[URBANTH-L]REV: Howard on Feldman, _Citizens without Shelter_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Sat Jun 18 17:54:47 EDT 2005

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Leonard C. Feldman. _Citizens Without Shelter: Homelessness, Democracy,
and Political Exclusion_. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press,
2004. x +185 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Urban by Ella Howard <ehoward at bu.edu>, 
Doctoral Candidate, American and New England Studies, Boston University

Recognition, Redistribution and Rhetoric

In an era of "quality of life" campaigns resulting in public-sleeping
bans and police raids on homeless encampments, many observers of the
plight of the homeless feel conflicted over developments in urban
policy. The discourse around homelessness frequently returns to tired
distinctions between the "worthy" and the "unworthy" poor, triggering
charitable emotions and feelings of personal guilt and subsequent
generosity, without challenging the broader meanings of political and
economic inequality in America. The rhetoric adopted by many liberals
looking for ways to bring the homeless into the nation's economic and
social mainstream often inadvertently echoes that of "compassionate
conservatives" calling for "tough love" and behavior modifying programs
for the poor. Attempting to balance the provision of social services to
those in need with options respecting the rights and dignity of
homeless individuals, anyone proposing a "solution" to the "problem" of
homelessness enters a minefield of opposing goals and complex
motivations, all too often rooted in the politics of fear.

_Citizens Without Shelter_ offers an extraordinarily lucid and
provocative analysis of these themes. An interdisciplinary project
grounded in political theory, it draws upon sociological theory,
representations in the popular media, legal history and theory, and
public policy debates around homelessness, while maintaining rigorous
historical specificity. Leonard Feldman develops a complex theoretical
argument informed by empirical evidence and crafts a richly detailed
and highly readable text.

Feldman poses the key question, "Is there an underlying structure or
process that links compassion with compassion fatigue, and permits the
relatively easy slide from calls to _eliminate homelessness_ to calls
to _eliminate the homeless_?" (pp. 5-6) While previous scholarship has
recognized the "social control" inherent in social welfare endeavors
and acknowledged the fact that the propertied classes are partially
constructed through their very difference from the homeless, Feldman
explores the explicit and implicit connections between liberal and
conservative approaches to homelessness through close analysis of
policy developments and discourse.

The author develops a theoretical model depicting representations and
understandings of homelessness at the intersections of two axes, one
spanning the "sacred" to the "profane," the other the "free" to the
"unfree." (pp. 6-7) These intersections allow him to unpack various
visions of homelessness in a nuanced and systematic fashion,
characterizing them as variations on themes such as "sacred unfreedom"
(as in the situation of the pitiable, helpless beggar depicted in
appeals by charitable organizations) or "profane freedom" (as in the
case of the outlaw renegade choosing to sleep on the streets as framed
by proponents of punitive city ordinances). Throughout the text, he
returns to this model while analyzing the role of homelessness in sites
ranging from the popular film _The Fisher King_, to key court cases and
politicians' arguments.

Feldman challenges traditional analyses of homelessness, arguing, "it
is time to pry homelessness loose from its usual frame as a social
problem and to see the state and sovereign power as deeper causes, not
as superstructural with respect to others." (p. 15) Drawing on Giorgio
Agamben's idea of "bare life," as opposed to political existence,
Feldman argues  "the political exclusion of homeless persons is a
constitutive exclusion." (p. 18)  In response, he seeks to complicate,
pluralize, and refocus discussions of homes and their meanings as they
shape dialogues over shelters, encampments, and city streets.

Feldman usefully analyzes urban policy, situating the recent shift from
vagrancy laws to anti-homeless ordinances in a broader transformation
in the nature of the public sphere. As the post-industrial state no
longer requires the labor of many individuals, he argues, the debates
over "idleness" that formerly dominated discussions of homelessness are
found increasingly in the realm of welfare reform. The homeless become
the subjects of debates focusing instead on their role as impediments
to consumer activity. The 1972 _Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville_
case, in which the Supreme Court struck down a vagrancy ordinance as
vague and anachronistic, forms a pivotal point in Feldman's analysis,
as a move from critiques of "conspicuous consumption" on the part of
"idle" beggars to the protection of the non-homeless consuming public.
The author remains skeptical of simplistic interpretations of the new
ordinances as punishing the homeless for their conduct rather than
their status, finding their actions, however necessary, increasingly
categorized as choices. Tying these developments to the "rollback of
the liberal welfare and regulatory state," Feldman offers a sobering
portrait of the contemporary scene. (p. 48)

The chapter, "Redistribution, Recognition, and the Sovereign Ban,"
presents an especially provocative examination of the conflicts over
recognition of the rights of homeless individuals. Although many policy
analysts and service providers characterize homeless activist movements
as, at best, pointless, and at worst, counterproductive to the struggle
to acquire needed funds and programs for the poor, Feldman frames such
tensions as largely overdrawn. "Where a "recognition" politics is aimed
against a set of punitive policies that seek to deny homeless persons
the very right to exist, "legal recognition" is not identity politics
run amok but rather the struggle for political inclusion in response to
the ban on bare life. The fundamental and necessary first step in
combating the injustices of homelessness is establishing citizenship."
(p. 86) While others have used homelessness as "the absurd outer limit
to a politics of identity recognition," the author posits such
recognition as central to the development of political inclusion. (p.
88) Feldman's work here offers a cautionary note to those quick to
dismiss such movements at their first suspicion of "identity politics,"
urging a more rigorous contextual analysis considering the ways in
which homeless people participating in activist movements reestablish
their roles as citizens.

In the wake of the era of the SRO hotel, Feldman sees, as did Charles
Hoch and Robert Slayton, a lost opportunity for affirmative community
building among the homeless (and near homeless) who gathered in
dwellings that, while substandard in many regards, provided them with
needed access to services and social contact. Drawing on the work of
Michael Walzer on the differentiation of spheres and Hannah Arendt on
connections between the household and the public realm, Feldman urges a
move away from a society divided between those with homes and those
without. Instead, he urges a pluralization of the notion of "home" that
would resist twentieth-century idealizations of the nuclear family and
its residence. A diverse range of housing forms, including residential
hotels, publicly subsidized private programs, and other models of
residence, he argues, would combat such a needless dichotomy.
Concluding with a call for the development of a new "ethic of
dwelling," Feldman effectively challenges those with homes to consider
the frequently arbitrary distinctions drawn between their behavior and
the actions of the homeless.

Feldman could further develop his analysis of the meaning of housing
forms through deeper consideration of the shifting demographics of
homelessness in the contemporary era. Even as the SRO faded from view,
the "new"homeless population that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s was,
as he notes, increasingly comprised of women, children, African
Americans and Latinos. Considering the implications of the changing
age, gender, "race," and ethnicity of homeless individuals as well as
their family groupings could complicate the discussion of both homeless
policy and appropriate housing forms.

Feldman's argument about the relationship between the meaning of "home"
and the scope of political inclusion complements that of another recent
work, historian Todd DePastino's _Citizen Hobo: How a Century of
Homelessness Shaped America_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2003). The visible presence of homeless white men, DePastino argues,
profoundly shaped understandings of "home" and the rights and
responsibilities of citizenship from the close of the Civil War into
the postwar era. In essence bracketing the modern welfare state, these
new works lend insight into the wide-ranging influence of homelessness,
less a marginal subtopic of poverty history than a theme central to the
development of American politics and culture.

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