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
ANALYSIS: Geography and Feminism Together
Spaces of poverty and isolation, factors related to critical geography, frequently bleed over into systemic racism and sexism, factors related to intersectional feminism, especially prevalent among homeless nonwhite people. Nonwhite neighborhoods in the inner city have higher rates of domestic violence than middle class neighborhoods. Nonwhite women are less likely to disclose the violence they suffer under their husbands to police, either because they fear deportation, such as Latina women, or fear police violence in their communities, such as black women. Police violence is especially relevant in the case of black women since it is deeply entrenched in systemic racism and the neoliberal power structures that keep nonwhite neighborhoods impoverished. Since poor nonwhite women cannot rely on state justice, they have fewer resources than middle class white women, and have even fewer resources when they flee abusive husbands.
For example, issues of critical geography and intersectional feminism can be seen in the literature review. Homeless women, as well as homeless men, tend to be nonwhite and poor. Nonwhite homeless women in particular come from poor nonwhite communities in the inner city, spaces that have endured economic and infrastructure decline after decades of urban sprawl, outsourcing of jobs, neglecting inner city projects, and red zoning. Such policies, as critical geography shows, created a space of increasing impoverishment and isolation. The inner city has a limited infrastructure, with only handfuls of functioning hospitals, grocery stores, and schools. People who live in the inner city have limited ability to travel, meaning they can frequently only stay in the derelict spaces they grew up in. With little education, people in the inner city are less likely to know of any knowledge of the outside world or alternative ways of living. Gentrification policies exacerbate these problems; the turning of poor neighborhoods into wealthy middle class enclaves expels the original people from their living spaces, and pushes them into even poorer and more isolated spaces.
Factors related to critical geography, such as spaces of poverty and isolation, also relate to systemic racism, factors related to intersectional feminism. The decline of the inner city, the neglect of inner city projects, urban sprawl, red zoning, gentrification – all of the history, all of the aforementioned factors related to critical geography – could not have happened without systemic racism. Prisoners around the United States are, on average, largely poor blacks and Latinos who mostly grew up in inner city neighborhoods, as impoverished and dense city spaces have a high crime rate and the justice system gives nonwhite offender disproportionately higher sentences than whites.
Imprisonment, a factor seeped in geographical and racial issues, plays an important role in homelessness. Released prisoners have a very hard time reintegrating into society because imprisonment profoundly disconnects prisoners from the outside world. Prisoners not only experience the crime and brutality that happen in prison but also carry the burden of those experiences with them when released. Prisoners are less likely to stay with their families or have stable housing, and are more likely to lose welfare benefits and voting rights. They also have great difficulty gaining employment because of their prison record and frequently return to the very inner city neighborhoods they used to live in. Mortgage scams and red zoning, other factors seeped in geographical and racial issues, also play a role. They either prevented nonwhites from owning homes or limiting them to poor quality homes or government projects.
Critical geography also relates to LGBT rights. LGBT people are often stereotyped as affluent gay people but in reality most LGBT people are poor or poorer on average than straight people. The visibility and acceptance of LGBT identities is tied to gentrification and poverty. Gentrified middle class enclaves, for example, only accept LGBT identities that are more conventional and fit with the nuclear family model while other LGBT identities are seen as radical and dangerous. Thus, LGBT people who do not fit the gentrified norm are pushed away and made less visible. Homelessness among LGBT people have two prominent factors specific to LGBT people: poverty and stigma. In this instance, gentrification is not only an issue of class but also an issue of culture, identity, and acceptance. As in the cases of systemic sexism and systemic racism, critical geography and intersectional feminism intertwine.
It bears noting that after looking at the stories of homeless people in the case studies and comparing them to the literature review, there exists a level of nuance and detail I had not seen before. Not every homeless black person grew up in poverty and not every woman ran away from an abusive husband. One would think that these facts weaken my hypothesis but in reality they do not, because they show nuanced ways different factors relating to critical geography and different factors relating to intersectional feminism interact with each other in each person’s life. The causes of homelessness are rarely one-dimensional and each homeless person has a different story to share.
What can critical geography tell us about the homeless people interviewed in this thesis? There are important differences in the demographics of guests in NYC Rescue Mission and Holy Apostles Church. While both shelters had over half black guests, Rescue Mission had significantly more Asian, Latino, and white guests, and even had a few guests of other ethnicities, such as one Indian woman. Holy Apostles Church, however, was less diverse, with more guests being either black or white, and not as many Asian and white guests. Rescue Mission is only a few blocks away from Chinatown, meaning homeless Asians have easier access to Rescue Mission. The Lower East Side of Manhattan has a more culturally diverse history than the Lower West Side, with Chinatown and Little Italy being only two examples. The politics of the Lower East Side are frequently a battleground over city territory by ethnic minorities such as Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, and African Americans.
