considers their lives in terms of a complex range of forces and helps us comprehend the linkages between culture, illness, personhood, and political agency on the margins of contemporary American society.Shelter Bluesis unlike anything else ever written about homelessness. It challenges social scientists and mental health professionals to rethink their approaches to human subjectivity and helps us all to better understand one of the most pressing problems of our time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0643-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. ʺBeauty and the Streetʺ
    (pp. 1-5)

    “Fresh croissants, hot coffee, classical music, a carnation on every table,” begins one journalist’s account of “Compassion Fatigue” in 1991 Boston:

    —the Au Bon Pain [a local cafe] on Mass Ave between Harvard and Central Squares couldn’t be a more inviting place to start the day. Regulars hunker down here every morning before work or school, settling into cafe chairs, eating pastries, poring sleepily over the morning papers. Rarely does anyone look up.

    But one frigid morning late in January, the peaceful civility here was rudely—and horribly—interrupted. A homeless man limped in, bleeding heavily from the nose. He...

  5. Alice Weldmanʹs Concerns
    (pp. 5-10)

    Such is the potent imagery of homelessness, to which we will soon return: that of grotesque bodies, unnamed figures, animal behaviors, incomprehensible utterances, and deathly underworlds. Yet while the images might seem accurate, natural, or inevitable, they are not intrinsic to, or necessarily representative of, the lives of those who sleep on the streets or in shelters. InPowers of HorrorJulia Kristeva notes that, while the “intimate side” of abjection is suffering, horror is its “public feature.”¹ The above accounts are concerned more with the perceived horrors and stigmata of homelessness than with its intimacies.

    To counter such horrors...

  6. Rethinking Experience
    (pp. 10-17)

    Explorations of “experience” are never straightforward, however, for once we begin to clarify its nature, we run into a host of problems. The intimate, experiential side of homelessness or any other abjection is just as mythic and just as cultural as the public, horrific side. There are also questions of how one goes about knowing what other people experience and the rhetorical uses to which expressions of experience are put. In turn, any attempt to build effective theories of experience is complicated by the fact that people’s lives can entail very different ways of being. The category of experience is...

  7. Struggling Along
    (pp. 17-24)

    Given this complex genealogy of the idea of “experience,” there are several ways in which we could proceed. We could try to ignore or deny its history and use the word in the most minimal and seemingly innocuous way possible—equating experience with simply being alive or sensately aware, for example. Or we could suggest that, because philosophers have gotten it wrong, we should try to wipe the slate clean and redefine experience in a less culture-laden, less bourgeois, or perhaps less masculine way. We could argue that the Western heritage presents only one, albeit variegated, strand of experience, with...

  8. A Critical Phenomenology
    (pp. 24-27)

    The presence in 1990s Boston of distinct ways of being, each with its own defining features, conditions, and constraints, suggests a need to rethink our approaches to the everyday. Instead of assuming that “experience,” “emotions,” or “narratives” are existential givens, ontologically prior to certain cultural realities, we need to question their origins and makings. As the great phenomenologists used to say, we need to place these concepts “in brackets” or “in abeyance.”¹

    Ironically, this strategy calls for a reworking of how most phenomenologically oriented studies proceed. In the opening pages ofSpeech and Phenomena, Jacques Derrida shows that Edmund Husserl’s...

  9. Questions of Shelter
    (pp. 27-39)

    Thinkers like Foucault, who emphasize the priority of cultural discourses in shaping our lives, tend to speak of incarnations of self or power as generic to an age. Yet while such approaches are useful in mapping forms of mind and personhood specific to historical periods and sometimes show how these forms take shape in everyday life, they seldom consider how the stuff of personhood is built out of the events and doings of everyday life. They also tend to neglect the plurality of forces that occasion diverse ways of being at any moment within a society. To rectify this tendency...

  10. Five Coefficients
    (pp. 39-44)

    The need for housing, and questions as to which kind of accommodations best suited “the chronically and persistently mentally ill,” led to the research project with which my fieldwork was formally linked. The project, itself part of a nationwide comparative study, tried to assess the effects of two housing models on the welfare and well-being of the “consumers” participating in the study. To begin this project, “housing officers” and case managers recruited prospective subjects from the three DMH shelters. Once a person agreed to participate in the study, he or she was randomly assigned and relocated to either an “independent...

  11. ʺA Crazy Place to Put Crazy Peopleʺ
    (pp. 44-54)

    The building in which the shelter was lodged was known for its eccentric irregularities.

