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Part 1 – Abstract & Our History

Part 2 – Critical Geography & Intersectional Feminism

Part 3 – Current Literature

Part 4 – Case Studies

Part 5 – Analysis, Conclusion, Discussion

 Part 6 – Bibliography

METHODOLOGY: Original Research and Other Case Studies
In order to gather data for my thesis I did research at homeless shelters by observing the guests there, using the disciplines of critical geography and intersectional feminism as lenses for my observations. To that end I volunteered in as many homeless shelters as I could. There exist around twenty-five homeless shelters throughout the five boroughs; around twelve of them in Manhattan. Most are private, nonprofit organizations that are managed by either a board of directors or president. They are frequently religious, such as Rescue Mission and Holy Apostles Church and Soup Kitchen. Covenant House, a secular organization, specializes in homeless youth while Sylvia’s Place, another secular organization that specializes in LGBT youth. The Praxis Housing initiative is a transitional housing program that seeks to rehabilitate homeless people back to an independent lifestyle, while some are only soup kitchens. Most shelters serve around one hundred to two hundred guests. Shelters that work with guests in special programs and transitional housing choose at most around a dozen guests, guests who proved themselves willing and capable of leaving their situation.

I originally tried to obtain permission to interview the guests, but every shelter I visited declined my offer. Some shelters, such as Covenant House, required me to pass an extensive background check just to volunteer, but never got back to me. Other shelters such as Sylvia’s Place were limited in their demographics, such as only having women, which was not broad enough for my thesis. After unsuccessfully trying to get interviews during June and July in 2015, I settled for a new goal: observation and tutoring. I would volunteer in two or three shelters from July to October in 2015, carefully observing everything: the guests, employees, volunteers, the culture, the nature of the work and volunteer schedules, and the architecture of the shelters. I would also tutor the guests and make observations in the same detailed matter. I would then record my observations and analyze them using critical geography and intersectional feminism to reveal new insights. During my volunteer work I feared that I would not have enough information from my case studies. After my volunteer work, I relied on other researchers’ interviews of homeless people in New York to supplement my own research. I studied all interviews with the same attention to detail as when I observed the homeless shelters as a volunteer.

Ultimately, I volunteered in two places from July to October in 2015: NYC Rescue Mission and Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. NYC Rescue Mission is a homeless shelter in lower east Manhattan near Chinatown, a private Christian mission dedicated to providing food, clothing, and shelter to homeless people and tutoring them until they obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma. Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen is a soup kitchen located in lower west Manhattan close to the Hudson River, another private Christian mission that serves food to homeless people, provides free counseling, writers’ workshops, and computer classes. I volunteered at Rescue Mission every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and I volunteered at Holy Apostles every Monday and Friday.

NYC Rescue Mission
Overall, I spent significantly more time at Rescue Mission, which means I acquired more observations. Rescue Mission is a shelter that provides food, beds, and means of training the guests to reenter the workforce. Each day the guests would wake up from their bunks and leave the shelter before noon to work or to do something else. During and after work hours, tutoring and computer labs were available for the guests. Tutoring lasted from 3pm to 4pm while dinner lasted from 5pm to 6:30pm. Volunteers were required to arrive at the kitchen from between 4pm to 4:30pm to prepare the tables, drinks, and food for the guests. After dinner, the guests went to an auditorium near the office. Staff performed music, church services, and drew lots to determine which guests could stay for the night, as there were only twenty or so bunks. Female staff was mostly responsible for maintaining the bunker room.

My first job at Rescue Mission was to volunteer in the kitchen. I always had to put on an apron and wear latex gloves before work to keep my hands clean to prevent transmitting any disease. The kitchen had three rows of foldable tables. My jobs at first were to put refrigerated jugs of water on the tables and assemble the cups, forks, and napkins together in a box. Staff and volunteers, including me, would often eat the same dinner as the guests. When dinner officially began volunteers and staff would take on new jobs. Both volunteers and staff shared about the same jobs. Both would serve cooked food over a counter, serve desserts and drinks, refill the jugs, serve cups, spoons, and forks to the guests as they entered the kitchen, clean the tables, collect used dishes, or mop and sweep the floors.

Demographically about half of the guests were black. The second highest numbers of guests were white. While Asians and Hispanics were the lowest in number they were about the same in number. The number of male to female guests was about the same. However, the racial demographics of the women were slightly different. There were significantly more white women, almost equal to the number of black women, while the number of Asian and Hispanic women was very small. Most of the guests were either middle aged or into old age, though there were some young people. One young man looked barely to be in his twenties and two babies arrived once. One of the infants was with his mother and father while another infant only had his mother.

The demographics among staff and volunteers were slightly different. Most staff were black with some whites and only a few Asians. Most, if not all the staff were male and in their mid twenties and thirties, with only a few older staff members. Among the volunteers it was different, with almost all of them being white. The number of male to female volunteers was almost the same with slightly more males, and all of them were young.

Overall, the guests in Rescue Mission were lively and talkative. They were often courteous and socially interacted with staff, volunteers, and each other. They could sometimes even be garrulous. While they were usually in good spirits they could sometimes break into fights with each other, such as one young black couple that constantly quarreled. However, rarely did staff have to intervene beyond giving a stern warning. Rarely was there an apathetic or sad spirit. The only exceptions I could notice were a few of the very old guests, who were hoary in appearance and limped when walking.