Rescue Mission guests did not necessarily come from poor inner city spaces, as the example of Dederick, whose wife could afford her son to go to a top rate foreign film school. However, inner city backgrounds appear to be the norm. The most notable examples are Iggy, who grew up in poverty and was imprisoned twice for selling weed, and Frankie, an Italian American from the Lower East Side who owned a gym and worked many blue collar jobs throughout his life. Unfortunately, I could not tutor any of the Holy Apostles Church guests, which is one limitation of my case studies.
Another limitation of my case studies is the lack of clarity in describing some homeless people’s social and geographic backgrounds. However, some case studies were more explicit about their interviewees’ social and geographic background than others, such as the case study of the New York Times reporter in 2015. All of the following people grew in inner city poverty and suffered many inner city problems. Theys lacked financial support, job opportunities, or stable families. Jose grew up in a poor Bronx neighborhood, his family shattered as his mother was sent to prison for drug charges and his upbringing dysfunctional as he hopped from one foster home to another. He was eventually expelled from his final foster home since they would not tolerate his girlfriend. Dawn and Mohammed lived in a negligent Bronx apartment with limited employment opportunities, the couple’s only source of financial security being Mohammed’s employment. When Mohammed lost his job, the couple could no longer support themselves. Jerelyn lived in a lower middle class neighborhood in the Lower East Side, teaching. When she lost her job, she no longer had any financial support and very limited employment opportunities, leading to homelessness.
It is difficult to interpret space for any specific interviews for “Voices Behind Numbers” as no specific information is given about where the interviewees grew up or came from. The calamities each child endured also seemed to have little in common with each other. Mariah’s mother had Post Partum Depression and her family was robbed. Ramona’s mother had a brain tumor and her father went to jail. A mortgage broker scammed Michael’s parents. Rosa and her mother fled to a shelter from an abusive father. However, the issue of space as a general theme is pertinent. All the children spoke of constantly having to change shelters or hotel rooms to the point where they frequently changed schools. It is difficult to overestimate how difficult the constant moves made their education, combined with the other stresses of homelessness. The constant displacement also easily leads to isolation. Each time a child changes schools, they have to say farewell to any friends they made. The children were also so embarrassed about their homelessness they spoke little to teachers and peers in fear they would be found out, even if they needed help.
The “mole people” interviewed by Thoth, those who live underground in New York City’s sewers and subways, are the most extreme examples of social and geographic isolation. If poor people in the inner city can be considered to be at one layer of poverty and isolation, homeless people can be considered to be in a deeper layer, exiled and invisible among poor people. Further down, “mole people” can be considered to be at the lowest layer, exiled and invisible even among other homeless people. Ironically, a substantial amount of “mole people” were highly educated and had upper middle class backgrounds. Buckley came from a white, middle class suburb in New Jersey while Bill was a black man with degrees in business and economics. Both men very consciously chose to live underground, Buckley disdainfully rejecting the “nine to five” workweek and Bill showing fascination for an outcast group of people.
Housing projects and inner city neighborhoods are places of isolation, much like the underground. In this case, people of color’s isolation means they are likely to stay in the poor area they grew up in rather than leave. White men, on the other hand, tend to be more geographically free because of their privileges, less likely to bound or isolated in the neighborhood they grew up in. In an odd way, the white men had a choice to go underground in a way people of color did not have. It is worth mentioning how many of the underground homeless people were very well educated, providing them with a spatial mobility they otherwise might not have. The lack of women and children underground can also be explained by space. Most homeless single adults are males. Homeless women tend to be a part of homeless families, often as single mothers looking after young children. Most mothers do not take their children to live in a sewer or subway tunnel for obvious reasons.
However, most of the other “mole people”: Bernard, Bob, Virginia, and Don, went underground for more typical reasons. Bernard fell into deep depression after he broke up from his girlfriend, while Bob, Virginia, and Don all suffered from drug addiction. Unfortunately, the author of “The Mole People” does not go into much depth describing their background before becoming homeless, making it difficult to make an analysis using critical geography. However, it is significant that most “mole people” flee underground to escape the violence of the streets, violence most often present in the inner city. It’s as if going underground is a sort of geographic solution to the systemic problems of the inner city and the bureaucratic ineptitude of most shelters. While “mole people” descend what could be described as the nadir of poverty and isolation, they somehow find deliverance down at the lowest point.
The homeless women whose interviews were compiled by Helleger have stories with distinct factors related to critical geography. Elizabeth grew up in a working class family in Seattle, Washington during a time when society stripped working women’s rights on the belief that the poor were morally depraved. She hardened into a life of crime by being secluded in religious schools that effectively functioned as prisons to “discipline” poor girls. Mama Pam did not grow up in a poor neighborhood but her family frequently moved since her father was from the military, creating a form of isolation because of a lack of an extended family support structure. When she was sexually abused by her father and emotionally abused by her mother, she really did not have anyone else to turn to. Later, she stayed with an abusive husband out of financial necessity until she eventually fled him into homelessness, reflecting a more typical pattern in the lives of homeless women.