    The mental health center, of which the shelter was a part, was located in the Massachusetts State Service Center, three blocks west of City Hall, at the upper, easterly crest of the area formerly known as the West End. The West End was populated by immigrant families until the late 1950s, when the Boston Redevelopment Authority declared it a slum area and slated it for destruction and redevelopment. By January 1962 the winding streets and 2,700 households were replaced by medical complexes, luxury apartment buildings, and...

  12. The Sea of Tranquility
    (pp. 55-58)

    Anyone who did locate the sliding glass doors at the shaded northwest corner of the Mental Health building, which were open only during business hours, first had to pass through a circular expanse about a hundred yards wide and seventy-five yards deep that was bordered by the building on one side and two streets on the other. With its perimeter defined by a concrete ridge, the area suggested a quiet, shallow, waterless pool. “I always thought of it as a sea of tranquility,” said Stuart Coopan of this courtyard-like space (see Figure 5). Stuart was a young and usually talkative...

  13. ʺToo Muchʺ
    (pp. 58-63)

    Once people stepped into the sea of tranquility, the building confronted them with a clear choice: they could ascend the stairway into the open area above, which led to the upper plaza, or they could descend into the darkness of the ground floor, which in a few steps led to the shelter. The spiral staircases twisted up toward the plaza’s expanse, which seemed even more open and lacking beside the ghost tower. “It’s got no feeling. It’s a dead space. There’s no use to it,” said Richard. “And it’s dangerous. You could fall off the front.”

    The plaza’s unbounded openness...

  14. Beautiful Ruins
    (pp. 63-65)

    For Kant, the “emotional satisfaction” produced by the sublime derives from the realization of the powers of Reason. For Burke, the pain and terror brought by the sublime achieve a catharsis; they “clear the parts, whether fine, or gross, of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance.”¹ Yet it strikes me that any satisfaction achieved with a more modern sublime relates to the pleasure felt when standing in the midst of ruin. Meaning can tumble like a house of cards, the loss of a solid perceptual footing can undermine one’s identity, a building can fall apart. While one can witness or facilitate...

  15. Framing the Homeless
    (pp. 65-68)

    Basic to the sublime disorders of the post-industrial age, then, is a common sentiment: whether it be the occasional thrill of semantic collapse or a yearning for structural decay, there is a delight in the fall. The architects of Boston’s homeless—politicians, journalists, consumers, psychiatrists, ethnographers, and the dislocated themselves—are tempted by a similar aesthetics of decay when invoking or depicting these people. As I understand it, confrontations with Boston’s itinerant often evoke sentiments similar to those conjured by Rudolph’s ruin. This is not to say that the cultural history of the homeless is identical to that of the...

  16. Sensory (Dis)Orientations
    (pp. 68-72)

    Since people’s feelings could become part of the State Service Center when they touched, looked at, or breathed onto it, the building felt different and meant different things for different people, at different times, and from different vantage points. The building could not be read like a book, with a single meaning: its uses and meanings tied into one’s position in space and one’s place in society. While many of the residents of the building, more familiar with its nuances than most, found the unusual architecture to be dangerous and “distracting,” they also knew the structure as a place of...

  17. The Walls
    (pp. 73-74)

    The walls, both inside and out, remained forbidding, however. Phenomenologies of space, like Gaston Bachelard’sThe Poetics of Space, usually attend to the mood, symbolism, or geometry of certain areas, such as a home, a corner, or an avenue.¹ But the makings of the State Service Center suggested that the very surfaces and tactility of built spaces played a strong role in the doings and imaginings of its users.

    The architects, “brutalist” by trade, designed the walls so that light would be “fractured in a thousand ways” and the sense of “depth” would be increased. To achieve this effect, most...

  18. Roots to Earth
    (pp. 75-82)

    Despite their dangers, the walls protected those within them. Many found refuge in the building from the streets, the police, and the potential violence of everyday life. It sometimes seemed as if each person heeded a distinct geography of fear and safety. Wendy Dyer, for instance, told me one day that she only felt comfortable “in this building and around it.” She was particularly frightened of East Boston, where her ex-boyfriend lived. When I asked Julie Mason what she took to be safe places to stay, she named the shelter, the building, and Virginia: “People don’t die in Virginia. Here...

  19. On the Basketball Court
    (pp. 82-87)

    Entering the shelter from the lobby, people passed through a set of industrial blue doors bearing the words

    and walked into the confines of a gym complete with shower rooms and a basketball court that provided the grounds for the men’s and women’s “dormitories.” In crossing the border between lobby and shelter, people entered (or left) a specific domain of social and political relations.

    Upon stepping into the shelter, people first encountered “the staff desk,” immediately to the left of the entrance (see Figure 7). The term “staff desk” was metonymic, for it referred to an area, enclosed within a...