The staff and volunteers were not as obviously lively as the guests but they too were in strong spirits. Many of the staff and volunteers were efficient and thorough in their work and were quick to help the guests. Since they had little division of labor and everybody was crammed in a small kitchen, there was a lot of interaction between the staff and volunteers and the guests. Close and frequent interaction among volunteers and guests, as I will stress later in my report, is an extremely important part of serving homeless individuals.

Getting to know the staff, volunteers, and guests, was the most important and interesting part of my volunteer work. To protect their identities, I will give them false names. Sadly, I could not get any interviews after many failures throughout the entire summer to do so. Shelter managers considered interviews too invasive of people’s privacy, especially the privacy of a vulnerable population. Instead I had to rely on talking to people casually. I want to emphasize how important it is to see homeless individuals’ lives even in areas outside of their homelessness that may seem trivial. Too much past literature fixates only on their homelessness and the tragedies in their lives. I’m not denying their extreme importance but there is a risk of turning them into “only” victims. In the process we cut them off from our own lives, turning them into pitiable shadows that exist beyond our “ordinary” lives and beyond our help, which dehumanizes them.

I have many vignettes of the staff, volunteers, and guests during my time at Rescue Mission. Dederick was one of the first guests I met and one of the most important. One of the first things he said to me was “one of the first things you’ll learn, homeless people are people”. He was a black man in middle age, bald, well-groomed, friendly, and frequently talked to people. His son was an honors student in university, mastering in film. His son even studied abroad in Switzerland, producing a film with his colleges there. Dederick’s homelessness may seem odd considering that his son could afford a college education. It is likely that he lived at least a middle class existence before becoming homeless and that his wife or a guardian is providing for his son.

Dederick seemed unable or unwilling to give any specific factor as to why he became homeless, but I consider him giving me any reason at all a privilege and a sign of trust. He told me that he simply “lost his way”. He later advised me to go to a shelter called All Souls that allowed volunteers to serve from 9am to 7pm. The last time I saw him he said he was “doing good” and “getting on the right track”. His son was doing well at university and he was going to visit him for a few days. He was coming to the kitchen less and less, which could mean he was getting a house and job.

Joe was an old white staff member who showed me the ropes on my first day. He taught me how to properly refill the jugs and how to mop the floor. He liked my commitment to volunteering. One day I got extremely wet from a heavy downpour while coming to volunteer. When I was done Joe asked whether I was dried up and padded my head. On my first day volunteering I wore a Rocky Horror t-shirt. Joe was intrigued. He told me he saw the Rocky Horror play in LA way back in 1972. The guy who played Rocky was Tommy Tune.

Jezebel was a middle-aged black woman guest who, like Joe, was one of the first people I met. She was very friendly towards me. Noticing my Rocky Horror shirt on my first day, she told me about the time she first saw Rocky Horror in 1980 when she was in college. Jezebel’s account makes me wonder how many of the guests have gone to college. Statistical data suggests that lower class backgrounds, dysfunctional families, and mental illness are the most common factors in making people homeless. Lower class people can afford college too, even though it is rarer for them to do so. It does raise questions as to what factors can make people who come from “wholesome” and “comfortable” homes to lose their houses and jobs. Like Dederick, Jezebel stopped appearing at the shelter after a while. I wonder where she is now.

On my second day volunteering I met Jamal, a young man who also worked at the shelter for free. He told me that he was very grateful for Rescue Mission. Other shelters, as he said, were very poor quality, with poor food and violent guests. Ex-convicts were even hired as staff members. Occasionally, violence and even murder would break out in other shelters. A guest murdered the head (I don’t know his exact position) of a shelter Jamal used to work for. When I visited Covenant House to volunteer, the staff gave me a stringent background check. In my application I was to put down every single place I ever lived. At the time I thought such a strict background check to be ludicrous, but now I see it to be more sensible.

After I volunteered for quite some time at Rescue Mission I met Cade, a tall black man, seventy-one years old, for the first time in the auditorium. Many of the guests and staff members were kind to me, grateful at having a long-term volunteer, which was a rarity they sorely needed. Cade was especially kind to me, even by those standards. He commented on my posture, telling me I should straighten up. Ever since he was fourteen he would work out every day. Part of his regimen was to learn how to keep a good posture. The key, he said to me, was to be proud and to feel tall, allow your chest and your body expand, be comfortable in yourself. He also worked many different jobs before he became homeless. Sadly, I don’t know much information outside of that.

Twice I saw infants in Rescue Mission. The first infant was at most three years old. He was in one of those small car strollers with his parents, who were a young couple. The parents were a white woman and a man of mixed race who seemed to be in their twenties. The child never cried but he did have a lost look on his face and he solemnly ate his food at the table with all the other guests, on his mother’s lap. When they left I gave him an extra cup. His parents thanked me. The second infant was far younger, at most one year old. He was always on the chest of his mother, a white woman who seemed to be in her thirties. The father was nowhere to be seen. The child was always quiet.

