[URBANTH-L]REV: Dearborn on Marcus, Where Have All the Homeless Gone?

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Thu Jun 8 13:02:14 EDT 2006

[forwarded from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu                       (June, 2006)

Anthony Marcus. _Where Have All the Homeless Gone? The Making and Unmaking
of a Crisis_. Berghahn Dislocations: Anthropologies of Labor, Place and
Displacement. Volume 1.  New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. x +  168 pp.
Notes, bibliography, index. $70.00 (hardback), ISBN 1-84545-050-7, $22.50
(paperback), ISBN 1-84545-101-5.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Lynne M. Dearborn, Ph.D. School of Architecture,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Politics And The Under Housed

The book _Where Have All the Homeless Gone?_ provides a rare and
well-documented view inside the world of under-housed men in New York City
during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  In taking the reader inside this
world, Anthony Marcus dissects the homeless crisis of the late 1980s and
demonstrates that the making and unmaking of a crisis does not depend on
actually addressing the linked underlying stimuli of rising housing costs,
declining employment opportunities, and reduced social services.  These
are the stimuli that continue to create conditions leading to
under-housing for more than 50 million Americans at the lower ranges of
the wage and skill ladder.  Marcus very skillfully reveals how the mass
loss of housing that became so visible in urban America in the 1980s, came
to be deemed a crisis as a result of ideological conflicts between the two
major political parties.  At the national level, the Democrats used the
visibility of those wandering the streets to denounce the neo-liberal
policies of the Reagan and Bush presidencies and bring Bill Clinton to the
White House.  At the local level of New York City politics, the concern
for everyday quality of life generated by those wandering the streets and
panhandling as well as the skillful framing of the situation by mayoral
candidate David Dinkins provided the advantage over Republican candidate
Rudolph Giuliani at the end of the 1980s.

Through his analysis of five years of participant observation fieldwork
among under-housed nonwhite populations living in extreme poverty in New
York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Anthony Marcus negatively
appraises studies, policies, and programs created under the munificently
funded McKinney Homeless Act.  He likewise critiques the frameworks of
poverty studies and social and psychological pathologies that have
historically been employed to examine and address issues of homelessness,
poverty, and the dystopian shelter environment.  Marcus' presentation of
his ethnographic study demonstrates the centrality of race, gender, and
poverty in assumptions about who the homeless are and why they are
homeless.  Using the words of his study informants, he reframes the debate
about homelessness as an issue linked to "peculiarly American
misunderstandings about poverty, race and social difference" (p. 2), and
limited connections of specific societal problems, such as under housing,
to the larger constructs guiding the organism which is overall American
society.  Through this reframing, Marcus suggests that the general public,
as well as policy makers in the United States, should concern themselves
with the need to address homelessness not out of the
Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition that claims godliness in caring for
those in need, nor to reduce the public expense, nuisance, and health
threat posed by homelessness, but rather because the outcomes for
society's weakest members are indicative of general weaknesses in American
society.  The homeless become a "social barometer" (p. 151) for the
health of American society.

This book captures the reader's attention with a clear and scholarly
style.  The author skillfully weaves together issues of public rhetoric,
politics, policy, social thought, and stereotyping.  He contrasts these
outsider viewpoints with the insider perspectives provided by his
informants who felt that "homeless" was not a useful or easily definable
category.  Throughout the book, these contrasting viewpoints provide an
insightful discussion of the major issues that went into the making and
unmaking of the homeless crisis.   One of the major strengths of the book
is its focus on very detailed aspects of the lives and perspectives of
nonwhite men in New York City's shelter system in the late 1980s and early
1990s.  In contrasting the definitions and solutions applied by outsiders
and insiders, Marcus clearly identifies the web of issues that converge to
maintain conditions that result in a lack of long-term shelter.  Further,
by reference to the prevailing political ideologies from that time to the
present, Marcus reveals that the unmaking of the homeless crisis, did not
in fact substantively improve the quality of life for those who were and
continue to be under housed in the United States.

The ethnographic style which provides a glimpse into the private worlds of
those who are within the shelter system is a strength but also a weakness.
 The details of daily lives, struggles, and outlooks provides a compelling
picture of the issues for this group of non-white under-housed men but
gives little reference to other groups who are without a permanent place
to call home.  Are the readers to assume that the problems are worse for
non-white poor men than for others?  Are the problems more intractable? Or
should readers assume that similar conditions combine to keep others under
housed as well?

While the contents, analysis, and reflections provided in _Where Have All
the Homeless Gone?_ give a fresh perspective on the problems of non-white
men who lack adequate, affordable, long-term housing, the book could
benefit from reference to a broader literature base.  Early in the book
Marcus refers to the underlying failure of the policy and research
perspective which focuses on homelessness as an isolated issue of poverty
and shelter. However, throughout the book he continues to refer primarily
to historical and current literature on the homeless, e.g., _Private
Lives/Public Spaces: Homeless Adults on the Streets of New York City_, [1]
and to such seminal works on poverty as Daniel Patrick Moynihan's _The
Negro Family: The Case for National Action_ [2] and Michael Harrington's
Â-_The Other America: Poverty in the United States_ .[3]  Marcus suggests
that the United States could have successfully alleviated the problems of
the under housed if in the response in the 1980s and early 1990s had been
framed within a broad policy addressing the need for: affordable housing,
job creation for those at the lower end of the economic and educational
spectrum, and social programs that increase the safety net.  Thus,
reference to literature such as the recently published _A Right to
Housing: Foundations for a New Social Agenda_ could have broadened the
discussion and usefulness of the conclusions of Marcus' work.[4]

_Where Have All the Homeless Gone?_ is an interesting and convincing book.
 The clear and scholarly writing style suggests that it will provide a
useful complement to graduate urban problems coursework as well as an
often-referenced resource for housing and urban studies scholars.  Anthony
Marcus had commendably contrasted outsiders' and insiders' views of who
the homeless are, and why and how they came to be inadequately housed
during the period of his study.  The findings of this study as it concerns
the making and unmaking of a crisis and the continuation of the issues of
under housing, even as the crisis receded from public view and policy
focus, have the same currency in 2006 as they did during the period of
public outcry.  The problems described and discussed by Marcus are still
with us and have yet to be successfully alleviated precisely because the
public and policy makers in the United States have failed, even twenty
years later, to understand that the visible problems of the homeless are
linked to larger and more systemic weaknesses in the structure of U.S.


[1]. Ellen Baxter and Kim Hopper, _Private Lives/Public Spaces: Homeless
Adults on the Streets of New York City_ (New York: Community Service
Society, Institute for Social Welfare Research, 1981).

[2]. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, _The Negro Family: The Case for National
Action_ (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965).

[3]. Michael Harrington, _The Other America: Poverty in the United States_
(New York: Macmillan, 1962).

[4]. Rachel G. Bratt, Michael E. Stone, and Chester Hartman (eds.), _A
Right to Housing: Foundations for a New Social Agenda_ (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 2006).

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