  20. Smoking and Eating and Talking
    (pp. 87-95)

    The nature of these routines suggested that the construction of time in the shelter was akin to the makings of space, such that a distinct “chronotope” or time-space configuration (to use Bakhtin’s word) governed life on the basketball court.¹ The chronotope, promoted by the staff in myriad ways, involved a span of finite, clearly defined, habitual, and reasonable activities.

    On weekdays residents had to leave the shelter by 9:30 in the morning, unless they were physically unwell. If they wanted to eat the free breakfast served in the cafeteria they had to rise by 8 o’clock or so. From 9:30...

  21. Displacement and Obscurity
    (pp. 95-102)

    Carla’s migration from the shelter to the hospital and back again was political in nature. Though many residents sought to root themselves in particular locales, they were uprooted in turn.

    In the winter of 1992, the shelter staff held an “open” and “mandatory” meeting with the residents of the shelter soon after an elaborate and sensitive smoke-detector system was installed. A few minutes into the meeting, one resident questioned the appropriateness of a new rule, proposed by the shelter manager, that would banish a person from the shelter for a night if he or she was caught smoking.

    “I don’t...

  22. A Physics of Homelessness
    (pp. 102-104)

    In Mike Leigh’s 1993 filmNaked, Johnny, a splenetic youth down on his luck and without a place to sleep in London, seeks shelter one night in front of the glass doors of a well-lit commercial building. Despite the poor lighting outside the security guard inside the building notices Johnny sitting on the stoop. The guard, who later says his job is to “guard space,” gets up from his desk, walks over to the doors, unlocks them, takes a step outside, and asks without malevolence, “Got nowhere to go then?”

    “I’ve got an infinite number of fuckin’ places to go,”...

  23. Hearing Voices
    (pp. 105-111)

    “The doctors have no name for my illness,” said Julie Mason, a usually pensive African American woman in her early thirties who lived in the shelter for a year before moving into an apartment provided by the housing project. “I hear voices, telling me to hurt myself. But I don’t talk back. It’s not so bad. Others are a lot worse.”

    She told me this in March of 1992, soon after I began research in the shelter, on one of the many occasions that we sat at a table to talk. She spoke slowly and hesitantly, as if searching for...

  24. Holding It Together
    (pp. 111-117)

    Like Julie and Eva, who had to give up custody of their children, many residents were neither overly angered nor saddened by their troubles. Instead they dealt with their problems day by day. Although few thought that complete health was possible, all hoped their ailments would be alleviated or at least would not worsen. Roy Lerner, for instance, spoke of his current state of being as if commenting on the weather; a florist by trade, he considered himself an “observant” person who understood flowers and people. He often noted the presence and severity of “voices” in his report. “Good. I...

  25. Taking Meds
    (pp. 117-120)

    Martin tried to numb himself from worries and nervousness through licit and illicit drugs. Others medicated themselves as well, but usually with pharmaceuticals regulated by the state and prescribed by a psychiatrist. Some were on a fixed and steady plan of antidepressant, antianxiety, or antipsychotic medications; by definition, these antidotes countered some malady or symptom more than they fostered a new state of mind. Others repeatedly returned to “their” psychiatrists so that they could adjust the kind and amount of medications prescribed. The adjustments had a hit-or-miss quality to them; different antidotes and dosages were tried until something worked.


  26. The Street
    (pp. 120-128)

    “Compared to the streets,” Tommy said of the shelter, “it’s a pretty good place.”

    Indeed, to understand why people slept in the shelter for months or even years, given its monotonous constraints and routines, we need to know something about “the street.” References to the street or streets did not imply specific, nameable roadways or neighborhoods but instead involved a general sociogeographic domain that intimated a specific way of life and certain frames of mind.

    With the notable exceptions of Mitch and Alice, most residents disliked life on the streets. They spoke of the street as if it was a...

  27. Secondness to Firstness
    (pp. 128-137)

    In the long run, the uncouth, isolating, reductive, and bodily aspects of the street patterned how veterans knew of, spoke of, and remembered that terrain. They also led many to seek out a refuge like the shelter. The street’s distractions, contingencies, and potential violence amplified fears and anxieties. People oriented themselves on the sensory range between “nervousness” and “staying calm,” with many bedding down in the shelter in hopes of finding more of the latter. “I’m okay. I feel safe as long as I’m in the building,” Joey said when asked how he was doing one day. Greg said that...

