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Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America.

The homeless are being treated across the U.S.A. as lepers and criminals. For example, they have been harassed and beaten by police in Phoenix and Tucson. To keep them from sleeping in Tompkins Square Park, despite an acute budgetary crisis New York City is spending millions reassigning police from nearby communities to the park. Similar assignments are being made in Seattle, where people have been cleared out of 13 downtown parks between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Seattle homeless have been criminalized and lumped with dope dealers and a younger, rougher crowd with whom they had shared park turf.

To expand our understanding of such events, Gregg Barak's Gimme Shelter differentiates between homelessness, an increasingly acute social problem, and the homeless - victims of societal violence. He points out that structural trends have changed the composition of the homeless. They are overrepresented by families with children (75% of whom are single-parent), minorities (especially African Americans and Hispanics), and such special-needs populations as the mentally ill, substance abusers, and AIDS sufferers. These people have joined the ranks of the "new homeless" - the poor individuals and families who can no longer count on affordable housing. It has been suggested that if such housing is not expanded immediately, there could be as many as 19 million American homeless by the end of the century. In spite of this, Barak notes, federal spending on affordable housing was slashed in the 1980s by an incredible 77%.

In Gimme Shelter, treatment of the new homeless is related to the treatment of the old. The opening chapters observe that homelessness is reinforced by grizzled ideological constructions of the homeless and their conditions. People readily believe the "representative myths" that stereotype the homeless as drunkards, lunatics, shopping-bag ladies, and bums whose homeless condition is based on free will and irresponsibility. These myths are usually juxtaposed with social Darwinist precepts that label the homeless as "undeserving poor."

Barak feels that some social scientists have provided support for such social Darwinian labels. Sociologists influenced by Durkheim, Parsons, and Merton, for instance, have depicted the homeless as marginals, retreatists, and members of exotic subcultures. They have given support to social myths by emphasizing transient lifestyles and lack of ambition. Homelessness, in this view, is a product of deviant behavior, of socially maladaptive or maladjusted persons.

Barak counters these impressions. He points out that many people are forced to become geographically mobile because local labor markets are constricted by die demands of industry. But industry and government make no provision for dealing with the resultant personal adversity. Thus, homelessness, in this context, "meshes with other subsistence activities" that enable individuals to cope by themselves with their unfortunate circumstances. This coping process often produces a lifestyle that is accompanied by the reorganization of the person's attitudes and values as well as a change in status and identity.

Barak adds that contemporary studies of homelessness therefore emphasize different causes than the followers of Durkheim, Parsons, and Merton. Homelessness is put in the context of housing, labor markets, and government policies. Barak agrees with this emphasis and indicates, for example, that the homeless today include subgroups such as the rural homeless and the homeless with AIDS, who did not exist in significant numbers previously. The rural homeless receive even less help than do the urban homeless, while people with AIDS, once they become known, typically lose their jobs and often join the homeless ranks. The new homeless are forced to become vagrants even though they want to work and do so when possible.

To further explain the massive increase in homelessness, Barak turns to macroscopic studies of political economy. He grants that poverty and shelter deprivation increase homelessness, but argues that these factors are symptomatic of more global changes. The homelessness of 1880 to 1980 is largely seen as the product of a depressed, industrial economy struggling with under-production and experiencing a labor surplus. The new poverty of the 1980s, however, which is behind the growing numbers of homeless, is being produced by "the transition from an industrial-based capitalist economy to a postindustrial capitalist service economy within the context of internationally developing global relations." As real wages decline in response to national and international crises of profitability and productivity, working-class poverty and homelessness increase.

Public policies also play a pivotal role. Policies about the homeless are the flipside of government decisions that subsidize private profits and massive public indebtedness. This indebtedness, in turn, has been incurred to fulfill antisocial priorities such as the armaments race and military aggression.