On my first day of tutoring, Henrico, one of the managers, took me upstairs to my first student. Until then I didn’t see much of Rescue Mission other than the kitchen. A small room holding all donated used clothes was tucked at the end of a thin winding hallway. Staff workers, all of them black, ordered the clothes in a group. It made me think of ways segregation can exist even in places that try to be racially egalitarian. The bunks were on one of the top floors and were cots at most, like in boot camp. The guests kept what little possessions they had here. Most guests kept backpacks or suitcases that held everything they owned. Some owned thick books and some owned crossword puzzles. One of them owned two stereo players. Many of them owned an iPhone.

I was brought to my first student, Barry, a middle aged black man with a mustache. I taught him the order of operations, a form of advanced pre-algebra math Barry barely learned before. He was a good student, becoming moderately proficient at it by the time the lesson was over. He said he had not done any math beyond handling money in the last forty years. When he began lessons a month ago he did not even know how to add. He must be intelligent to have learned or at least brushed up on math so quickly.

Over the next few months I tutored other guests. As I got to know them better I learned of their many backgrounds. The student I taught most often was another middle aged black man named James. I taught him grammar with a GED textbook, which prepares students to pass a High School Equivalency Test. James quickly learned subject-verb agreement and different verb tenses. He told me that he wants to marry a blonde woman before he dies, preferably Jessica Simpson, so I often joked with him about blondes and sex when I tutored him.

Frankie is a middle-aged Italian-American in his fifties with wavy white hair. In one session I helped him write his resume. Frankie had two seasoned careers behind him. In his twenties he was a professional body builder who owned his own gym and business. He hosted celebrities like sitcom actors in his gym and was a cameo in a film with Steven Segal. He won contests like Mr. New York, Mr. Brooklyn, and Mr. Eastern America in the 1970s, and even searched for newspaper headlines from the ‘70s to prove it. He made acquaintances with a lot of celebrities. He personally knew Arnold Swarzeneger but didn’t like him, finding him arrogant.

Frankie worked as a sanitation engineer for his second career for 26 years; a huge amount of experience. He plowed snow off streets during blizzards, even betting stuck in snowstorms. He would also pick up people’s garbage. In winter he would put salt in street drains to prevent the sewers from freezing over. He told me of moments where he was trapped in his truck during huge blizzards, alone in the highway in the dead of night. His decades of labor were clearly hard but he spoke of them with fondness. He earned decent wages too, about forty dollars an hour. Frankie said to me that you have to be humble, and to always be a kid at heart no matter how old you are. He said that if I ever wanted to do something, I would do it. He really liked me. Overall, I am skeptical of Frakie’s claims of knowing celebrities in person. They are more than likely embellished, but still based on truth. I know some homeless people try to impress young, naive volunteers with tall tales of their lives because they feel undistinguished by comparison. All of Frankie’s claims could be true but if not his motivations for lying are all too human.

Iggy was one of my other students, a tall lanky young black man. He was twenty-seven years old and has one baby girl. In our session my job was to proofread an essay he wrote to prepare for a high school equivalency test. The test instructed him to write about an opinion he used to believe in but now doesn’t. His answer was thoughtful and with great grammar despite him using “choppy” sentences. Iggy grew up poor and started selling pot in his teens. He said he did this for easy money, specifically so he could get the newest clothes and electronics. However, he was caught and imprisoned twice, the first time for a few months, the second time for a year.

Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen
My time volunteering at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen from July to October in 2015 was a different experience. While Rescue Mission is far from perfect I do believe it served both the guests and volunteers much better than at Holy Apostles. Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen serves food to homeless people during the weekdays while holding religious services during the weekend. It is a much larger and more prestigious place than Rescue Mission, which works both for and against it. The food is much better quality than at Rescue Mission, there are many more volunteers, and there is much greater division of labor. The church owns a large, flat screen TV. Joan, one of the managers, would announce the divisions of labor as they sorted volunteers every morning before work was to begin.

My volunteer work at Holy Apostles was limited. On my first day of volunteering I stood with a staff member behind the baptismal fountain in front of the office. Guests would request toiletries such as razors, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. We gave the toiletries too them, then tallied the number down. The staff member told me seventy to a hundred guests requested toiletries on average. On my first day ninety-two did. Every day afterwards I would serve food to the guests. Volunteering at Holy Apostles was different then volunteering at Rescue Mission. There were many more volunteers so there was a very specific division of labor. One day I put butter on bagels and bread while the person before cut the bread in half. On another day I put protein bars on trays to serve to the guests. The person before me put bread on the tray, while the person after me put beans on the tray.

This style of work created a very different way of acting and feeling than my previous work at Rescue Mission. I felt like I was in a conveyor belt, and I essentially was, doing the same small thing over and over again. I made very little contact with the very guests I was trying to serve. There was always a gap between the guests and myself, whether it was the baptismal fountain in front of the office or a table with food on top. I felt uninvolved and isolated as a result. The work at Holy Apostles could be described as easier but it was ironically more stressful for me. The work was very repetitive, with little sense of completion or appreciation. I didn’t reach out and serve a guest, clean the tables, or tutor them. I just put butter on a hundred loaves of bread and put power bars on fifty trays.

