- Where Have All the Homeless Gone?: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis
Anthony Marcus' book, Where Have All the Homeless Gone? The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis, challenges us to rethink homelessness. For anthropologists concerned with growing poverty, inequality and homelessness, this book is relevant and timely. Marcus' work is an important contribution to not only understanding the homeless crisis of the late 1980s, but also understanding how homelessness faded from the public consciousness and ceased to be discussed, even as homelessness grew throughout the 1990s and up to today. In seeking to understand what "made" and "unmade" the homeless crisis, Marcus offers an original argument about the social and political construction of homelessness. He argues, "a group of non-white urbanites who were often lacking in some combination of proper housing, medical care, education, and employment was reified and ethnicized into 'the homeless'" (147). Marcus shows how the creation of "the homeless" shifted the political discussion away from affordable housing and underemployment towards the supposed "pathology of the black family," another round in the culture of poverty discourse. He asserts that instead of asking what went wrong with housing policy, too many social scientists asked what's wrong with the homeless. [End Page 305]
A qualitative ethnography on homelessness in New York City, Where Have All the Homeless Gone?, focuses primarily on homeless mentally ill men who were part of a multi-year demonstration project designed to help them secure permanent housing. Anthony Marcus, along with his colleague Alfredo Gonzalez, served as staff ethnographers for this project; they held monthly interviews with 110 informants and also followed them in order to find out where they stayed and what they did throughout the course of months and years. Marcus made an effort to make the book readable; it is largely free from jargon, making it accessible for undergraduates, housing activists and other concerned people.
Chapter one investigates the problems of categorizing homeless people, in particular, explicating the stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness. Marcus is interested in exploring the space between an economic definition of homelessness as one who lacks access to affordable housing and the popular perceptions of who is recognized as "homeless." He unpacks how attitudes toward race, gender and sexuality contribute to who is perceived as homeless.
Chapter two profiles several of the homeless men with whom he develops relationships over the years. One of the strongest chapters in the book, he sensitively portrays how homeless men deal with the stigma of being labeled homeless and documents the creative ways that homeless men either conform to or resist the expectations of the social workers who are often the gatekeepers for the benefits they need. Much of the chapter consists of interviews of homeless men describing the stereotypes with which they are forced to contend. Marcus draws from these accounts three categories of stereotypes of homeless men: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good involves appearing harmless and subservient to the social workers with the hopes of attaining a job and better services; the bad is the image of the violent "crackhead" attempting to gain respect through fear; the ugly is "helpless, desexualized, and broken" (30). Marcus documents how some homeless men are able to switch between roles in order to navigate the homeless bureaucracy and get needed benefits.
Chapter three tells a brief history of homelessness in the United States, contextualizing the growth of poverty and homelessness in the 1980s with similar growth during the Great Depression as well as the post WWII era. While he does acknowledge economic factors such as high inflation, declining wages, and job loss in deepening poverty in the 1980s, Marcus emphasizes the continuity of the homeless phenomenon of the Reagan era with the skid rows, vagabonds, and hobos dating back to the 1930s. He is interested in why the [End Page 306] 1980s are conceived of as a "homeless crisis," when poverty and lack of affordable housing were not defined as such in other historical periods.
Chapter four is...