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Homelessness, American Style
To cite this article: Don Mitchell (2011) Homelessness, American Style, Urban Geography, 32:7,933-956, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36184.108.40.2063
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-36220.127.116.113
Published online: 16 May 2013.
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Urban Geography, 2011, 32, 7, pp. 933–956. DOI: 10.2747/0272-3618.104.22.1683Copyright © 2011 by Bellwether Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved.
HOMELESSNESS, AMERICAN STYLE1
Department of Geography Syracuse University
Abstract: This study traces the historical geography of homelessness in America. It provides a synoptic overview of the production of homelessness in the United States and the varying urban and national responses to homelessness that have resulted (both cultural responses generally and policy and legal responses more particularly). Surveying changing policies and practices from the colonial period to the present, the author explains how homelessness in the United States has developed and changed, and why it has taken the specific social form that it has. Focusing not on homeless people themselves, and not on the experience of homelessness by those people who are un-housed, but rather on how the societal condition of homelessness—the discourses, practices, laws, and events that shape the nature of homelessness as a social fact—has evolved in the United States, this article suggests that there is a specifically American “style” to homelessness. It con-cludes by raising the question of whether, with the globalization of neoliberal modes of economy and regulation, such a style is now beginning to appear in other national contexts.
To call homelessness in the United States a “crisis” is to abuse language. Homeless-ness is a permanent and necessary part of the U.S. political economy (Marcuse, 1988), even if its specific form, its intensity, and the way it is managed has been historically and geographically variable.
“Homelessness” is not the experience of being homeless. Nor is it a word that specifi-cally refers to the qualities of people who are un-housed. Rather it names a social condi-tion, a set of social relations that are as much about the structures of housed society as they are about how society understands those who lack shelter. In other words, to speak of “homelessness” is to speak of how social relations are organized. The goal of this article, therefore, is to examine those sets of social relations—the discourses, acts of charity and other practices, modes of regulation, laws, and so forth—that shape the societal condi-tion we call “homelessness.” In these terms, the constitution of the societal condition of homelessness must be understood as an evolving, contested “project,” not a once-and-for-all thing. To define “homelessness” in the abstract, then, is a fool’s errand. Rather, what
1Thanks to Jürgen von Mahs for his patience and good ideas—the entire special issue has been a great collabora-tion through and through. Innumerable conversations with Katie Wells have improved my thinking about the social condition of homelessness. Thanks especially to three groups of ace undergraduate students in my Geography of Homelessness class who have helped me to figure out how best to describe the long arc of homelessness—as condition and ideology—in American history. Elvin Wyly has been humorously tolerant of my quirks, and for that especially has earned my appreciation.2Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Don Mitchell, Department of Geography, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, 144 Eggers Hall, Syracuse, NY 13210; telephone: 315-443-3353; fax: 315-443-4227; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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constitutes “homelessness” (and thus how those people labeled “homeless” are understood by larger society) changes as the social conditions that produce homelessness change.3
The recent evolution of “homelessness” in the U.S. can be quickly surveyed: Beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, the nature of homelessness in the U.S. altered significantly, leading to a more diverse, and much larger, street population than in the previous decades. The seemingly sudden explosion of street populations in the early years of the Reagan era led to a great deal of activism, often in the face of a hostile national government, a rapid expansion of emergency shelters, experiments in what became the “continuum-of-care” approach to housing the homeless, and eventually the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. With the deepening of neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, however, the U.S. witnessed what many commentators referred to as “compassion fatigue.” The expansion of the shelter system and the various programs of the McKinney Act seemed to do little to lessen the presence of visible homeless people in cities. As cities were struggling to remake themselves as more “competitive” in the markets for footloose capital, tourists, suburban visitors, and gentrifiers, homeless people, and the facilities that served them (shelters, drop-in centers, halfway houses, etc.), were seen more and more as liabilities.
The response was a criminalization of homeless people in many cities. Laws were passed that outlawed everything from sleeping outdoors, to sitting on sidewalks, to free food giveaways. A traditional division between “deserving poor” (women, children, and those who behaved themselves in ways dominant society deemed sufficiently grateful to charity) and “undeserving poor” (men of working age, those who lived on the streets or in encampment and refused to enter shelters or rehabilitation programs) was reasserted—with a vengeance.
While anti-homeless laws were somewhat successful in pushing the most visible street people out of the most prominent public spaces, and while the boom-times of the Clinton era encouraged the sense that those who remained homeless were somehow themselves at fault, thus turning attention away from structural analyses of homelessness, the current economic crisis has led once again to a rapid increase in the population of the new home-less, increased strain on the always-inadequate emergency shelter and food systems, and a return of visible street homeless populations in most cities. Despite the development in recent years of a new ideology of “housing first” for homeless people, the public hous-ing sector and broader low-income housing markets have been eviscerated by 40 years of underinvestment, gentrification, and outright destruction, suggesting that possibilities for quickly addressing the latest manifestation of homelessness in the United States are extremely limited.
In what follows, I will fill out this all-too-brief survey of the changing nature of home-lessness and responses to it, both extending that history back in time and placing it in its political context. In doing so I will introduce an argument about the how the co- evolutionary relationship between political economy and its social regulation—especially in the realm
3As will become evident, the approach taken in this paper runs contrary to the dominant discourses of contempo-rary homelessness, which are largely concerned with the question of who the homeless are, and what it is about their personal characteristics that has led them to the condition or status of homelessness. Critics call this focus on characteristics the “medicalization” of homelessness and show that one of its primary effects—and often a primary goal—has been to depoliticize the discourse of homelessness (Lyon-Callo, 2000; Snow et al., 1994).
HOMELESSNESS, AMERICAN STYLE 935
of law—must be carefully parsed if we want to understand the evolution of an American-style societal condition of homelessness. Such an analysis will provide something of a historical and geographical point of comparison for the other papers in this issue, which seek to understand if there is something of an Americanization of the “style” of homeless-ness in other national settings.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HOMELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES
It is customary, in both academic and policy circles in the U.S., to base analyses of homelessness on the question, “Who are the homeless?” (e.g., Blau 1993; Erickson and Wilhelm, 1986, Part IV). This question is answered at the aggregate level by seeking to determine the percentage of homeless people who are mentally or physically ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, have criminal records, or suffer from some other moral impairment or form of deviancy; such analyses typically parse the homeless by race, gender, age, and other characteristics. Homelessness is understood in this discourse as a problem of “impaired capacity,” and those who suffer from this malady are themselves often seen not so much as symptoms, but as causes of “structural problems in the economy” (Hopper et al., 1985, p. 189; cf. Tier, 1998). Homelessness is argued to be a characteristic of persons rather than a condition of society.