Barak therefore insists that recognition of the structural sources of homelessness should direct public attention beyond the requirements of a new housing policy or social delivery systems. People should consider why our government refuses to make adequate investments for critical public needs; why the destruction wrought by structural change is not being halted by government policies. Consideration of the government record reveals that urban "revitalization" projects, along with the huge federal withdrawal from public housing, have eroded die stock of low-income housing only to benefit the rich.

Barak's work shuttles between levels of analysis: from the structural factors behind homelessness to the physical and psychological deprivations suffered by the homeless. Homelessness, especially when contrasted with the affluence of U.S. society in general, is associated with harmful psychological, physical, and social effects.

These harmful effects include criminal victimization. Homeless people with AIDS who try to reside in community shelters often find themselves harassed and assaulted by other homeless who through ignorance are afraid of contracting the dreaded disease. This decade will undoubtedly witness the dumping of people with AIDS from hospitals onto the streets. Such dumping will parallel similar developments in the 1970s, when institutions for the mentally ill were doing the same. The homeless are also engulfed by the generalized violence, which has been escalated by the War on Drugs, as they reside unprotected, sheltered or not, in urban jungles.

Barak's chapter on criminogenic relations and homelessness is superb. He notes that criminalizing the homeless is coupled with "blaming the victims" of current social policies. The homeless are subject to a variety of criminal charges: resisting police officers, begging, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, obstructing sidewalks, sleeping or camping illegally in parks, and parking illegally. In addition, the general population has become fearful of the homeless even though most of their crimes are inflicted on other homeless people. Barak adds that the condition of homelessness is itself criminogenic or crime producing.

Consequently, it is not surprising that journalists call President Bush's speeches about "help for the homeless |a thousand points of hype."' Bush has done nothing to prevent the exposure of the homeless to acute demoralization, violence, and prostitution. Aside from rhetoric, he has done nothing to prevent the criminogenic conditions that make helpless shopping-bag ladies subject to rape, robbery, and theft. Indeed, while gentrification and other housing-market developments have worsened homelessness, by redistributing housing to those who are better off, federal policies have increased the criminality and victimization.

Barak feels there is no comparison between the crime of homelessness and the crimes of the homeless. "The former is far more threatening than the latter, both with the respect to the homeless and the homeful," he says. Quoting an article co-authored with Robert Bohm, he states: "most of the homeless are more victims than the perpetrators.... The homeless are primarily victims of structural forces and government policies that subject them to all forms of abuse, neglect, and dehumanization."

What are the community agencies, movements, and lawmakers attempting to do about homelessness?This question is addressed in Barak's final chapters, which note that conservative responses to the homeless tend to blame the victim. Liberal approaches, on the other hand, emphasize "proximate rather than ultimate causes...." they focus on the individual rather than on larger social structures. As result, most people fail to grasp the role of global capitalism, which makes policies like "workfare" and "learnfare," the modern equivalents of forced and contract labor, inappropriate. Barak feels that overcoming homelessness requires economic changes that place egalitarian, democratic, humanistic and ecological values in the forefront.

While insisting that long-term changes are vitally necessary, Barak does not reject positive short-term responses. These responses include compassionate local programs maintained by churches, philanthropy,and local government as well as short-term federal programs. Gimme Sheleter describes some of these programs and notes that many suffer because of unbelievable competition for a smaller pool of government program funds. The pool has become smaller because the Reagan-Bush cuts have continued to gut the meager federal outlays for the homeless.

Also, in chapter on short-term responses, contemporary shelters are compared to 19th century almshouses and substandard mental institutions. The shelters and services, Barak insists, are not an adequate replacement for low-cost housing. He critically evaluates legislative acts, programs, and services, such as the Homeless Assistance Act (1897) and its Interagency Council on the Homeless, which aim to provide housing instead of temporary shelters. This evaluation relies on the 1988 National Survey of Shelters for the Homeless, which showed that housing policies were not stemming the growing numbers of homeless. Barak concludes that these policies have failed, in art, because they do not deal with the incremental immiseration of working-class and lower-middle-class people, nor do they halt the decline in real earnings and the increasing cost of living.

for understanding the limitations of current policies, social movements that support the rights of homeless people are vitally important. An entire chapter is devoted to these social movements, including the National Coalition for the Homeless and the Union of the Homeless, a rank and file movement composed of the homeless themselves. Movement policy recommendations for resisting homelessness are presented.