Demographically the guests at Holy Apostles were mostly black with whites, Latinos, and Asians in the minority. There were slightly less black people at Holy Apostles than at Rescue Mission but noticeably more white people. Furthermore, there were noticeably less Latinos and Asians at Holy Apostles than at Rescue Mission. While Rescue Mission had about an equal number of men and women, Holy Apostles’ guests were almost entirely men with only a handful of women. The guests were noticeably older than those at Rescue Mission. The youngest guests were in their thirties, with no guests in their twenties and no families.

There was more diversity among the staff and volunteers at Holy Apostles than at Rescue Mission. The staff was mostly white and black. However, Holy Apostles was more segregated, with more space between white and black staff members. Most of the black staff members worked in the kitchen, some speaking with a noticeable African accent. The kitchen was tucked far away from the main hall. Volunteers could go for an entire day without seeing the kitchen and the people who worked there. While most of the white staff were in the main hall, most of the black staff were unseen. In Rescue Mission the kitchen was in the same serving room, just across the tables. The kitchen was a constant presence, the sights and smells of food nearby, serving just across the counter. In Holy Apostles the food was produced far away, delivered in complete form as if by magic.

The volunteers at Holy Apostles were significantly more diverse than at Rescue Mission both in race, sex, and age. The volunteers were mostly older whites who may be part of the church’s community. Many Asians also volunteered, many of them female. Most significantly, a few of the volunteers were families that came to work together. Even some children about ten years old were present. There were many female volunteers, perhaps even more than male volunteers. From an anthropological and intersectional perspective, my observations bring up intriguing questions about how a church and its religion creates a community of volunteers, especially among women and families.

The demeanor of the guests, staff, and volunteers was less lively than at Rescue Mission. Everyone was more solemn, docile, and obedient. The guests did not talk to each other as much and never loudly. I did not see any obvious sign of a strong emotional connection among the guests. This does not mean that no emotional bond existed but that the main hall was not conducive to such warm displays. The mess hall of the church was much bigger than the homely cafeteria at Rescue Mission, but it was also a lot emptier.

There was less engagement between the guests and volunteers. Volunteers were either on the other end of a table doing conveyer belt work or dutifully standing by as waiters, waiting to fill the water jugs. Filling water jugs in Rescue Mission was, as Joe told me, “hectic”. I had to be in constant motion. Volunteers frequently spilled drinks and so did the guests, which volunteers then rushed to clean up. Holy Apostles volunteers seemed to rarely fill jugs and spent most of their time standing still, leaning against the columns in the mess hall. In Rescue Mission the tables were rectangular, connected to each other, crammed in a small kitchen. This arrangement forced everyone together so a lot of engagement and even jostling took place. In Holy Apostles the main hall was huge and spacious. The tables were circular and spaced far apart. This resulted in guests inhabiting little islands, the space isolating them from eating together as a large group.

Sadly, I had little interaction with the homeless individuals there because of the isolating nature of my volunteer work, but I did have some interaction with volunteers. I had the longest interaction wth Jasmine. She was right next to me when I volunteered to put power bars on the food trays. Jasmine was very young, only seventeen years old, and in her senior year of high school with a GPA of 3.6. It was her first day volunteering and she was impressed how organized the place was. I was too, to an extent, but Holy Apostles’ impressive organization detracts from it for reasons I gave above. Nevertheless, I’m aware that such heavy organization is probably needed, since Holy Apostles is a very large place with a lot of staff and volunteers, larger than Rescue Mission by far. Organization is important but it is not a virtue in and of itself.

Other Case Studies
To supplement my research, I included interviews conducted by other researchers. My sources are diverse and come from many different places in America, including New York City. The studies are the journal articles, “A Picture is Worth…?” and “Voices Behind the Numbers”, the informal interviews on the WordPress blog “Tales of Endurance”, the anecdotes of homeless people living under the New York City subways in “Mole People”, and the collected accounts of interviewed women in “No Room of Her Own”.

In 2013, Deborah Padgett and her colleagues at the Qualitative Health Research in New York City, conducted interviews with thirteen people who were recovering from homelessness in New York City. The researchers asked the participants to take eighteen photographs that described parts of their lives, then reported their findings in “A Picture is Worth…?”. Their study was guided by “empowerment theory”, the optimistic hypothesis that homeless people could recover from severe mental illness by focusing on self-determination. Statistics from mental health services in New York City support the effectiveness of empowerment theory.[1] Throughout the study, “negative events included loss of child custody, childhood sexual abuse, deaths of close family members, extended periods of incarceration, and past acts of violence against others.” Participants needed thought, planning, and introspection when taking photographs representing their negative experiences.[2]

Ian lived with a girlfriend he loved deeply, but he was an alcoholic and she a heroin addict who died from an overdose. Ian took pictures of his girlfriend’s apartment in the East Village and of his current apartment under George Washington Bridge. The latter photograph reminded Ian than even though his family lived in New Jersey they could easily visit him. Walter began smoking crack with a woman he had a sexual encounter with. He described his decline into homelessness as an obsessive pursuit of the next high while being blind to everything else in his life. As he recovered, he was weary of neighborhoods he saw as negative spaces, such as a neighborhood in Queens he stayed in while recovering. Walter took a picture of sculptures in a park in Queens to remind him of beautiful scenery he could not see because of his crack addiction, but can see now.[3]