The Deserving and Undeserving Poor
Such an argument reinforces a traditional divide in American society (and the West more broadly) between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. In Colonial America, this distinction was subsumed under a broader one differentiating between “neighbor” and “stranger,” a distinction that “weakened but never disappeared” as it was supplemented in the “early nineteenth century with the distinction between the “‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor” (Rothman, 1987, pp. 11–12).4 The characteristics of the poor—are they neighbors or strangers, Americans or immigrants, able-bodied or infirm, young or old?—determined their moral standing, and thus both the cause of their poverty and the appropriate response (the provision of shelter, incarceration in jail or workhouse, or being driven out of town). As Hopper et al. (1985, p. 189) summarize, “Despite stubborn implications to the contrary, homelessness has traditionally been viewed as a problem of troubled—and troublesome—individuals. The terms of accusation may change, but the logic does not.”
The logic is an ideological one that hides an economic one. The process of what Marx called “primitive” or “original” accumulation in England, involving the engrossment of land, enclosure of commons, together with the breaking down of feudal and guild bonds, violently uprooted whole armies of “masterless men”: “beggars, robbers, vagabonds” (Marx, 1987 [ed.], p. 686). To control these new classes of dispossessed there developed “a bloody legislation against vagabondage” that sought to control movement, compel labor, and punish those who resisted (Ribton-Turner, 1887; Hill, 1972; Beier, 1986). Both the problem of “masterless men” and the solution were imported to America with the colonies—for example, poor laws that prescribed “pillorying, branding, flogging, or ear
4There is now an excellent literature on the history of homelessness in relation to poor law in the U.S.; among others, see Cresswell (2001), DePastino (2003), Hopper (2003), Kusmer (2002), and Piven and Cloward (1971).
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cropping … those migrants who could not give ‘a good and satisfactory accounting of their wandering up and down’” (DePastino, 2003, p. 6, quoting Jones, 1984, p. 39), enforced labor in the workhouse, on the rock pile, or in the harvest for those who could, or the simple expedient of “warning out” (that is, forcing back on the road) those who showed up in town with no visible means of support, and were undeserving of local sympathy (Rothman, 1987, p. 12).
Vagrancy laws were a key means of controlling both the “wandering poor” and freed or escaped slaves, and they reinforced a sharp divide between insiders in society (including those who might be deserving of some charity) and outcasts who threatened the stability of society (Monkkonen, 1984; Cresswell, 2001; Schweick, 2009). Yet, “the poor of the nine-teenth century city were everywhere apparent. Begging was commonplace. Rag-pickers foraged through garbage for discarded and scrap food. ‘Wild children’ roamed the streets” (Hopper, 2003, p. 30). Behind this visible façade of poverty lay “a huge reservoir of sickly, poorly paid, badly housed, and frequently unemployed people,” a “disreputable poor” that “charity did little to ease … preferring instead to pioneer new disciplinary techniques for their edification” (Hopper, 2003, pp. 30–31).
Tramping and the Rise of Skid Row
Nonetheless such outcasts were, many of them, an economic necessity. Not just Marx’s lumpenproletariat, “tramps” were a vital source of flexible and seasonal labor in both ante- and postbellum America, harvesting bonanza wheat crops, building canals and railroads, felling trees in the forests, and so forth (Monkkonen, 1984; DePastino, 2003; Higbie, 2003). The rapid industrialization of the U.S. after the Civil War, and the rapid engross-ment of land that accompanied it (complicated, but by no means eliminated by, the various homestead policies), created a massive demand for mobile labor. As Kusmer (1987, p. 23) writes, “The increasing number of homeless men during the very period when the United States was emerging as an industrial nation was no coincidence. The new vagrancy was an indigenous aspect of a country in rapid transition from an agricultural and small-town society to one centered on great cities.”
Three crucial results of the rise of this massive “reserve army” of migratory and often homeless men (and some women) are particularly important for understanding contempo-rary homelessness in America. First, it generated a serious moral panic among the emerging bourgeoisie, especially in times of economic crisis (e.g., 1873–1878; 1893; 1912–1913) when the bourgeoisie’s own precarious social stability was at risk (Cresswell, 2001).5 As a result, vagrancy laws were reinforced and new policing methods—sometimes quite violent—were introduced to contain and corral the wandering poor while separating the worthy from the unworthy (who were not infrequently labeled “agitators”) (Monkkonen, 2004). These “tramp scares” expressed themselves as “struggles between the propertied and unpropertied over the use of public space, fears about the growth of a propertyless pro-letariat, and anxieties about the loss of traditional social controls in America” (DePastino, 2003, p. 8)—all struggles, fears, and anxieties strongly revived in the current era of homelessness.
5At times of economic crisis, the number of homeless women among the tramping poor increased greatly, though vagrancy remained largely a male preserve (Weiner, 1984; Cresswell, 2001).
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The second, not unrelated, result was the development of a specific geography of home-lessness in the United States. On the road, this geography took the form of hobo jungles or encampments at the edge of cities, in disused spaces along rail lines, and so forth. For workers between jobs, jungles often served as spaces of community (not without hier-archy and internal forms of exploitation and domination among hobos),6 places where the sting of the police baton was less frequent, and zones of safety from a deeply hostile settled society. In cities, skid rows—entire districts of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), flophouses, municipal lodging houses, labor agencies, cheap bars and cafes, missions, whorehouses, and other businesses and services geared toward poor and migra-tory workers—developed at the edges of downtowns. Migratory workers “wintered over” in skid row, and returned to it between short-term jobs in the harvests, mines, and woods. A “home-guard” class of relatively immobile, frequently unemployable (because of age, infirmity, or addiction) “bums” found cheap housing—or at least a bed in a mission—and a relatively benign police presence in skid row (Bahr, 1970, 1973; McSheehy, 1979; Schneider, 1984; Kasinitz, 1986; Hoch and Slayton, 1989; Groth, 1994).7 “Unfit mothers,” prostitutes, and other poor women also found shelter on skid row, though boarding houses in working class neighborhoods housed many working women, while settlement houses in various districts provided a home for the most “deserving” of the others. Skid rows thus developed in most American cities as specialized districts for housing, maintaining, and managing the massive reserve army of labor, an army that expanded and contracted with the economic fortunes of the nation.