Barak devotes the next chapter to legislative measures and juridical precedents that have shaped the contested rights of the homeless. The measures include pending legislation and concept papers promoted by Ron Dellums (H.R. 4727), Ted Kennedy (H.R. 1891), the Frank Bill (H.R. 1990) Alan Cranston, and others. At this juncture, Barak describes the legislative goals of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and cleverly compares the legislative measures with the NLIHC goals. Only the Dellums Bill adequately meets these goals. All the other measures are inferior. Finally, Barak reviews the juridical precedents for a poor person's right to housing. He finds that these precedents for supporting housing needs are even more inadequate than the legislative proposals. Consequently, though legislative action seems to be more suited to changing the status of homeless people, neither the legislature nor the judiciary, at present, is specially receptive to eliminating homelessness.

Barak's final chapter amplifies the political economy of homelessness and his long-term solutions. He believes global capitalism has cultivated widespreasd acceptance of and resignation to its demands for lower wages and uncontrolled profit-taking. Coupled with increasing support from government and lower taxes for the rich, these demands are producing greater austerity for middle-class and working-class Americans. They have led to an increasing polarization of wealth and virtually halted the debate between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans about low-cost housing. Under these conditions, Barak believes the likelihood of developing rational, humane, and just programs for eradicating homelessness in the U.S. is doubtful even in the best scenarios.

After this conclusion, Barak turns to the socialist alternatives for long-term solutions to homelessness. He mentions in this context Michael Harrington's "visionary gradualism," based on free-market socialism. According to Barak, Harrington called for a new culture and a new civilization grounded in the global principles of feminist, antiracist, and ecological communitarianism. Harrington, Barak feels, offers a democratic socialist alternative that is fundamentally different from those offered by the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes and their command economies or the free-market economies in capitalist democracies.

Barak also believes that social democratic policies upheld by France, Australia, Spain, and the Scandinavian countries can provide positive alternatives for reform movements in the United States. Sweden's social democratic housing policies are especially praised. Although the population in Sweden at the end of 1987 was about 3.4 million, the number of homeless was estimated at around 100 persons.

Barak urges broadening the U.S. debate over policy alternatives. He remarks sarcastically that there have been enough funds found for Operation Desert Shield, the contras, death squads, trillion-dollar defense budgets, anticommunist and antidrug crusades. Yet federal support cannot be found for affordable housing policy alternatives proposed, for example, by Francine P. Rabinowitz's Plan, the Institute for Policy Studies' Progressive Housing Program for America (supported by Congressman Ronald Dellums), and Schwartz, Ferlauto, and Hoffman's New Housing Policy for America. Barak exclaims, "If the U.S. can employ...every technique imaginable to subsidize the wealth of this society, then it ought to be able to afford the subsidies necessary for satisfying the fundamental human needs of its poor."

When the paperback version becomes available, Gimme Shelter will be useful for courses taught by criminologists, social workers, sociologists, and political scientists. Though the book is easy to read, it could have used more aggressive editing; moreover, Tables 8 and 9 are presented poorly without adequate information about data-gathering methods and procedures for constructing the tables. The book should also have mentioned the experience with different housing policies enacted by Norway, Sweden, and Demnark, which is reported in Gosta Esping-Andersen's chapter on "the housing question" in Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985). But these are minor criticisms of a very solid, comprehensive, and passionate work.

Herman Schwendinger teaches in the Department of Sociology, State University of New York, College at New Paltz, New Paltz, NY 12561. Julia Schwendinger has been active as a consultant for defense attorneys.
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Author:Schwendinger, Herman; Schwendinger, Julia
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1992
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