THE HOMELESS: AN OVERLOOKED POPULATION WHERE CRITICAL GEOGRAPHY AND INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM MEET
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part 1 – Abstract & Our History
Part 2 – Critical Geography & Intersectional Feminism
Part 3 – Current Literature
Part 5 – Analysis, Conclusion, Discussion
The United States is home to many vulnerable populations including the elderly, disabled, and children. Perhaps the most vulnerable population is the homeless. Whether they became homeless through losing their jobs because of economic hardships, living a life of extreme poverty, or because they have drug addictions and mental instability, homeless people face many economic and legal hardships. They have almost nowhere to go, are often alone, and even those with families can support them for only so long. Homeless shelters can give only temporary safety and alone cannot solve America’s national homeless issue.
What are the main causes of homelessness? My hypothesis is the following: homelessness is mostly caused by poverty. However, poverty usually does not cause homelessness on its own. Usually, in America and New York City, homelessness is caused by poverty aggravated by various forms of discrimination such as systemic racism, sexism, and heteronormativity (the discrimination of LGBT and other non-straight people). Why is homelessness not caused only by poverty? Why is homelessness not caused only by discrimination? Poverty on its own is a daily grind that puts people on the edge of homelessness, and while homelessness is poverty taken to the extreme, poverty on its own is not enough to cause homelessness. Usually homelessness is caused by major blows in life, the most frequent being drug addiction and mental illness. Poverty plays a more insidious role, undermining a person’s abilities and resources to cope with life’s blows. A middle class person has both the money to afford counseling and medication and an intact family for emotional support. A poor person is less likely to have either.
Racism and sexism are both insidious erosions that drag a person down into poverty and help cause calamities that happen more to nonwhites, women, and LGBT people. Such examples include a black man losing his mortgage, and thus his home because of racism, a woman fleeing an abusive spouse because of sexism, or an LGBT youth being cast out from her home because of her sexuality. In addition, nonwhites, women, and LGBT people tend to be poorer than their white, male, and straight counterparts, increasing the likelihood of poverty and the depth of that poverty.
The literature review is taken from research done on homelessness both throughout America in general and New York City in particular. My research studies homelessness through two disciplines: critical geography and intersectional feminism. Both will be used in my analyses of the data I collected to produce a new interpretation. My thesis includes two main ideas: 1) Homelessness is a growing American problem due to the economic crises caused by neoliberal politics and globalism, which sink lower class people deeper into poverty. 2) People are rendered invisible and Othered part of American society through multiple forms of oppression or intersections, such as class, urban location, race, gender, and sexuality. These realities especially apply to homeless people. Both aforementioned ideas are tightly interrelated and frequently reinforce each other, a point I will illustrate throughout my thesis.
OUR HISTORY: The Origins of Homelessness As We Know It
In order to properly understand homelessness both in terms of individuals and in terms of socioeconomic groups, it is necessary to discover when the term “homelessness” was first created and how reformers first used it. The word “homelessness” was first used around the turn of the century. In 1890 the realist author and literary critic William Dean Howells published A Hazard of New Fortunes and the social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives. Both writers established the discourse on homelessness, with Howells connecting homeless individuals to the Christian family and Riis popularizing the term “homelessness”.
Howells’ novel reveals the anxieties many people had in turn of the century New York City. Howells contrasts the lives of homeless individuals to the ideal space, “a Christian home… where the family can all come together and feel the sweetness of being a family”. The Christian home is a domestic ideal, an answer to concerns about housing, family, and religion. Inner city apartments “abolish the family consciousness”: confining, but not cozy, and isolating. The necessity of a Christian home is not merely space to live but a sanctuary where family life can flourish, protected from the ravages of the city. The novel makes the point: “the primary concern of home is with family”. This is a point we completely take for granted but important in the discourse about homelessness, since homelessness was framed as the antithesis to the Christian home and the embodiment of inner city poverty and vice.