  28. Pacing My Mind
    (pp. 137-140)

    Another way that people dealt with things was to pace. Some did not pace at all. I never saw Fred, Helen, or Peter pace, and Irving seemed somehow too regal to want to work his body so. Richard sometimes paced when others did; he shadowed Brian at times, as if the contagion of movement was another way for him to get in touch with people. Men paced more than women, although it was unclear why this was so. Perhaps the difference lay in the culture, in the medications that men took, or in how those medications affected them. More likely...

  29. The Give and Take
    (pp. 140-151)

    Wages are low on the margins of society. Many of those who came to the shelter from the streets, psychiatric wards, or other shelters brought little money with them. While a few managed to save one or two thousand dollars in a bank, most existed on a bare subsistence level, living from month to month, bartering goods, and borrowing and loaning money in a local economy founded on principles of exchange and reciprocity.

    The majority of Americans known to be mentally ill live economically meager lives. Most are poor, with average annual incomes from $3,000 to $7,000, and unemployment rates...

  30. Stand Away
    (pp. 151-159)

    “I think a lot about him leaving. He bummed a lot of cigarettes from me, you know,” Larry said to Lisa and me as we sat a table in the shelter. He was referring to his pal Bruce, who two days before had moved into a halfway house provided by the housing project.

    “Oh, yeah. You also seemed to get a lot in return,” Lisa replied.

    “Yeah. We treated each other right. I don’t know. He kind of let it go the last week. I lent him some money the last week, ten dollars one day and some cigarettes the...

  31. Ragtime
    (pp. 159-168)

    “One guy gets me coffee in the morning, and I give him a dollar,” Joey told me once. “So it’s worth it for me. But the guy is kinda hard to talk to sometimes.”

    One reason that people found it difficult to converse with others was that talk often involved different planes of meaning that built on diverse principles of association.

    Some phrasings relied on an exuberant, associative semantics of concrete metaphors and metonymns. “You’re gorgeous,” a woman said to me, “you have a house and two kids and a dog in Brookline.” “I’ve been to Ohio for so long,”...

  32. ʺWho?—Whatʹs Your Name?ʺ
    (pp. 168-172)

    Although the shelter was very much founded in a conversation-based reality, the social life there was such that people enjoyed contact and quick exchanges with others but tended not to sit down and participate in extensive conversations. To “sit with” someone was to engage in a long and stationary conversation, usually while seated at a table in the common room or television room. More incidental socioeconomic exchanges typically took place on foot, which enabled one to “stand away,” if necessary, when asking for things. Some preferred not to sit with others: “I don’t sit with anyone,” Peter said; “I don’t...

  33. ʺWeʹre Losing Him, Samʺ
    (pp. 172-176)

    As with my exchanges with Simone and Nancy, I found that I was often engaged in two or more conversations at once—for instance, talking to Richard, responding to Simone’s request for change to buy a cup of coffee, and watching Helen show me what she bought at a store. People would vie for my attention. One day I found myself in the lobby conversing with Larry about the rules of the shelter, and at the same time with Stuart about where the best free meals in Boston could be found. “Stop interrupting,” Larry said to Stuart. “I’mtalking to...

  34. Reasonable Reasonableness
    (pp. 176-183)

    The efforts of Lisa and other staff members to get their guests to talk and act in certain ways, as well as the staff’s approach to language, time, and action in general, reflected their professional responsibilities and approaches to care.

    Staff members like Lisa, Bill, Peggy, and Ray needed to act on several fronts at once in order to carry out their duties and serve the best interests of their guests. In working for an agency of the state, they were responsible for the proper care of those staying in the shelter and so could be held accountable for any...

  35. Tactics, Questions, Rhetoric
    (pp. 183-189)

    Like Wendy, who ignored Lisa and maintained the singular over the general (“It’s just one cigarette”), residents did not always heed the staff’s advice because it did not always ring true to them.¹ While the staff’s views were quite potent, residents moved in different circles, primarily because they were in a position at odds with and defined in opposition to that of the staff. The kinds of words staff members and residents relied on, the way in which they used those words, and their reasons for doing so followed more often than not from the political exigencies of their lives....

  36. Epistemologies of the Real
    (pp. 189-196)

    Questions such as Carla’s and Sylvia’s pointed to another side of many utterances in the shelter. This was a tendency to bemoan some aspect of one’s life. The larger realities of many shelter lives, which were spent in and out of hospitals, psychiatrists’ offices, and halfway houses, help to explain the use-value of complaints. Complaints typically rode on the first person singular: the “I” was plaintive. They often alluded to some private feeling or personal trouble, but primarily for practical reasons: by noting a pain or oppression, the complaints could effect a reality to which one’s audience might feel compelled...