Lawrence avoided mentioning his childhood in the interview but took many pictures of long-forgotten places around the city boroughs, including a lonely boardwalk in Coney Island. To Lawrence, the long-forgotten places represented old memories of places he had visited before he became homeless. Jose challenged the viewer by taking a single picture of a missing persons flyer in a subway. Jose described how he had been like a missing person when he had mental illness, essentially lost to society and at the mercy of fate. Claude had his friend take photos of him doing productive things, such as doing push-ups and cooking. Claude took pride in his cooking, as it was a talent, a productive skill, and a way to live healthy. For Claude, cooking was a way of living well.[4]

Stacey went to prison many times and eventually became homeless. Stacey took photographs of her mother in a nursing home, saying that the nursing home reminds her of prison and homelessness. Stacey’s mother visited her daughter while Stacey was in prison. Now Stacey visits her mother in a different kind of prison. To Stacey, the nursing home, with the anonymity, neglect, and powerlessness it gave to the elderly, was equivalent to prison life. Jane took only positive photos from everyday scenes in her life such as the dishes after she washed them and a walk in the park. However, she did talk about her deep feelings of loneliness during her interview, wondering how one could take a picture of something so strong yet intangible.[5]

In 2007, an anonymous man conducted his own research, conducting unstructured interviews three homeless men, John, Scott, and Adam, in New York City and posted his interviews on YouTube. All three men were white. John and Adam were middle aged while Scott was in his senior years. On his website, the interviewer states that the homeless are a group of people he cannot overlook and he wanted to overcome people’s misconceptions about them. He discovered that the homeless people he interviewed underwent two kinds of catastrophes that rendered them homeless: several life crises such as deaths in the family, prison, or unemployment, and severe psychological disorders and mental illnesses including depression.

John has been homeless on and off since he was eighteen. He originally lived in New Jersey but after breaking up with his girlfriend he became addicted to drugs, which later led to his depression. He was later evicted from his apartment and after a few months ended up in prison for four years for burglary. He tried returning to his family, but his family rejected him, not wanting law enforcement to constantly disrupt their lives. He came to New York City in 2013, describing it as “enabling you to be homeless” because of the city’s numerous of shelters and social programs. He has been in the shelter system twice, describing Ward’s Island as a terrible place to be clean.[6]

Scott’s path to homelessness began when he endured a chain of losses for eighteen months. His wife died at forty-one years old. Then, Scott and his mother moved back to New York City, selling most of their belongings to settle his mother’s affairs in Florida. Later his mother got dementia and died of a heart attack. Scott said he had always worked and had always been able to weather hardships, but the deaths of his wife and mother were too great. He became extremely depressed and homeless in the process. He went to a men’s shelter in 29th St for housing but was also required to undergo a medical examination. He was taken to a Belleview asylum, the doctors fearing he would hurt himself. Scott insisted in the interview that he was misjudged for being insane when he was depressed.[7]

Adam lives by using freight trains to drift between New York City and Canada. Among the three homeless men interviewed, Adam seems to most live the bohemian lifestyle people in the past associated with homelessness. He was born in Canada but has been travelling back and forth from Canada to New York City for the last eleven or so years. He stated that he had friends in the city, perhaps a network of homeless people who support each other.[8]

In 2015, a reporter and photographer visited homeless encampments in new York City and interviewed the people who lived there. Nate Schweber, a journalist for the New York Times, compiled their reports in an article titled, “Life on the Streets”. The homeless people talked about the facets of their lives most pertinent to their homelessness: serious medical and mental health conditions, job losses, and drug abuse. Jose grew up in a troubled home in the Bronx. His mother landed in prison due to drug charges. Jose was sent to a foster home but he rebelled, so he was sent to another foster home. He met his girlfriend, Kimberly, around that time. Kimberly’s grandmother kicked his girlfriend out of her Long Island home because of a family fight. Jose let Kimberly live with him, but both were evicted either by the foster family or landlord. Jose and Kimberly, now pregnant, live in a makeshift tent under the No. 4 train.[9]

Dawn and her partner, Mohamed, lived in a Bronx apartment while Mohamed worked as a mechanic. The couple took their landlord to court for his negligence maintaining running water and heat, but the bureaucratic legal process was too obscufating and time-consuming. Mohamed lost his job in 2013 and the couple became homeless. Dawn and Mohamed tried to live in a shelter but it lacked resources for couples without children, while Dawn also suffered from depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. The couple live together in city parks and train stations, refusing to go to a shelter because they do not want to be separated from each other.[10]

Heather formerly lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania with an abusive ex-husband who shot her in the belly. Heather’s father brought her back home in Staten Island. Unlike Hose and Dawn, Heather grew up in a middle class Jewish family, her mother a lawyer, her father a policeman. Her father died in 1999, and Heather ran away from home. Homeless life was far from easy. A mugger bashed her head with a brick, taking her two years to relearn to walk. Heather cannot work because of fatigue and vertigo so she scrapes a living by recycling cans.[11]