The third result, concomitant in part of the “discovery” of this emerging geography, was the development of an extensive social science literature on the phenomenon of vagrancy, tramping—and homelessness. Economic crisis always brought with it a significant rise in the number of those (including large numbers of women and children) seeking shelter in the lodging houses, police station basements, or shantytowns erected in parks or on waste-land, but the phenomenon of wandering men, and the perceived disaffiliation from society that marked them, never disappeared. Skid row was, by the beginning of the 20th century, apparently becoming home to a permanent class of the unemployed and semi-employed. Researchers in the emerging social sciences sought to parse out just who it was that habitu-ated skid row (see, e.g. Solenberger, 1911), and to explain their disaffiliation from family and the comforts of a settled home as a sort of perversity or personal defect (Parker, 1919), or even as a way of life chosen by men divorced from the norms of society (Anderson, 1923). Homelessness—a condition now defined not so much by a lack of shelter, but rather by a lack of tight ties to bourgeois family and society—was increasingly seen as a function of individuals’ characters (Hopper et al., 1985; Cresswell, 2001; Hopper, 2003), as politi-cal economic analyses of the role of hobos and other marginalized workers in society were downplayed. The effect was to classify homeless people as external to society, rather than as integral to its functioning.8 The preferred intervention, therefore, was typically charity
6There was a quite specific language of male homelessness at this time: hobos wandered in search of work; tramps wandered but did not work; bums neither wandered nor worked (Cresswell, 2001, pp. 48–49), though in practice these terms were frequently used interchangeably.7“Relative” is the important word. Policing on skid row could at times be impressively violent (Bittner, 1967; McSheehy, 1979).8Such a positioning was obviously a hallmark of the Chicago School of urban sociology. But work associated with that school should not be so easily homogenized. Significant exceptions to this overarching way of understanding
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and moral instruction (as with the Salvation Army and the thickets of Christian “rescue” missions that sprouted in skid rows across the country) that sought to reintegrate those who could be saved.
Whatever the theories of the social scientists, and whatever the interventions of the charities, both were overwhelmed by the explosion of need that marked the Depression. Charity collapsed under the weight of both numbers and the contradictions of its own ideology as millions lost their houses and sought shelter wherever they could. On the basis of surveys, the hobo-sociologist Nels Anderson estimated in the spring of 1933 that 1.5 million people slept in public shelters or outdoors, and additional millions filled the flop-houses and commercial lodging houses; more still, no doubt, were doubled up with rela-tives. The term “homeless” was newly reserved “for those unable to pay for shelter of any sort” (DePastino, 2003, pp. 200–201). Other research exposed the appalling conditions—the dilapidated and overcrowded houses, the airless, firetrap tenements, the neighborhoods still without plumbing or safe water—within which much of the working class lived. And unprecedented migrations of new “tramps,” new migratory workers—the masses, often whole extended families, fleeing drought and economic collapse in the Dustbowl states—created housing and political crises in rural and urban areas alike (Stein, 1974; Gregory, 1989). Economic explanations of the new homeless and poorly housed were unavoidable, as were solutions targeted at the conditions that produced homelessness, rather than at the characteristics of homeless people themselves.9
Welfare, American Style
Keynesian interventions in the U.S. economy beginning in the 1930s and 1940s were halting, discontinuous, and frequently contradictory. Nothing like the Beveridge Plan for post-war Britain, and certainly nothing like the social welfarism of Europe, was ever developed. But the effect of what interventions there were on the nature of homelessness, and its geography, was profound. The Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937 created a national program of public housing for the first time. Imagined in the first instance as workers’ housing, the housing built under the act expanded the pool of low-cost housing and relieved pressure on overcrowded tenement districts. The major 1949 amendment to the act promoted slum clearance and urban development as well as rehousing in mas-sive projects (Hackworth, 2007, pp. 44–53). These acts, and others that followed, together with the heavy subsidization of suburban housing (through tax breaks as well as through the creation of the federal interstate highway system), had profound effects on skid rows in many cities, beginning a long decline of SROs and rooming houses (Jackson, 1985; Fishman, 1987; Groth, 1994, chapter 9).
Make-work programs, like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, provided immediate relief to the un- and underemployed, especially young and single men, eating into the traditional pool of recruits for the migratory labor forces. The military draft, war-oriented production, and thus the full employment of World
homeless people can be found in Anderson (1923) and Thrasher (1927); for an excellent discussion of the latter, see Tonnelat (2008).9Analyses and policy interventions aimed at the characteristics of homeless people never disappeared, of course (cf. Southerland and Locke, 1936; Crouse, 1986).
HOMELESSNESS, AMERICAN STYLE 939
War II had an even more profound effect (as did the heavy subsidization of college and university education for veterans under the postwar G.I. Bill). State planning of industry, some support for unionizing, the invention of Social Security, the development of state and corporate pensions, a modicum of health insurance, and what eventually became known as the “Great Compromise” between capital and labor after the war (a compromise that traded high wages and job security for labor peace), all radically transformed the labor market, cementing into place a “fordist” regime of accumulation and social regulation. While some transient labor was still required in the economy in seasonal industries like agriculture, the bracero guest-worker program (1942–1964) helped assure that such work would be con-ducted largely by a nonwhite, immigrant labor force, one often excluded from the fruits of the postwar boom (Galarza, 1964, 1977). “The Great Depression, which began by sending millions to lodging houses, jungle camps, and public shelters,” DePastino (2003, p. 219) concluded, “ended by confirming hobohemia’s [skid row’s] demise and recommitting the nation to the suburban domestic ideal.”
As a result, the structure of homelessness—and most especially its representation—changed. Women and children were never absent from the ranks of the homeless, nor were people of color, but neither were they now typically counted as part of the new, postwar homeless. Those labeled homeless in the postwar years were the residents of the remaining SROs, missions, and lodging houses, and they tended to be white, elderly, and rarely transient. They were frequently alcoholic. They were either minimally employed or unemployable. They were modern society’s outcasts (Cayo Sexton, 1986).10 They were disaffiliated men—disaffiliated from the nuclear family (both the ideal and the reality) and disaffiliated from society. Urban sociologists “characterized skid row as a world apart, an isolated enclave of damaged white men who had failed to take up their proper roles as family breadwinners” (DePastino, 2003, p. 231; cf. Hopper, 2003, p. 45; Bahr, 1970; Bahr and Caplow, 1973). They were truly the undeserving poor, because they had failed to avail themselves of the benefits of the new postwar era. In this way, despite the construc-tion, at least in part, of what Jessop (2002) termed the Keynesian welfare national state, homelessness could be made to fit a traditionally liberal ideology, in which opportunities for individual success were everywhere available, and thus lack of success was a function of either a character fault, a (bad) choice, or some combination of the two. But one salient fact remained the same: homeless people were people “whose presence represent[ed] unneeded labor,” and as such they remained “a drain on households [and] an affront to the peaceful enjoyment of civic space” (Hopper, 2003, p. 45).
THE GREAT U-TURN11
“So long as the appearance of unusual numbers of homeless men (in addition to the accepted residuum of ‘unemployables’) can be framed as a temporary aberration,” writes urban anthropologist Kim Hopper (2003, p. 46), “the fiction can be maintained that home-lessness signifies nothing other than deranged mentalities, bad habits, or faulty coping
10The first wave of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, which moved the mentally ill out of the total institution of the asylum and into unprepared and underfunded neighborhoods for care, reinforced the notion that street and homeless people were “not like us” (Lamb, 1984; Dear and Wolch, 1987).11The title is borrowed from Harrison and Bluestone (1988).
