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  • Better Must Come: Exiting Homelessness in Two Global Cities by Matthew Marr
  • Neil Gong
Better Must Come: Exiting Homelessness in Two Global Cities By Matthew Marr Cornell University Press. 2015. 223 pp. $75 hardcover. $24.95 paperback.

How do people leave homelessness in the global cities of Los Angeles and Tokyo? Sociologist Matthew Marr offers a "multi-level contextual theory of exiting homelessness," eschewing either/or perspectives on the causal primacy of individual, local, or national factors for an integrative explanation of when and how various factors matter. Focusing on transitional housing, or programs that offer housing aid with time limits, it reveals both the striking similarities and differences in how urban marginality is constructed and addressed across contexts. In so doing, Marr reminds homelessness scholars not to take their object for granted, and to recognize the parochial nature of much US-centered research and theorizing. Drawing primarily on in-depth interviews, the book usefully shifts focus from how people become homeless, or acculturated to a "culture" of homelessness, to the less-studied question of how people attempt to exit.

Unlike much comparative work that seeks to control for all but one variable across cases, Marr's selection of Los Angeles and Tokyo is fruitful because it brings multiple differences into stark relief. In LA, a high rate of homelessness encompasses a more diverse population, yet people's better access to subsidized housing programs, closer ties to service providers, and better support from familial and friendship networks facilitate survival amid poor access to wage labor and affordable housing. Tokyo has a far lower rate of homelessness, with concentration primarily in middle-aged and older men. Yet, despite better access to low-wage employment and affordable housing, these men encounter harsher cultures of service provision and little in the way of social network support. These contrasting configurations cannot be easily reduced to singular variables or characterizations like "liberal welfare state" versus "hybrid corporatist," or "individualistic" versus "collectivistic" culture, and this is why Marr's multilevel analysis is crucial.

The sections on organizational and familial ties are particularly compelling, for Marr not only makes insightful connections between structural factors and his subjects' biographies, but also presents data that seems counterintuitive to stereotypical notions of his cases. In terms of organizational culture, Marr [End Page 1] argues that LA service providers have a relatively robust "social imagination" when accounting for people's struggles, flexibility in service, and substantial trust with clientele. In contrast to LA staff members' attributions of homelessness to impoverished circumstance and traumatic experiences, Tokyo staff members explicitly blame their clients' homelessness on personal pathology. Furthermore, Tokyo providers are highly inflexible and rarely develop trusting relationships with clientele. Given the substantial US literature linking the medicalization of homelessness to a peculiarly American liberal individualism, I found Marr's analysis of this divergence striking.

Marr does an admirable job of explaining how these organizational cultures link to structural considerations as much as national cultures. He notes that the greater trust and understanding between LA clients and providers is ironically due in part to the higher rate of homelessness, for it has produced an abundant supply of housing workers with their own experiences of housing insecurity. In contrast, the low level of homelessness in Tokyo and the concentration among older men result in few service providers who share experiences with clientele, limiting homophily. Regarding flexibility, he notes that LA transitional housing offers a relatively generous time span—two years versus four months in Tokyo—allowing workers to tailor plans to clients. Tokyo providers, with little time to craft holistic plans or find a good match between person and job, in contrast, rigidly push clients to accept any work they can find. The subsequent section on family ties, which seeks to explain why LA's homeless individuals have substantially more family contact than their Tokyo counterparts, similarly combines cultural and structural analysis in insightful ways, including an intriguing reflection on the putative Japanese "culture of shame."

Given the ambition of this multilevel approach, it is perhaps inevitable that a full accounting of each dimension is impossible. Comparisons of political economy, "urban regimes," organizational cultures of nonprofits, and local patterns of interaction could...