Jason formerly served in the Army but took to drink by 2006. He lived with relatives and girlfriends before winding up in Ward Island Shelter. His shelter roommate introduced him to other homeless people in McCarren Park. Jason easily became friends with them, spending the summer with them, but he worries about winter so he intended to take part in a back-to-work program.[12] John emigrated from Puerto Rico to Yonkers, New York when he was only three years old. After his family died, John lived alone. He got into a fight with a neighbor and was arrested. When John left prison he learned he could not return to his home. He suffered from depression, high blood pressure, and leg problems. He once lived in a shelter but caught tuberculosis.[13]

C.J. and Tiffany, a couple married for sixteen years, became homeless when they fell behind their mortgage and were both fired from their jobs. Since then they made public transportation in the city their home. Tiffany appreciates the support shelters and soup kitchens provide but does not consider them a living.[14] Jerelyn lived for years in an apartment in 3rd St and Ave D, teaching sewing in New York City public housing and a fabric store until she lost her job in 2003. Unable to find a job, she became homeless, but refuses to go to a shelter because she finds the other residents angry, bitter, and difficult to deal with. She turned to Christianity to deal with the stresses of homelessness and now preaches to others.[15] Manuel immigrated to America and became a building superintendent for twenty years. He became an alcoholic, losing his job, and he, his wife, and his three children were thrown out of their apartment. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, becoming sober for two years before relapsing. Now, he strikes a deal with a friend who owns a bodega. If he bought beer from the bodega his friend would let him sleep for a few hours in the storage room.[16]

Though researchers, academics, and the public pay the most attention to homeless adults, homeless children in truth make up the vast majority of homeless people. Homeless children are often part of homeless families, usually under the watch of a single mother. In 2014, Erica Mohan from Community Education Partnerships and Carolyn Shields from Wayne State University interviewed five homeless children across the United States, putting their stories in context of the McKinney-Veno Act of 1987, federal legislation mandating the education of homeless children, and previous empirical research conducted on homeless children. The researchers titled their paper, “The Voices Behind the Numbers: Understanding the Experiences of Homeless Students”.

Overall there were myriad causes of family and child homelessness such as the parents suffering from physical and mental illnesses, home robberies, a mother and her children fleeing an abusive home, and sometimes even bad money decisions by the parents. Inept housing bureaucracies were also a key player because they would take excruciatingly long or even fail to provide a family with even temporary housing. Nonetheless, parents still impressed on their children high expectations to do well in school and were very involved in their children’s’ education, such as coming frequently to parent-teacher conferences. The children often felt deep embarrassment at disclosing their homelessness at school and peers often bullied them for being homeless. The children also frequently changed schools since they bounced with their families from one shelter or temporary living space to another.[17]

Mariah was ten years old and in 5th grade at the time of her interview. Five years ago her family lived in a three-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood. After her brother was born, her mother had severe Post Partum depression and their family was robbed. Mariah and her family spent weeks in one emergency shelter and weeks in another, causing her to go to four different schools. She lived with her mother and brother at a transitional house for two years, but her father, forced to separate from his family, went to a nearby men’s shelter since the housing program only accepted women and children. He hated the arrangement but made the best of it by sleeping in a car near the family’s new home. Mariah had a supportive school. Her teacher treated her kindly, the school gives her free food and supplies, and she saw a tutor to help her with her reading, spelling, and math.[18]

Reba was eight years old and in special education. Her mother quit her job and so the family lived with a grandmother for a short while. However, the grandmother soon expelled the family for being too loud. The family lived in a shelter and lived with the father temporarily while Reba went to two schools at the year of her interview. Reba’s peers frequently bullied her in her old school but she found the peers in her new school nice. Her new teachers, upon realizing she was homeless, were charitable with money but tactless by making her homelessness public to the rest of her peers, something she was deeply embarrassed about.[19]

Ramona was thirteen at the time of her interview. Her mother had a brain tumor two years ago, which scared everyone in the family. Her father got so desperate he resorted to crime and went to jail. The family slept in the father’s taxi rather than a shelter because sleeping with so many strangers terrified Ramona. Her brother and father would be separated by the shelter system. Ramona is very withdrawn at school, rarely speaking to anyone. She wants to do cheerleading but she does not want the school to compensate for her, because that would mean her telling the school about her homelessness. Thankfully, the school principal knew they were homeless and was very supportive of the family. Still, Ramona’s mother placed high expectations on her children and would punish Ramona if she got anything less than a B+.[20]

Michael was eleven when he was interviewed. Michael had two brothers, two sisters, and his family lived in a hotel room. Michael’s parents wanted to buy a house that cost too much, so they made a deal with a mortgage broker only to be scammed of their money. The family took the broker’s company to court and won their money back after several years. They rented a house with three bedrooms but eventually their money ran out and Family Services found them a hotel room. Michael’s mother used to work at a bank but then worked at Macy’s. His father works a decent job but was poor at managing money. Michael at the time of the interview attended a decent school, unlike the last school, which was awful.[21]