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skills of those whom it affects.” By the early 1980s, this fiction was, in fact, quite difficult to maintain. Uneven recovery from the deep recession of the 1970s; the rapid slide into a new recession in 1981; the massive deindustrialization that had begun in some areas as early as the 1960s, but really gathered force after the oil shocks of 1973–1974; the steady erosion of union rights and benefits; changes in housing markets; and the defunding of public housing: all these combined to produce a massive wave of new homelessness as Ronald Reagan took office as president.12
Dedicated to dismantling what was left of the welfare state, the Reagan administration helped usher in what Jessop (2002) awkwardly calls the Schumpterian workfare post-national regime, but which has more generally come to be known first as “post-fordism” and now by the shorthand “neoliberalism” (Harvey, 2005). Marked by a market funda-mentalism (in ideology if not practice), a new flexibilism in labor markets was pushed at the expense of employment guarantees, and wages for working people were forced down-ward. The pace of deindustrialization in core countries, and especially America, increased (Bluestone and Harrison, 1982; Harrison and Bluestone, 1988). Whole towns and cities were wiped out as footloose factions of capital scoured the globe looking for cheap labor, lax environmental regulation, or large subsidies and tax breaks (see, e.g. Linkon and Russo, 2003). Factions of capital that were locally rooted, to say nothing of local people, struggled to find ways to survive in an environment where places were now in competition with each other (Harvey, 1989, 2001, chapter 16). A new regime of accumulation and new modes of social regulation were in the making. Homelessness both resulted from these processes and, many thought, exacerbated them—and, as we shall see, created a particular challenge for both accumulation and regulation.
The Reassertion of Structure
Between 1979 and 1985, 10 million jobs were lost in the U.S. economy (Wolch and Dear, 1993, p. 4). Those that remained were radically restructured in the years that followed, as the assault on unions, wage guarantees, basic welfare entitlements, and the public hous-ing sector continued unabated. At the same time a generation of deinstitutionalization and the subsequent non-funding of community care for mentally ill people began to make its effects felt on the streets (and in the jails) of major cities (Barr, 2001). The result was a “new” homelessness that could not so easily be ascribed merely to personal character faults. Estimates of the number of people who were homeless, either chronically or at some point during a year ranged as high as 3 million, though most estimates were lower (Kondratas, 1986). What marked this new homelessness was its sudden visibility. Streets, especially the streets of the Central Business District, were full of homeless people. They were young and old men, women, children, teens, whole families. They were now disproportionately Black. No longer confined to the old skid row, the homeless littered the sidewalks and parks on the everyday paths of urban residents and suburban commuters alike. In some places—parks like San Francisco’s Golden Gate or New York’s Tompkins Square (Smith, 1989), empty lots and sidewalks at the edge of Los Angeles’s historic skid row (Rowe
12The public housing sector was never robust. In the mid-1990s, only 1.2 million of 112.3 million housing units could be considered “public”—a far cry from the 25% of units that remained public in the UK and the 44% that were public in the Netherlands (Hackworth, 2007, p. 41).
HOMELESSNESS, AMERICAN STYLE 941
and Wolch, 1990), dry river beds (Wright, 1997; Takahashi, 1998; Brinegar, 2003)—large shanty towns and encampments developed, a sight not seen since the Depression. Shelters were overwhelmed. Homelessness looked like a crisis.
It was a crisis that clearly reflected massive transformations in the economy designed to restock the ranks of the reserve army. By 1983, to take just one indicator, 15% of the U.S. population lived below the official poverty line (Wolch and Dear, 1993, p. 7). By 1985, one million fewer households were receiving federal housing assistance than before Reagan was elected (Wolch and Akita, 1989). Arguments that individualized homelessness at the expense of structural accounts seemed to do a poor job of explaining this new homeless-ness. So too did the traditional division between deserving and undeserving poor blur, though it did not disappear altogether (e.g., Main, 1986).
As a result, due to the work of a growing cadre of “homeless advocates” (e.g. the then-new Coalition for the Homeless, as well as innumerable shelter operators and other activists), as well as movements of homeless people themselves (such as the Center of Creative Non-Violence in Washington, DC), the crisis was addressed, to some degree, through a massive and rapid expansion of the shelter system made possible in part by the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 (passed over strong resistance from the Reagan Administration).13 The $800 million that McKinney-Vento provided annually led to a patchwork of shelters, some government-operated, and many private charities in all major cities to address immediate needs for shelter, but in the end did little to address root causes of homelessness (Foscarinis, 1996b).14
The 1980s crisis that so rapidly swelled the ranks of the homeless was a crisis for people made homeless, of course, but it was also a crisis of capital. The massive deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s was accelerated, if not launched, by the multiple crises of 1973–1975: the oil embago-induced recession, the breaking down of the postwar Bretton Woods monetary agreements, and most of all the increased falling rates of profit in the key indus-tries of the “fordist” era such as coal, steel, automobiles, etc. These crises expressed them-selves in the U.S. as “a deliberate structural adjustment” (Davis, 1986; Gilmore, 2007, p. 40) that freed some capital to seek new places for investment.
In some cases these were literally places, as capital sought safe havens in the built envi-ronment (Harvey, 1982, 1989; N. Smith, 1990, 1996). Redevelopment zones bulldozed into existence as a result of the housing acts, and older neighborhoods ripe for gentrifica-tion, both served as magnets for footloose capital. There was, in Smith’s (1979) memo-rable phrase, a “back to the city movement by capital.” His full line is that it was “a back to the city movement by capital not people,” but it is more accurate to say it was a back to the city movement by capital at the expense of poor people. Not only were redevelopment zones targeted, but so were skid rows and other inner-city neighborhoods. In San Diego, as many as half of the 5000 SRO rooms existing in 1976 were gone by 1988 (Staeheli
13After his administration’s strong lobbying against the bill proved unavailing, and expecting his veto would be overridden, President Reagan took the unusual step of signing the bill in the middle of the night when he could be assured that there would be no press present and thus less coverage (Fuerbringer, 1987; Pear, 1987; Sullivan, 1987).14The landscape of shelters—Gowan (2010) calls it an archipelago—was highly uneven. Some cities such as Phoenix strongly resisted opening new shelters, whereas others like New York City were required by court order to provide shelter for anyone who asked for it (Alter et al., 1986; Hopper and Cox, 1986; Main, 1986; Brinegar, 2003).