For scholars and writers at the turn of the century, homelessness was not merely a condition of houselessness but “the city’s embodiment of the collapse of social structures”, a symbol of the city’s increasing poverty and declining infrastructure. However, by the 1980s, the definition of “homelessness” shifted away from describing a condition of the city and into a condition of the individual without a home, regardless of where they lived. Homelessness then changed to an individual’s lifestyle. It became a term for social displacement, replacing the terms “vagrant”, “vagabond”, “hobo”, and “tramp”. Riis especially put a face on the word “homeless”. Carrying his photographic equipment, he traveled to tenements in New York City, police wards, and other poverty-stricken areas, capturing the people who lived there and their daily struggles.
To Riis, the city’s various ailments of vice, poverty, greed, and unassimilated immigrants created the conditions of homelessness. Riis contrasted the homeless and poor people of the inner city with the countryside. The American domestic ideal developed from the mid-nineteenth century and would eventually find its fulfillment in the suburbs after World War II. “Homelessness” had yet to mean any precise category. It was a crude image of the anxieties of the age: the chaotic growth of the city and a growing radical and criminal underclass, to which the “fresh air and green space of the country” appeared as a haven.
As the twentieth century progressed the rural Christian family ideal expanded. Its antithesis was the dangerous and wretched inner city, with homelessness as the Other, the specter embodying the worst of city life. Riis explicitly emphasizes the watchwords “property, family, religion, order”. While the Christian family home took root in the country, Riis and other reformers created a model of the Christian family in the city, ostensibly to preserve the home and save the city from further decay. “A Christian home had to be clean, healthy, well-ventilated, and properly decorated.” Moreover, it had to be a “family-fostering place”.
In light of this new moral project, homelessness acquired a new moral failing. Homeless individuals were people who either could not or would not “cultivate a Christian home”. The homeless represented all sorts of social outcasts from criminals to “fallen women” to orphans. Reformers such as Riis strove not to change the status quo but to protect it. The Christian family, the representation of a happy, productive, and moral American life, was explicitly bourgeois, an option many dreamed of but few could afford. Reformers’ attempts to alleviate homelessness in the city had an ulterior motive, to prevent the city from decaying, to stem an urban underclass from growing, and to protect the bourgeois Christian family. Social reform was “to tweak a status quo in the name of self-defense”.
During the 1930s and 1940s, many American politicians embraced welfare reforms and federal programs such as the New Deal, policies that alleviated American poverty and, by extension, homelessness. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty”, legislation aimed to drastically reduce America’s poverty rate by expanding the federal government’s power over education and health. Since then, conservative politicians, as well as some liberal ones, strived to weaken the programs created by the Johnson administration. In the 1960s, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater campaigned against the War on Poverty. Goldwater derided it as being wasteful and full of policies that would not work. Reagan used the American people’s anxieties about the contemporary gender roles of women by insinuating that single mothers were morally depraved and, therefore, did not deserve any government assistance.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon claimed the War on Poverty caused race riots and city unrest. He also claimed the government intruded in the lives of the American people by creating the public housing projects. Like Reagan after him, he used the American people’s anxieties about pressing, contemporary issues. In this case, it was about racial tensions between white and black Americans. In 1973, the oil crises profoundly changed Americans’ attitudes towards the economy. No longer was economic growth infinite or inevitable. It was now a pie of limited portions, and only the rich and other “successful” and “worthy” people were entitled to their slice.
In the 1980s, President Reagan opposed welfare reforms, using rhetoric to paint poor black people, especially poor black women, as “welfare queens” a hundred thousand dollars a year from Social Security and Welfare checks. At the same time, Reagan appealed to white blue-collar workers by protecting middle-class entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. Reagan effectively paired conservative sentiments against welfare with the backlash against black civil rights. The poor lost many benefits. “Three million children were cut from the school lunch program, one million from food stamps, five hundred thousand from school breakfast programs, and an equal number from cash assistance. Three-quarters of a million children lost Medicaid benefits. More than three hundred thousand families were pushed out of public housing. Rates of homelessness soared.”