Rosa was nine years old at the time of her interview. Her father lived half an hour away with his girlfriend while she and her mother lived at a transitional home for women and children who have been abused. Rosa did enjoy hanging out with the other homeless children, however, and even grew vegetables and fruit trees at her transitional home. Rosa’s last school was terrible with a teacher who was very mean to her. Her school at the time of her interview was much better. Her teacher was very supportive of her, but she had few friends. Rosa formerly had trouble with math and reading but a tutor helped her in those subjects. She really loves doing science but does not like art anymore because her art teacher was so mean to her.[22]

In 1990s, Jennifer Toth, a British journalist and writer journeyed beneath New York City’s streets to explore the lives of the “mole people” in subway and sewer tunnels. The “mole people” are homeless people who live in the most extreme isolation from mainstream society, effectively forming their own little neighborhoods and almost never interacting with anyone aboveground. In 1993, Toth published her book by the same name as the people she interviewed, “The Mole People”. Though she was an undercover journalist and did not structure interviews as a researcher, she still recorded her conversations with the homeless people she befriended below ground, which are still full of insights.

Buckley, a young white man originally from from a white, middle-class, New Jersey, described the condition of living underground well, saying that being homeless was, in some very important ways, a conscious decision. As he said, not everyone wants the “normal” life of a nine-to-five work week, a family with two kids, and the status as a “productive member of society”. People go through different stages of homelessness, which could be measured by how isolated the homeless person becomes from mainstream society. Over time, the homeless person may join a community of other homeless people or they may be alone, but the isolation is generally a gradual downward slide, as the homeless people slowly cuts off from mainstream society.[23]

Bill was a black man in his fifties with good education, earning a business degree at Fordham University and masters degree in economics. Bill deliberately chose to be homeless, even claiming to enjoy it. He treats his life as a fascinating journey as if he was an anthropologist studying a remote, lost culture. Naturally, Bill’s descriptions of the “mole people” were very analytical. The underground homeless formed small communities where everyone had informal but unique duties. The communities even managed to obtain their own water and electricity to some degree.[24]

Bernard and Bob were two homeless men who have been close to each other for many years. Bernard stumbled into the tunnels after a very bad break up with his girlfriend. Since then Bernard became a leader and protector of sorts of his own tribe, describing himself as Lord of the Tunnels. He related a story when a gang of homeless men attacked another homeless groups, destroying their homes and belongings and raping Sheila, one of the women. Bernard rallied a mob to avenge the victims while Sheila persuaded the police to arrest the delinquent gang.[25] Bernard takes pride in his underground community. He is suspicious of the Coalition for the Homeless and other such agencies because he found the red tape made the Coalition ineffective and the Coalition itself condescending. He even rejected a bad apartment provided to him by a homelessness agency.[26]

Bernard’s best friend, Bob, a fifty-five year old white man from Chicago, was an engineer but became homeless due to his mental illness and drug addiction. In spite of his troubles, Bob has a deep sense of pride, refusing to take money from the government. Unfortunately, it does nothing to cure him of his addiction. Bob scrapes money for his addiction by picking up cans for cash and occasionally scamming people from their money. He also takes up an odd job when the opportunity presents itself for a bit of extra cash.[27]

Virginia was formerly a secretary who lost her job and husband because of her drug use, eventually becoming part of Buckley’s underground community. She met Frank, a featherweight boxer just out of jail, at All Saints’ Soup Kitchen and formed a relationship. Together, they decided to go to drug rehabilitation and return to some semblance of their former lives. Now they own an apartment and are seeking jobs. Virginia and Frank miss their old friends such as Buckley dearly and even try to take some of their friends back into mainstream society, but their expectations met disappointment, as their friends always return to their life underground. Virginia and Frank’s road to recovery is long and winding, they take steps forward sometimes and steps back other times, but Virginia is determined to make a stable family for her child from her old marriage, Vicky.[28]

Don formerly provided for his wife and children but lost them due to his drug addiction. Don decided to live underground to clean his drug habit. He works hard at a construction job, sending the money he earns to his family. He sees the tunnels as a very dangerous place but nevertheless lives underground. One night he overdosed on drugs and Bernard evicted him from his group.[29]

The largest and most descriptive interviews for this thesis were found in the book “No Room of Her Own”. In 2011, Desiree Hellegers interviewed fifteen homeless women in Seattle, Washington and compiled them into an “oral history” to give voice to the voiceless. Hellegers does not believe homelessness arrives from individual failings but rather from an increasingly dismantled social safety net, the erosion of civil society, and exclusion of the poor from public discourse. I will include five of Helleger’s interviews in this thesis.

Mama Pam came from a military background, so she frequently moved with her family since her father’s job location constantly changed. Pam, who had no access to sex education or birth control, became pregnant at seventeen at a time before Roe v. Wade passed in the Supreme Court. She later married and became pregnant a second time. Pam was abused by her father and mother in her childhood and was later abused by her husband in adulthood. Her father was an alcoholic who sexually abused her when she was only thirteen. Like her mother before her, Pam stayed with an abusive husband out of financial dependence. Her husband abused her so hard one time she was stuck in a wheel chair for a year and a half. Pam eventually fled her husband to a mission in St. Petersburg, Florida, but the preacher abused her as well. Pam then fled to work with carnival folk.[30]