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and Mitchell, 2008, p. 54); in San Francisco they dropped almost 18% between 1975 and 1979—before the heavy wave of gentrification rolled in (Kasinitz, 1986, p. 247); between 1969 and 1986, some 2000 SRO units were destroyed in LA (Rowe and Wolch, 1990, p. 187); even little Northampton, Massachusetts saw half its SRO stock disappear between 1970 and 2000 (Lyon-Callo, 2001, p. 189). Many SROs were transformed into boutique hotels, and for SRO rooms that remained, rents skyrocketed. In San Diego, for example, SRO rents increased 80% between 1980 and 1985 (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, p. 54). Simultaneously, new high-end apartment towers rose where services for San Diego’s “down-and-outs” used to exist, spurred by the development of a festival marketplace, and a fully gentrified Gaslamp District. The longstanding Rescue Mission and other shelters were pushed to the fringes of downtown (an area itself now under pressure as development associated with the new baseball stadium encroaches). The street homeless population exploded, even as services for them were eliminated (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, pp. 49–58). The back to the city movement of capital—gentrification—in other words, both produced homelessness, and exacerbated the difficulty of life for those made homeless.15
Simultaneously, and whatever the structural causes of homelessness, the continued (and growing) presence of homeless people in cities was seen as a threat to localized capital accumulation under these new conditions of footlooseness (Mitchell, 1997). Homeless people—and their services—in CBDs and nearby areas targeted for gentrification were said to deter inward investment as well as the willingness of tourists and suburban shop-pers, two central pillars of the new, post-industrialized, urban economy. In an era of height-ened competition between places, many cities found it a structural necessity to remove homeless people and their services (Mair, 1986). Despite the blurring of the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor in the early 1980s, and despite a great deal of public support for the expansion of the shelter system, pressure mounted in many cities to move shelters out of downtown. As a result, “service dependent ghettos” sprang up in disinvested districts (Dear and Wolch, 1987).
As importantly, it quickly became apparent that much of the public support for home-less people was abstract, in that neighborhoods quickly organized to keep shelters and other services out. Sometimes this Not-in-My-Backyard (NIMBY) mentality was an overt circling of the class wagons, or a raw expression of fear of the scary others (Takahashi, 1998; Brinegar, 2003; Amster, 2004). At other times it was expressed in highly sophisti-cated arguments about spatial equity, structural solutions to homelessness (which shelters do little to address), and the availability of better sites elsewhere (Lyon-Callo, 2001). The location of services in poor and working class neighborhoods (Wolch and Dear, 1993, p. 169) or their outright banishment from whole jurisdictions (Brinegar, 2003; Amster, 2004) thus reflected the geography of power in contemporary cities. It was, and is, a geogra-phy of power that often works through a scrim of compassion. Appeals to volunteer at soup kitchens rarely go unheeded, and holiday fundraising appeals are an annual success. But this is a distanced compassion. As one shelter operator in San Diego comments, her agency received “great donations from businesses that are located blocks away,” while
15The survival strategies of homeless people in 1980s America and later are well-documented and are impressive in their creativity (Hopper et al., 1985; Coleman, 1986; Rowe and Wolch, 1990; Wolch et al., 1993; Ruddick, 1996; Wright, 1997; Gowan 2010).
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those nearby did not support the shelter and on many occasions actively fought its right to be there at all (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, 64–65).
The Great Ideological U-Turn
Even distanced compassion began to break down within a few short years of the explo-sion of the “new homeless” in the early 1980s. Even before the end of the decade com-mentators were beginning to speak of “compassion fatigue” among the populace (Millich, 1994), as the massive explosion of the shelter system and the invention of various “contin-uum of care” models (eventually codified by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s) for addressing homeless problem proved to be of no avail. From a structural perspective, it is hardly surprising that the streets of American cities remained packed with homeless men, women, and children at the end of the Reagan era (which was also the highpoint of the first wave of gentrification: see Smith, 1996). It is also hardly surprising that the early success of homeless advocates—the winning of the right to shelter in New York and Washington, the passing of the McKinney act, and various local, rearguard actions that defended the rights of homeless people to be on the streets—were met with a strong, coordinated ideo-logical campaign designed to reassert homelessness as a personal characteristic, and even more as a personal choice. Conservative newspaper columnists (George Will, John Leo), conservative think tanks (American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute), and public-interest law scholars worked assiduously to re-demonize the home-less, reframing homelessness not as a result of economic restructuring, and certainly not as a concomitant and necessary part of capitalism, but rather as a problem of public order (Tier, 1993, 1998; MacDonald, 1995, 2010).
If the singular achievement of the New Deal of the 1930s and the development of a rudi-mentary welfare state in the 1950s was to admit that some dysfunctionality in society was structural and an inevitable part of the normal workings of capitalism, it took a generation for the courts to catch up. Vagrancy and other laws that punished the poor for a condition beyond their control remained on the books, and enforced, until the 1960s when courts engaged in what conservative law scholars called a “constitutional revolution” (Ellickson, 1996). Among other things (such as finding new protections against police abuse and for the rights of suspects), this revolution struck down what are known as “status crimes.” In the early 1960s, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court found that jailing someone for being an addict was a violation of protections against cruel and unusual punishment (J. Smith, 1996). By 1973, after a number of lower courts had similarly struck down vagrancy laws for punishing the status of being poor (and for violating the right to travel by imposing an unfair means test on that right), the Supreme Court declared vagrancy laws to be overly vague and unenforceable. Such laws handed too much discretion to the police to “move along” those they did not like. Miscreants now had to be punished for what they did, not for who they were. In a sense, in other words, this “constitutional revolution” sought to fashion a legal regime that better matched the postwar welfare state’s regime of accumula-tion and system of social regulation.
As the guarantees of the welfare state were wiped out in the 1980s and 1990s, and as ever-larger numbers of people ended up on the streets, conservative critics called for a reassertion of order. What was at stake, for them, was not status, but misbehavior. The new, revolutionized legal regime was inadequate to the problems of public order that
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faced cities (Tier, 1993, 1998; Ellickson, 1996). Particularly influential was Baum and Burnes’s (1993) A Nation in Denial, which argued forcefully that homelessness indeed was a problem of individuals who were addicted or mentally ill. Structural explanations of homelessness, they argued, did more harm than good to homeless people because they led toward inappropriate solutions (such as shelter, housing, and various other forms of welfare), rather than address the actual needs of addicted and ill people. While the intent of Baum and Burnes (1993) was not to recriminalize homelessness, their analysis was latched onto by those—from pundits to policymakers—who wanted to do exactly that. Given that homelessness was a function of disordered individuals, some even suggested rounding them up and “quarantining” them on decommissioned military bases (Hamill, 1993, cited in Mitchell, 2003, p. 179). Others, not going quite so far, sought new laws that outlawed many of the things homeless people do (sleeping in public, sitting on sidewalks, begging for change, collecting recyclables) in the name of restoring order in the wake of the constitutional revolution. For them, the “freedom” hailed by the revolutionized legal regime of the 1960s had brought little more than “chaos” on the streets of American cities (MacDonald, 1995).
A dual ideological move was at work. In the first place, homelessness was (re)defined down to a set of individual characteristics and, especially, choices. Whether or not Baum and Burnes (1993) supported criminalizing homelessness, they provided its ideological justification:
By perpetuating the myth that the homeless are merely poor people in need of housing, … advocates reinforce and promote the most pernicious stereotypes about poverty in America. The vast majority of poor people in America are not homeless. Poor people do not live on the streets, under bridges, or in parks; do not carry all their belongings in shopping carts or plastic bags; do not wear layers of tattered clothing and pass out or sleep in doorways; do not urinate or defecate in public places; do not sleep in their cars or encampments; do not harass or intimidate others; do not ask for money on streets; do not physically attack city workers and residents and do not wander in the streets shouting at visions and voices (as quoted in Kelling and Coles, 1996, p. 65; cf. Mitchell, 2003, pp. 202–203).