  37. Reactivity
    (pp. 197-205)

    Residents also interpreted events and actions, and tried to recast them in their own image. But the force of the staff’s modality of interpretation made it the more potent and lasting one. Matters were not one-sided, however. Residents did not necessarily follow the staff’s advice or readily conform to their view of things, nor did they take everything at face value (“They tell me I have cancer,” Barbara whispered to me one day, “but the Good Savior told me I don’t, so who you gonna believe?!”). In general there were different wants and competing pragmatics. Staff members tried to advance...

  38. The Office of Reason
    (pp. 205-209)

    So, too, is reason. In the shelter at least, ideas of truth, reason, sincerity, and responsibility were not foundational in any sense. They owed their strength to political concerns and pragmatic effects, and served as tropes in the lives of staff and residents alike. Paul Rabinow notes that sociologies of scientific practices “have sought (with some success) to lower-case the abstractions of Science, Reason, Truth and Society.”¹ Reflections on a commonplace but perhaps less well understood kind of reasoning—reasoning that takes form in everyday life—might enable us to similarly lower-case reason, intimate its cultural and political features, and...

  39. Figure, Character, Person
    (pp. 209-217)

    The doubly pragmatic approach to reason and madness sketched above, in which words did things on their own in the pragmatics of everyday discourse as much as practically minded people did things with words, applies equally to the makings of self and personhood in the shelter, for residents and staff alike drew on different genres of human identity and agency in their dealings with others.

    Ideas of “personhood,” for one, were powerfully at work. Whereas the streets often eroded a sense of personhood, the shelter worked in fundamental ways to reconstitute that sense. “The idea of a person,” Amelie Rorty...

  40. How to Do Things with Feeling
    (pp. 217-223)

    In the State Service Center, feeling was ensconced in rhetoric. The shelter was a place for all things psychological. A great deal of talk involved comments on or indications of states of feeling—such as when Carla said, “I just feel wretched. I really do,” at a group meeting. Although I did not keep count, overt references to feelings seemed more numerous in the shelter than in most other contexts. The high frequency of glossings had a lot to do with the fact that shelter life evolved around therapeutic care. Niko Besnier points out that “in probably all speech communities,...

  41. Architectures of Sense
    (pp. 223-228)

    The rhetoric of feeling seeped into the building itself. Richard held that “when people breath onto [the building], when they look at it, or touch it, then what they’re feeling goes into it, like that.” People apparently breathed and touched a lot, for by all accounts the ecology of the building was a richly sensate one. Yet different areas of the building entailed different sensibilities. As we have seen, Catherine sited the faculty of reason in particular rooms and social arrangements. Other residents also found that distinct places familiar to and frequented by them tended to involvedifferentpatterns of...

  42. Bodies with Organs
    (pp. 228-234)

    Shelter residents suffered from assorted pains, wounds, and afflictions. “Mental illnesses” commonly fused and overlapped with “physical” ailments, to the point where the line between the two domains was unclear. The ailments were palpable, nameable, and often rooted in specific organs or bodily processes: headaches, crushed brains, upset stomachs, pinched nerves, sore arms, cancerous cells, and pained and problematic eyes, ears, toes, glands, and fingers.

    “A nervous breakdown,” Eva explained, “is like feeling your brain fall down to your knees, fall down on the ground, and get crushed.” She said that she had “psychosomatic pains” and sometimes got an upset...

  43. With Your Head Tilted to the Side
    (pp. 235-237)

    When you’re homeless, Richard explained, you end up with just your body because you don’t own anything else. He and others made good use of what they had. From the rites of pacing to ingestions of caffeine and nicotine to occasional adornments of bodily surfaces, slight but consequential uses of bodies helped shape the phenomenal and social worlds in which people lived. General bodily comportments, in turn, were often the vehicle of rhetorical pitches in the State Service Center, for residents came to embody certain physical stances that helped them to present certain identities or to persuade others. During my...

  44. Pacing the Labyrinth
    (pp. 237-250)

    The short of it was that, the more people settled into the routines of the shelter, the more rhetorical their lives were, not the least because many of the daily routines evolved around rhetorical moves and countermoves. Rhetoric was built into the voicing and feeling of things—in much the same way as it was a “rule” in the shelter to “stand away” when asking for something.

    Residents minded other “rules” as well. From what people told me and from what I gathered, these precepts, which stood in counterpoint to the staff’s posted mandates, included more or less implied, more...

  45. Appendix: List of Shelter Residents
    (pp. 251-252)
  46. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 253-256)
  47. Notes
    (pp. 257-284)
  48. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-302)
  49. Index
    (pp. 303-309)
  50. Backmatter
    (pp. 310-310)