Elizabeth Thatcher lived in a working class family, her father dying from black lung disease from his work as a miner. Thatcher grew up at a time when the state could suspend the custodial rights of poor and working class mothers it deemed “promiscuous” or “unfit mothers”. The state took Elizabeth from her mother and placed her in the Martha Washington School for Girls, a facility run by nuns who tried to discipline poor girls to strengthen their morals. Elizabeth beat up a nun and was transferred to the Maple Leaf School For Girls, a school even rougher than the last one. She had to fight other girls to prove her strength, sold her virginity, did heroin at seventeen, was arrested for a felony, and even had a shoot out with the police. After Elizabeth left prison, she married her first husband and had a child, but returned to prison for six months. Then she married another man who abused her for eight years.[31]

Roxanne Roberts was raped by her father when she was only six and attempted suicide at fourteen. Roxanne later moved with her mother and stepfather. Her mother was a black private investigator, a woman who was intelligent but wanted instant sexual gratification. Roxanne described her mother as a floosy who slept around with people with big names. Roxanne attended Roosevelt College with ambitions as a writer and, after her mother died in 1991, Roxanne led a catechism class in St. Clement’s Episcopal Church. She later became assistant director of STAY (Seattle Tutoring Agency for Youth) and attended the University of Washington, but left university for the army to pay for her college. In 1998, Roxanne and her friend were arrested in a thirty-dollar crack sale, was arrested again in 1999 for possession and in 2000 for dealing. Roxanne became homeless after her release from prison and struggles with PTSD, which she attributes to her childhood molestation and prison incarceration.[32]

Delores Loann Winston claimed racism was central to her life story. Growing up in 1960s Rayfille, Louisiana, Delores saw her extended family and the African American community as a security against lynching and other terrorism at the time. She descended from a family of masons, learned how to cook from an early age, and always loved to read. She was abused by a family member in her childhood and moved to Seattle after her grandfather died. Delores spent most of her interview reminiscing about the racism she faced during childhood when racial integration was still deeply controversial. When she was a child, her teacher slammed her head against the wall for not saying, “Yes, Ma’am”. She joined the Black Panthers for a year when she was thirteen. In adulthood, Delores was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness she inherited from her mother and became a drug addict in 1986. After her best friend was murdered by her husband and her son sent to prison, Delores’ life went downhill and she eventually became homeless. She found employment at the WHEEL shelter and is currently obtaining her bachelor’s degree. She indents to gain a master’s degree in the future.[33]

Marie underwent a chain of traumas that led to her homelessness for four years. She was sexually and mentally abused sometime earlier in her life and went to college on and off before becoming homeless. She had fibromyalgia for most of her life, a chronic muscle condition caused by extreme physical trauma, causing her a lot of physical problems. She never got a degree and her illness caused her to quit her job when she was a periodicals clerk at Seattle University. She married and returned to college when she was forty but her fibromyalgia returned, worse than before, and entered a long period of research, consulting with doctors, and therapy. She took care of her family but her relations became toxic as her family depended on her so much. The physical and mental strain became so unbearable to her she ran away, becoming homeless. After years of living without a home, she picked up painting during a volunteer program. Since then, Marie used painting as a profound way of coming to terms with her losses and moving forward. She now lives in an apartment and works at WHEEL to create a supportive alternate community for homeless people.[34]


[1] D. K. Padgett et al., “A Picture Is Worth . . . ? Photo Elicitation Interviewing With Formerly Homeless Adults.” Qualitative Health Research 23 (2013), 1436.

[2] Ibid., 1440.

[3] Ibid., 1438.

[4] Ibid., 1439.

[5] Ibid., 1439-440.

[6] “Week 2 of Interviews,” Tales of Endurance: Stories from New York City’s Homeless, December 10, 2007,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Nate Schweber, “Life on the Streets,” The New York Times, September 06, 2015, 3-4.

[10] Ibid., 4-5.

[11] Ibid., 5-6.

[12] Ibid., 6-7.

[13] Ibid., 7-8.

[14] Schweber, “Life on the Streets,” 8-9.

[15] Ibid., 9-10.

[16] Ibid., 10-11.

[17] Erica Mohan and Carolyn M. Shields, “The Voices Behind the Numbers: Understanding the Experiences of Homeless Students,” Critical Questions in Education 5 (2014): 197-99.

[18] Mohan and Shields, “Voices Behind the Numbers,” 193.

[19] Mohan and Shields, “Voices Behind the Numbers,” 194.

[20] Ibid., 195.

[21] Mohan and Shields, “Voices Behind the Numbers,” 195-96.

[22] Ibid., 196.

[23] Jennifer Toth,The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels beneath New York City (Chicago,

IL: Chicago Review Press, 1993), 90-1, and 94.

[24] Toth,,The Mole People, 92-3.

[25] Toth, The Mole People, 99-101.

[26] Ibid., 103 and 105.

[27] Ibid., 105 and 108.

[28] Toth, The Mole People, 95-6.

[29] Ibid., 108-10.

[30] Deseriee Hellegers, No Room of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death, and Resistance (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 28-38.

[31] Ibid., 49-59.

[32] Hellegers, No Room of Her Own, 93-105.

[33] Ibid., 105-15.

[34] Hellegers, No Room of Her Own, 137-146.


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