Homelessness in other words, was a choice, and not a good one for either the individuals or society. That it was a choice, according to Heather MacDonald (1995) of the Manhattan Institute, was shown irrefutably by an experiment in San Francisco where few street-homeless people given vouchers for a stay in a church shelter actually took them; fewer used them. In another experiment, of the 3000 general assistance recipients who claimed homelessness in the mid-1990s, only 700 availed themselves of a program where they gave their $345 general assistance checks over to an advocacy organization that would arrange a voucher for a stay in an SRO, returning $65 (that is, just over $2 a day) allowance to the recipient for all other expenses. In other words, homeless general assistance recipients were choosing homelessness when there were other options available.16
16When the experiment MacDonald describes failed, San Francisco citizens made receiving general assistance contingent upon proof of housing. If a rent receipt was not produced, recipients were struck from the rolls. In other worlds, the homeless were made ineligible for general assistance.
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The second move undergirded the ideology of choice and freedom with a discourse—and eventually set of rules—demanding “responsibility.” If one was to make choices, then it was important that the freedom to do so was exercised responsibly. As MacDonald (1995, p. 181) put it, “liberty consists not in overturning social rules but in mutual adher-ence to them.” For those incapable of exercising responsibility, society had an obligation to impose order, both for their own sake, and for the sake of the public at large. Just as the rise of a (minimal) welfare state demanded an eventual change in the legal order—the upending of status crimes—now the rise of neoliberalism seemed to be demanding a new, more commensurate legal order: new rules on welfare recipients (time limits, enforced job-searching, etc.), laws governing the behavior of homeless people (enforced sobriety as a condition of shelter, laws against sitting on the sidewalk) (cf. Peck and Tickell, 2002). The effect was a fairly thorough ideological u-turn that reinvigorated the classical divide between worthy and unworthy poor. The deserving were those willing to accept respon-sibility for their condition, accept charity or other interventions with a proper degree of humility, begin the hard work of getting clean and grasping hold of the lowest rungs of the labor market, and never backsliding. The undeserving poor were all the others.
The rolling-out of new disciplinary measures for the homeless—to push the deserving onto the path of individual responsibility, and to discipline the undeserving—garnered a great deal of popular support, even among putative liberals tired of stepping over or around “the problem lying on our sidewalk” as one prescription for restoring order in the city put it (Paisner, 1994).17 The main question, then, was what sort of policing ought to be rolled out to encourage the deserving and punish those who chose not to properly govern themselves.
Experiments in Regulation
In this political and economic climate, there was little interest in facing the growing low-income housing crisis, including the years- and decades-long waiting lists for a place in public housing that faced many cities. Nor, at least in mainstream circles, was there much interest in addressing the inequalities and abuses inherent in a thoroughly trans-formed labor market: temporary labor agencies, which often opened offices right next to homeless shelters (recapitulating the morphology of the old skid row), became America’s largest employers and were notorious for skimming wages, charging usurious fees for cashing paychecks, and, by their rules, making it almost impossible to make enough in a day to pay for all one’s needs (Van Arsdale, 2003; Purser, 2009). Certainly, in the wake of the rollback of the state in the 1980s, the “end of welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, and the concerted class project to turn the state into an engine for the upward redistribution of wealth across both decades (Harvey, 2005), there was little stomach for collective, state-led responses to homelessness.
Instead, as a first response, there was a more full-fledged turn to charity, to the “shadow state” (Wolch, 1990), as the first line of defense against the vagaries and violences of “the market.” This “proliferation of private, quasi-private, quasi-public voluntary and com-mercial agencies providing services heretofore supplied by the government … effectively extended the penetration of government oversight into the lives of service operators and
17It is likely important for understanding the depth of the u-turn and the hostility against the homeless it engen-dered that the face of this “problem lying on our sidewalks” was increasingly black.
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consumers” (Wolch and Dear, 1993, p. 14), masking direct state disciplinary powers, but making them no less real for those subject to them. Those subject to them were also, often, once again required to endure religious proselytizing and other forms of indoctrination as the price of a bed or a meal. No longer was the language of rights associated with housing and shelters, even if New York’s shelter requirement remained in effect: housing was a privilege or a gift. In order to receive food stamps, a right, for example, claimants often had to work through agencies like the Salvation Army or food banks, one of which is rooted in a religion to which one may not subscribe, the other of which is a creature of large corporate donations, government largesse, and laws regulating political activities (Heynen, 2010). Discipline worked in two directions here: on the charitable organization which relies on the good will of political elites for its very survival (cf. Poppendieck, 1999); and on the indi-vidual seeking shelter or food, who is subject to the disciplinary logic of the neoliberal state and the rejuvenated paternalism of the charitable agencies (Fraser and Gordon, 1992).18
Even with the massive expansion of the shadow state, even with this first step toward a new regulatory regime after the end of welfare, even with the long, though decidedly uneven, economic boom of the 1990s, cities continued to be confronted by large numbers of homeless people filling shelters, sleeping in doorways, hanging out in parks, and otherwise threatening the precarious economic success of newly gentrified downtowns. Responding to the necessity of removing homeless people from redeveloping downtowns (Mair, 1986), cities experimented with a range of environmental and legal interventions that are better described as anti-homeless than anti-homelessness (Mitchell, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 2003).
San Diego is typical in that regard (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, chapter 3). To jump-start its redevelopment, the city heavily subsidized the building of a massive festival marketplace mall adjacent to the historic center of the city, Horton Plaza—a square deeded to the city for public use in 1894. Horton Plaza Shopping Center, though built with a significant amount of public money, was private property, and explicitly so. One of its main selling points, to tourists and suburban shoppers, was that homeless people could be fully excluded from the precincts of the mall. Indeed, drivers could enter the enclosed parking decks that surrounded the mall on three sides and spend the day without ever once setting foot on a public street. Before Horton Plaza Shopping Center was built, one manager of the facility remarked, “there was no reason to come downtown … it was all sailors, homeless people.” Horton Plaza Shopping Center “created the first public space in downtown for people from the suburbs … to begin the process of coming back into the neighborhood,” said a merchant (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, pp. 49, 52). The historic square that fronted the shopping center was seen, however, as a “homeless haven” and so the city paid the mall developer to redevelop the park. The only public toilets in downtown were removed, the bus stop was moved down the street, the park was re-landscaped, and fences around the central lawns and historic-style benches—benches with the added benefit of wrought-iron armrests that made it impossible to lie down—were installed. When these modifications did not discourage the homeless (and elderly poor) from hanging out in the park, the city first removed the benches closest to the department stores, and eventually removed all the benches and tore up the lawns and replaced them with prickly plants, a change that city council thought would drive out the homeless and “save the park” as liberal council
18All of which makes even more impressive the truly good work that many of these agencies nonetheless do.
