Whether it’s because the topic is too much for Tinseltown executives or because cinema is inherently objectifying, Hollywood tends to drop the ball when it comes to issues of homelessness. The results, including the upcoming “Same Kind of Different,” tend to be condescending and maudlin. That’s a shame, especially because, with the environmental disasters of this autumn, many more Americans are living without shelter. As is so often the case, it’s the literature on this subject that helps us properly empathize.
Built into this narrative about three entwined Massachusetts women is a story of a middle-aged single woman who loses her job and her apartment, but never her pride. Instead, she keeps her homelessness a secret as she cleans rich people’s houses. Piercy has a long-established history of highlighting social issues without devolving into preachiness; here, she makes her character relatable by not making her likable. After all, who wouldn’t be grumpy and resentful when surrounded by wealth under those circumstances?
Throughout his career, Kerouac trained his hepped-up, gimlet eye on those living on society’s margins. All his books focus, to some degree, on “hobos”- a term, like “tramp,” that reads as more politically incorrect today than in the author’s time – but On the Road glories in that fringe existence. Sadly, his essay “The Vanishing American Hobo” is largely out of print, but if you can get your hands on it, it conveys a philosophy of hobo life that embodies a vanishing America overall.
It’s often children’s books that best convey challenging aspects of the human condition. Beautifully illustrated by Ronald Himler, Bunting’s book tells the story of a boy and his father who live in an airport terminal with no hope of finding more permanent housing. The simple details – the brown bags holding all their worldly possessions, the worried clasp of the father’s hands – pierce you all the more for their unassuming subtleties.
The Lives of Homeless Women
This early 1990s study of homeless women in Washington, D.C., may be rendered by an anthropologist, but there’s nothing distancing or clinical about its tone. From the female subjects who hold down jobs that don’t pay enough to cover rent to the physically handicapped women who’ve fallen through society’s cracks, this searing book makes it clear: The only thing all homeless people have in common is that they simply do not have a home.
Before Orwell wrote such prescient novels as 1984, he lived in destitution in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This, his first full-length book, is a worthy meditation on homelessness. One conclusion a modern reader might draw: It’s never been easy to live without shelter but “tramps,” as Orwell called those living on the streets, were once more accepted as part of society’s fabric.
Homeless Families in America
The deserving winner of all kinds of prizes, Kozol’s study embodies the positive aspects of advocacy journalism. Combining well-researched sociological data with stories of people living without shelter – children included – the impact of this book is all the more powerful for its lack of editorialization.
In a way, I’m loathe to include Murray’s memoir about her journey from homelessness to Harvard University, as her “success story” does not in any way mean that those who remain homeless are deserving of their fate. But her story is so thoughtfully relayed – as are perceptions on the ravages of addiction and the challenges of being a “parenting child”- that it deserves mention.
With his mother dead and his drug use escalating, twenty-something Nick Flynn was having a hard time stabilizing his life until he began working in a homeless shelter where, through a bizarre set of circumstances, he realized one of its frequent residents was his alcoholic, absent father. No punches are pulled in this razor-sharp, pathologically resentful memoir, which is why the insights, though hardly uplifting, can be accepted fully.
Mitchell’s career is the stuff of which legends are made. As a New Yorker writer who, for years, reported at his desk without turning in assignments, he did produce some extraordinary pieces of work. Chief among them was this account of the characters populating the mid-20th-century Bowery, a lower Manhattan avenue once known as Skid Row. (Now it’s mostly home to artisanal eateries and clothing stores.)
Karp’s memoir of her struggles – excommunication from her Jehovah’s Witness family, her father’s suicide, homelessness after a string of Recession-related bad luck – is as clear-eyed as it is open-hearted. Oddly peppy title aside, it underscores how few cultural resources exist for people without familial support.