The modern form of homelessness in America, as we know it, began more than thirty years ago during the Ronald Reagan administration. The country had not seen such a magnitude of upheaval since the Great Depression. It continues to afflict Americans today, and while it is often attributed to clipped social safety nets, issues surrounding mental health, and financial instability, homelessness overwhelmingly stems from a lack of affordable housing.
The nationwide crisis is perceived to be a chronic and incurable social condition by too many people. It’s not. It’s a problem with a number of concrete solutions, but one should begin by dismissing certain myths surrounding homelessness.
Misperceptions only make it a greater challenge to tackle the problem. Faulty statistics that mask the true size of the homeless population also obstruct efforts to work toward effective change. Rather than dismiss the homeless as addicts or miscreants, society needs to take a clearer look at who is affected and why. When you accurately recognize at-risk populations, strategies to solve the issue rise to the surface. Identifying military veterans as a considerable percentage of American homeless has led to direct action that has provided housing and channels to guide people to better options.
Today, more young people are homeless than ever before. The San Francisco Examiner reports that nationwide in January 2016 there were over 35,000 unaccompanied homeless youth (aged 18-24). This population is largely “invisible” due to a sustained misperception surrounding homelessness. Yet, recognizing this specific population, urban planners may develop shelters that can provide for their needs, safely accommodating them so that they may transition to find long-term housing, education, and job training. In order to gain a more truthful foothold into the problem, these books provide a powerful cultural exploration of homelessness in America.
Poverty and Profit in the American City
Published in 2016, Evicted has already become an American classic. Chronicling the experiences shared by eight families in Milwaukee, Matthew Desmond shows the ways in which every day Americans struggle to pay rent. Facing the reality that the majority of poor renters devote over half of their income to housing, Desmond exposes the desperate means by which these families struggle to avoid eviction while also eking out a life of dignity. While Desmond captures strong personal stories, Eviction is backed up by years of deliberate research and fieldwork. Offering solutions as well, Desmond drives home the fact that it’s almost impossible to combat other social problems without first addressing the issue of affordable housing.
The Lives of Homeless Women
Through this searing study of women in homeless shelters, Elliott Leibow disabuses us of the myth that the homeless are generally lazy and disinterested in altering their condition. Tell Them Who I Am places the reader squarely in the shoes of the inhabitants of a Washington, D.C. homeless shelter for women. Walking the reader through a day in the life of a homeless person, hour by hour, Liebow presents the obstacles placed in front of women who ache to regain the dignity they once possessed.
Homeless Families in America
As one of America’s foremost education scholars, Jonathan Kozol (known for Death at an Early Age and Savage Inequalities) also recognizes the challenges that homelessness brings to bear on American families. This 1988 title remains sadly relevant almost thirty years later. Pulling from his months he spent interacting with homeless men, women, and children, Kozol paints a stark portrait of life on the streets. The immediacy of his writing brings an unflinching eye to the issue of homelessness as a nightmare that cannot be ignored.
Assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Teresa Gowan examines homeless men in San Francisco in order to speak more broadly about the social response and awareness of homelessness. Her ethnography, grounded in five years of extensive fieldwork, illuminates the quotidian routines and experiences of homeless men as they attempt to survive life on the streets. Gowan distinguishes the different perceptions of homelessness — as pathology, moral collapse, and the failure of bureaucracy — in order to confront the way in which the homeless think of themselves and are considered by society. These are two issues that need to be addressed before entering into a productive conversation about this misunderstood social condition.
Compared to Michael Harrington’s 1962 indictment of poverty, The Other America, Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty highlights the fact that poverty remains a perversely common American condition. While many would like to ignore the problems of economic injustice — such as homelessness — The American Way of Poverty points a spotlight at the glaring and ever-growing issue. Abramsky skillfully identifies the new working poor as well as the long-term chronically poor in order to lay out strategies to solve the economic inequality that plagues this nation. The anger in this book serves to fuel a movement for change, one that may someday pave the way to a new War on Poverty.
This 2005 memoir (which went on to be adapted into the 2012 film “Being Flynn” starring Robert DeNiro, Julianne Moore, and Paul Dano) offers another look at the personal fallout surrounding the epidemic of homelessness. Working in Boston as a caseworker at a shelter, Nick Flynn met his father for the first time. Throughout his life, he’d periodically receive letters from his absent father — a poet, but also a con artist who’d served time in a federal prison for bank robbery — yet this odd twist of fate brought these two men together. This sensitive, honest, and darkly funny book provides a humane and hellish look at the ways in which people fall through the cracks, affecting their families as well as themselves.