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member Bob Filner put it (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, p. 60). Such anti-homeless envi-ronmental designs are now commonplace in American cities, as is the removal of public space to the precincts of private property (Davis, 1990; Flusty, 2001; Miller, 2007).
Typical as they may be, such design interventions do little more than move homeless people from one place to another. To further manage the presence of homeless people, therefore, new laws are invented. These laws make it illegal to sleep or camp in public, to beg or beg aggressively (or in particular places), to cut across or loiter in parking lots, to wash motorists’ windshields or provide other services, to hand out free food or sometimes even eat in public places, to drink alcohol or be drunk in public, to sit or lie on sidewalks (Mitchell, 1998a, 1998b). Such laws are supported by “quality of life” police campaigns, which focus on penalizing small infractions (such as jaywalking or urinating in public) on the theory that small acts of disorder inevitably lead to more major crime (Wilson and Kelling, 1982; Kelling and Coles, 1996). They are further supported by the creation of Business Improvement Districts that levy businesses and property owners a special (and private) tax to provide “enhanced” levels of street cleaning, and specialized police forces empowered to “move along” homeless people in a way public police are often legally prevented from doing—a program called “Clean and Safe” in San Diego (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008). To their defenders such laws and policing practices combat the growing “disorder” of the streets and enforce commonly accepted rules of “civility,” thereby mak-ing urban public spaces attractive to everyone (Ellickson, 1996; Kelling and Coles, 1996; Tier, 1998). To their critics, they are designed at best to make the “homeless invisible” as one San Diego shelter operator put it (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, p. 62); at worst they are designed to eliminate any place in the city for the homeless to “be”—to live (Waldron, 1991). Such laws and policing practices legally “annihilate” the very spaces that home-less people must rely on for everyday life in the post-welfare world (Mitchell, 1997). For homeless advocates such policies produce “mean streets” without doing anything to address the causes of homelessness.
Whatever the criticism, by the dawn of the 21st century such policies of “zero tolerance” of the homeless in many cities seemed to be working. New York, especially Manhattan, once the poster-city for homelessness out of control, was heralded by the end of the 1990s for the miracle of its transformation and the near-invisibility of its street homeless popula-tion. That this population had mostly been pushed— and bused—to the outer boroughs was rarely commented on. Instead Manhattan was seen as just the kind of place the new mandarins of the global economy, the masses of European and Asian tourists, and even suburban New Jersyites wanted to be—even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. If relatively large numbers of homeless people remained visible on the streets and in the parks of San Francisco and Los Angeles, it was because their mayors and city councils had not shown the sort of resolve in the face of homeless advocates as had New York’s Mayor Giuliani (MacDonald, 1995).
Such resolve was necessary. In the mid 1990s, the most conservative estimates held that there was a nightly “bed shortage” of at least 425,000.19 That is, there were nearly a half
19These are indeed the most conservative estimates. Foscarinis (1996a) derived them by taking the low estimate of the number of nightly homeless people, and the high estimate of the number of nightly shelter spaces (including chairs, mats in hallways, etc.) as reported by the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness in 1994, and subtracting the latter from the former.
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million people who had no place to sleep except in streets and parks—no access to a shel-ter bed, no access to transitional housing, no possibility of permanently doubling up with relatives, and certainly no hope of permanent subsidized housing. During the day, when many shelters are closed, there were a minimum of 700,000 people who had no choice but to wander about (or maybe spend the day in the library, if they could get away with it) (Foscarinis, 1996a). A decade later in 2006—even before the current, deep economic crisis took hold—the demand for emergency shelter increased nationwide by 9% over the previous year (which itself had seen a large increase over the year before). Twenty-three percent of all requests for emergency shelter went unmet; 29% of requests by families for emergency shelter could not be met (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006). By the most reli-able estimates, some 3.5 million Americans experienced homelessness over the course of the year; there were at minimum 800,000 people who were literally homeless each night; countless more were illegally doubled up, living in substandard housing, or otherwise at risk of homelessness (NCH, 2007).
In other words, whatever the claims for their efficacy in “restoring order” to American cities, and whatever the claims made on behalf of the greater efficacy of the shadow state in addressing homelessness, homeless policies in the United States over the past two decades have done nothing to lessen the problem, nothing to address the chronic shortage of low-income housing in the nation, and probably much to make the lives of homeless people more difficult. They have certainly exacerbated the “struggles between the propertied and unpropertied over the use of public space, fears about the growth of a propertyless prole-tariat, and anxieties about the loss of traditional social controls in America” that DePastino (2003, p. 8) identified as indicative of homelessness’s formative years.
Against this rising tide of hoemlessness, against the seeming intractability of the home-less “crisis,” a new ideology and new policy for addressing homelessness has arisen. Called “Housing First,” the policy is, despite its name and whatever the intentions of some of its architects, not a housing policy; it is a treatment program (Tsemberis et al., 2004).20 Housing First is aimed at the 10–20% of the homeless who are “hard core:” addicted or mentally ill people who “spend years cycling between streets, shelters, jail cells, and emer-gency rooms (Graves and Sayfan, 2007). Studies have shown that this population uses a disproportionate amount of services and costs cities a disproportionate amount of money. Studies have shown that it is not unusual for 10% of the homeless population in a city of use 50% of shelter resources (Culhane, 2008; Culhane et al., 2008). Housing First operates on the quite reasonable assumption that the addicted or the mentally or physically ill might have a better chance of managing their conditions if they are in a stable, safe, comfortable home, a home over which they have some degree of control and within which they have some degree of sovereignty. Housing First turns its back on the ideology that governed much policy concerning the “hard core” homeless: that in order to be “rewarded” with a home, hard core homeless people had to show they were clean or sober, following their
20 It is also a repudiation of the arguments made in Baum and Burne’s (1993) A Nation in Denial. An excellent appraisal of Housing First as it has been adopted in Canada (which also lays out much of the foundation of the American version) is Klodawsky (2009).
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regimen of medication, or otherwise worthy and deserving. Instead it argues that by first having a home, the hard core can become worthy and deserving.
Strongly supported by the Bush Administration (and continued under President Obama), Housing First has spread through a series of pilot programs across the U.S. and seems largely successful in its primary aims. But even though it is generally less expensive than the total cost of emergency shelter, emergency room care, and other services for the hard core, it is inadequately funded, and indeed, in some jurisdictions it drains services from that other (and growing) 80–90% of the homeless (Law, 2007). It is also fundamentally mis-guided, if its propagandists are to be believed. For them, homelessness of this sort is “not an inevitable price of capitalism” (Graves and Sayfan, 2007). But, it must be countered, homelessness of the other sort—the homelessness that confronts the supermajority of 80–90%—is an inevitable price of capitalism. And precious little is being down for them.
