At Home on the Street

At Home on the Street

People, Poverty, and A Hidden Culture of Homelessness

Book - 2010
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Wasserman (sociology, Texas Tech U.) and Clair (sociology, U. of Alabama at Birmingham) explore what leads people to become homeless, what their lives are like, and how they survive, arguing that programs and policies alienate them and create an "us-them" dichotomy. They conducted a four-year study in which they interviewed and observed homeless individuals in Birmingham, Alabama. Here, they consider the relationship between "us" and "them," the differences between those who live on the streets and those who use shelters and service programs, the organization of street communities, the attitudes, values, and dispositions of the homeless, identity, legislation, social services, religious approaches, and recommendations for thinking about homelessness in new ways. Annotation ©2010 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: Boulder, Colo. : Lynne Rienner Publishers, c2010
ISBN: 9781588267252
Characteristics: xi, 252 p. ; 24 cm
Additional Contributors: Clair, Jeffrey M. 1958-


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Sep 14, 2016

Wasserman and Clair are sociologists who spent four years meeting with, and sometimes living with, the homeless of Birmingham, Alabama. Their specific focus was on the "street homeless", those who mostly live in the open, as opposed to the "shelter homeless". Concentrating on those who congregated on one specific block, called "Catchout Corner", they deliver an analysis of the struggles of a group of homeless men who have managed to create a precarious space for themselves in the cracks of society.

The authors make many valid points, particularly concerning the professionalization of "homeless-service provision". This leads, they demonstrate, to a statistical approach to homelessness overly concerned with numbers, programs, and efficiency, which seeks to treat categories rather than help people. Their book, too, is at its best when it deals with the concrete circumstances of the individuals involved. Unfortunately, the authors abstract from this experience and then confront their abstracted homeless with an equally abstract care model, and discover that this does not align with their analysis of an abstracted society's ills. The problems of actual people helping actual people on a sustained basis too often seem like an afterthought.

Unfortunately, the authors' commitment to a relativistic approach muddles their thinking. Although the authors consistently ascribe homelessness to the structural injustices of American society, they seem to be uncertain, in the end, whether homelessness is anything other than a lifestyle choice. This reduces attempts to "help" the homeless to oppressive acts designed to enforce conformity. Those who seek to ameliorate the problems of the homeless are accused of "making the oppressed comfortable", producing a "false consciousness" which prevents the homeless from embracing radical politics. The authors insist on the importance of friendship with the homeless, as opposed to a detached professionalism, but their ignorance of the spiritual dimension denies the possibility of solidarity and thus reduces every interaction between the homeless and caregivers into a power struggle between oppressor and oppressed.

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