Future politicians continued to undermine the War on Poverty, albeit less overtly in some ways. For example, in the 1990s President Bill Clinton buried the racism inherent in many attempts to cut welfare and other government programs with rhetoric about “economic empowerment”. Clinton’s welfare reform, such as his “chastity training” of welfare mothers, helped to delegitimize welfare further. In the 2000s, President George W. Bush unexpectedly expanded food stamps and unemployment benefits. Conservative politicians were not happy with Bush’s moves, but they blamed Barrack Obama once he became President instead. Policies against the War on Poverty continue today in the 2010s when Senator Paul Ryan authored budgets that made extreme cuts to government programs.
How we see homelessness today and our attempts to relieve it are inherited from both Riis and his contemporaries and from a succession of conservative politicians after Johnson’s presidential term. Many of our policies from welfare reform to federal aid are, at their heart, attempts to mold the homeless into a bourgeois family, or at least an imitation of it. Though the Christian family is in decline, it still powerfully grips our collective consciousness as the American standard of being a normal, happy person. Most reforms on poverty and homelessness essentially put a Band-Aid over a deep laceration. They try to ameliorate the symptoms of poverty and inequality the poor and homeless face but rarely face the underlying socioeconomic structures that produce poverty and homelessness in the first place.
Furthermore, we have progressively lost our faith in the success of reforms to alleviate poverty and homelessness. For more than half a century, we swallowed rhetoric from one president after another who used middle class fears and racist attitudes to their advantage. Almost each aforementioned president painted a picture of the poor as morally depraved and rapacious bums who stole money from the “honest, hardworking” middle-class families and wealthy businessmen who “deserved” it. Today, we not only distrust most reforms of poverty and homelessness but for wrong reasons based on fear and ignorance.
The gentrification of city spaces is another way of reforming the city by turning it into a middle class enclave. Gentrification doesn’t alleviate the homeless. It drives them out into poorer areas. It is a continuation of the “suburbanization trend” where the city is deindustrialized and turned into a place of consumption. This process actually increases homelessness since black and Hispanic men in the inner city lose their jobs. Blue-collar industrial jobs, the means of income for lower class minorities, are replaced by white-collar service jobs, the means of income for middle class whites.
Gentrification brought back middle class whites into the city while in turn expelling lower class minorities, including many homeless individuals. “Making the city safe for families became intertwined with an antihomeless sentiment”. It disperses the homeless, making them even more invisible to middle and upper class people. At bottom it is another form of preserving the status quo. It alleviates the poverty and crime of the city but at the expense of the struggling people living there. If we are to successfully tackle homelessness and other ills of poverty we need to make a serious and courageous effort to change the very nature of America’s socioeconomic structure, not hypocritically protect privileged people and middle class values in the name of alleviating poverty.
Currently, America has a very high rate of homelessness, especially New York City. Homelessness in New York City has reached its highest rate since the Great Depression.  The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in municipal shelters is 91% higher than it was ten years ago. In June of 1983, New York City had a total of 12,830 homeless people, with 4.876 single adults and 7,954 people in families. In January of 2016, New York City had a total of 60,296 homeless people, with 14,147 single adults and 46,149 people in families. Current literature lists many causes of homelessness in the present day. The primary cause is lack of affordable housing, but homelessness is also triggered by many calamities, such as eviction, severely overcrowded homes, domestic violence, and job loss.   Risk factors associated with recurring homelessness include alcohol and drug use, a criminal history, dependence on families for housing, and mental illness.
9 Igor Volsky, “Racism, Sexism, And The 50-Year Campaign To Undermine The War On Poverty,” ThinkProgress RSS, January 8, 2014, 1-2, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/01/08/3122111/war-poverty-race-sexism/.
19 “Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City – Coalition For The Homeless,” Coalition For The Homeless, February 2016, http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/.
 Hunter L. Mcquistion et al., “Risk Factors Associated with Recurrent Homelessness After a First Homeless Episode.” Health Community Mental Health Journal 50 (2013): 509.