Housing policy for the past 40 years in the United States has consisted of underfund-ing and eliminating public housing,21 subsidizing middle- and upper-class homeownership through tax policy, and encouraging staggering debt, both credit card and mortgage, for lower-income families so that home ownership could “filter down” to them. Changes in banking laws, coupled with sloshing surpluses of finance capital looking for investment outlets in the built environment, led to a historic housing boom and bubble, a classic crisis of overaccumulation, leading to the rapid, indeed, uncontrollably spiraling, devaluation that marked 2007–2008 (Harvey, 1982, Chapter 7; Harvey, 2010). This “destruction of value” not only threw workers out of their homes as foreclosure rates hit historic highs (and especially as speculative investors in rental housing lost their shirts and their evicted tenants paid the costs), it is also, and inevitably, restocking the reserve army. The real unemployment rate (measuring those “actively looking for work,” as well as the under-employed, the “discouraged,” and those “marginally attached” to the labor market, but excluding all those warehoused in prisons as well as those who have “dropped out” of the labor market in the U.S.) exceeded 17% by the end of 2009. And as Harvey (1982, p. 202) argues, “by throwing workers out of work capitalists discard variable capital and thereby transform the endemic problem of crisis for the industrial reserve army into a condition of chronic maladjustment and social breakdown.” Housing First might address some of this chronic maladjustment—like the prison system (though much more progressively so) it is designed to contain the inevitable social maladies that attend capitalism’s contradictions—but, like laws banning giving out free food in public parks or increasing police power to enforce trespassing laws (Mitchell and Heynen, 2009), it does nothing to address the struc-tural problem of homelessness in America.
HOMELESSNESS, AMERICAN STYLE
Contemporary homelessness in America has been shaped by its historical geography. It has a particular structure, a particular form. Its current features are easy to identify. There is a large, visible street population in most American cities, and while its size has
21Under the Clinton Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development eliminated a re-quirement that every unit of public housing destroyed had to be replaced. Local housing and redevelopment authorities could now rip down public housing projects without worrying about building new ones (Hackworth, 2007, p. 50).
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fluctuated since its massive explosion at the end of the 1970s, and while any number of efforts to push it into invisibility have been tried (see, e.g., Takahashi, 1998, chapter 8), it has not gone away. Like the poorly housed that Engels famously wrote about, it has just been shifted from place to place by a bourgeoisie with no other solution. This visible homelessness is a chronic, not a crisis or emergency, condition; it is an inevitable feature of American-style capitalism, even if it might grow during times of economic downturn. Both the population of visible, street homeless, and the population of people residing in public and private shelters, transitional housing, sleeping in cars, or doubling up with friends and relatives—sometimes “couch surfing” their way through their whole social network—are structurally determined by changes in labor markets, the minimal rise and thorough evisceration of the welfare state, and the destruction of low-cost and public hous-ing through disinvestment, gentrification, and the neoliberal shift towards market “solu-tions” to low-income housing.
Across its history, though occasionally waning as activists and advocates have strug-gled to change the dominant discourse, homelessness American style has been marked by a strong and consistent distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. In the immediate wake of a natural disaster, the homeless are often considered deserving; as are many children and occasionally women; under “normal” conditions men and people of color are rarely so. This distinction continues to drive policy, even as Housing First has reworked it to some extent (largely because, as one of its gurus Phil Mangano says, “cost benefit analysis may be the new compassion”; Graves and Sayfan, 2007). For the “deserv-ing” poor, charity-based aid, now especially faith-based charity aid, and the shadow state more generally, provide beds, addiction and job counseling, and not a little “tough love” (see Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008, p. 66). Such makeshift charity has replaced the aid-as-right that marked the welfare state (even the U.S.’s minimal one). For the “undeserving” homeless, there is an increasingly punitive legal regime marked by anti-homeless laws, enhanced trespassing laws, limits on general assistance cash payments to homeless people, and other measures targeted at homeless peoples’ ability to be in a particular locale.
Simultaneously, cities have used zoning laws, use-permit systems, and negotiations with NIMBY activists to confine the warehousing and containment of homeless people in specific areas of the city (often away from downtown), creating “service-dependent ghettos” (Dear and Wolch, 1987; Wolch and Dear, 1993). They have further encouraged the creation of Business Improvement Districts and “Clean and Safe” programs to clean out the homeless and clean up after them when they have gone. Cityscapes have been remade with “bum-proof benches,” spiky landscaping, randomized sprinklers, CCTV net-works, and other environmental interventions designed to make it impossible for homeless people to linger (Davis, 1990; Flusty, 2001; Sparks, 2010).
Some, and perhaps all, of these traits (or ones like them) can be found in other national settings.22 But these characteristics are most prominent in the United States, which, after all, hosted the weakest post–World War II welfare state among industrialized countries, and has gone far in dismantling what little of it there was. With the neoliberalization of economies and states around the world, with the diffusion of what used to be called the “Washington consensus” of free market fundamentalism, with the “fast policy transfer”
22For a critical analysis of the degree to which such American-style geographies and practices have developed in Britain, see Cloke et al. (2010).
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and sharing of so-called “best practices” on a global scale, to what degree has American-style homelessness globalized? Does the specific historical and geographical trajectory of homelessness in the U.S. make it unique? Are other nation-states now recapitulating homelessness, American style, in whole or in part? The following papers address just these questions.
Alter, J., Stille, A., Doherty, S., Greenberg, N., Agrest, S., Smith, V., and Raine, G., 1986, Homeless in America. In J. Erickson and C. Wilhelm, editors, Housing the Homeless. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, 3–16.
Amster, R., 2004, Street People and the Contested Realms of Public Space. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.
Anderson, N., 1923, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man. Chicago, IL: Univer-sity of Chicago Press.
Bahr, H., 1970, Disaffiliated Man: Essays and Bibliography on Skid Row, Vagrancy, and Outsiders. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
Bahr, H., 1973, Skid Row: An Introduction to Disaffiliation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bahr, H. and Caplow, T., 1973, Old Men, Drunk and Sober. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Barr, H., 2001, Policing madness: People with mental illness and the NYPD. In A. McArdale and T. Ersen, editors, Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City. New York, NY: New York University Press, 50–84.
Baum, A. and Burnes, D., 1993, A Nation in Denial: The Truth about Homelessness. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Beier, A., 1986, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560–1640. New York, NY: Metheun.
Bittner, J., 1967, The police on skid row: A study in peacekeeping. American Sociological Review, Vol. 32, 699–715.
Blau, J., 1993, The Visible Poor: Homelessness in the United States. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bluestone, B. and Harrison, B., 1982, The Deindustrialization of America. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Brinegar, S., 2003, The social construction of homeless shelters in the phoenix area. Urban Geography, Vol. 24, 61–74.
Cayo Sexton, P., 1986, The life of the homeless. In J. Erickson and C. Wilhelm, editors, Housing the Homeless. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, 73–81.
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