What can intersectional feminism tell us about the homeless people interviewed in this thesis? The demographics of NYC Rescue Mission and Holy Apostles Church differed not only with race but with gender as well. Rescue Mission had almost as many women as men, with the women tending to be either white or black. However, there were much fewer women in Holy Apostles, and more people, both men and women, were black than in Rescue Mission. Rescue Mission practices more discriminatory practices than Holy Apostles Church, as Rescue Mission is a shelter while Holy Apostles is a soup kitchen. This is especially true as Rescue Mission is a high standard shelter with relatively little violence among guests. Rescue Mission accepts only homeless people who are willing to work on their condition through education or employment. Thus they reject single males who are violent or disruptive. Holy Apostles, being a soup kitchen, has lower standards of acceptance.
For white people, factors causing their homelessness, especially those related to drugs, alcoholism, and depression, are easier to see because race and sex do not intersect. John did not endure the police brutality reserved for blacks when he was arrested for burglary or lived in the isolation and poverty of the housing projects. Scott did not have his head cracked open by an abusive wife. Heather enjoyed being in a Jewish middle-class home before she ran away. However, it is doubtful John, Scott, or Heather were affluent, for they seemed to have been lower-middle-class. This fact raises the issue of classism and may explain why John and Scott had little family support when they came down with mental illnesses.
For people of color, systemic racism crops up in their lives in myriad forms, and where there is race, aspects of space are not far behind. Jose grew up with a Hispanic family, living far up in the Bronx, away from the affluent Upper East Side. Like most families in poor city spaces, Jose’s family was a troubled home. Jose’s mom went to prison on drug charges as drug abuse festers in poor, tightly packed city spaces, spaces filled with blacks and Hispanics because of systemic racism and poor urban planning. Jose, in turn, went to foster homes, further destabilizing his living. Dawn and her husband, Mohamed, lived in a neglected apartment in the Bronx, as many poor nonwhites in New York City do, and once Mohamed lost his job the couple did not have the extra money to support themselves, so they became homeless. Neglect and poverty are once more revealed to be a fact of life for many poor nonwhites: a neglect and poverty caused by systemic racism.
Among the “mole people”, intersectional feminism can be used to analyze a gender equal society, distinct and separate from the patriarchy of mainstream society. Most of the “mole people” are white men but women, most of whom are white too, live equally among them. Most of the “mole people” live in small groups that forage for resources, with each individual fulfilling distinct obligations. Such communities may have self-proclaimed leaders like Bernard, but such leaders have no rule or ownership of anyone. There are no social classes and Bernard is ultimately as equal as everyone else. Bernard is ultimately a volunteer protector of his group and fulfills his own niche obligations as everyone else does. Women’s bodily autonomy is respected at least in Bernard’s group, as Bernard and his comrades swiftly punished a rival homeless group that raped Sheila. However, that feud shows that patriarchal behavior still manifests among different homeless “tribes”, such as men raping women as a way to do violence to a rival group.
Almost all of the women in Helleger’s interviews grappled with issues of both sexism and racism. Domestic violence was a huge factor in the lives of most of the homelessness of women, arguably larger than the staple factors of mental illness and drug abuse. Mama Pam was sexually abused by her father at thirteen and later physically abused by her husband and a preacher when she became an adult. Pam also became pregnant at a time before Roe v. Wade and before sex education was as widespread as it is today. These facts add new intersections of sexism in Pam’s life, as women had fewer reproductive rights in the past and sex education is one of the most useful ways for young women to avoid pregnancy and health problems. Elizabeth Thatcher lived in a time when the state took children away from “unfit” mothers to indoctrinate them in religious schools. In fact, had Elizabeth been born a few years earlier the state would have sterilized her. In Elizabeth’s case, sexism and classism intersected to produce not only insidious sexual morays but even a form of eugenics.
Racism, sexism, and place all come together in Dolores’ story. Dolores grew up in Louisiana when racial segregation was still widespread, especially in the Deep South. In Seattle, her best friend was murdered by her husband, domestic violence taken to its extreme, and her son was sent to prison, perhaps because of factors linked to systemic racism. The murder of her friend and imprisonment of her son were the two calamities that sent Dolores on her downward spiral to homelessness. I cannot say exactly where Delores lived in Seattle, because she does not specify the exact neighborhood herself, but it seems she most likely lived in a poor neighborhood, where domestic violence and arrests of racial minorities are much more common than affluent neighborhoods.
On the whole, the case studies of all the interviewed homeless people, both the case study I conducted at New York City Rescue Mission and the case studies conducted by other authors, supports my hypothesis and literature review. Among most homeless people regardless of demographics, mental illnesses and drug addictions seem to be the most widespread factors that ruin their lives and drive them to homelessness. However, homelessness is caused by many different intersecting factors, each set of factors unique to each person. However, causes of homelessness do have general trends. Poverty and different forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, and heteronormativity tend to cause homelessness in two ways. First, they erode a person’s ability to make a living and keep a home, so when a person does experience a calamity they are less likely to recover from the blow. Second, they directly contribute to a calamity, such as domestic violence, mortgage scams, or the stigmatizing of LGBT people.
Both critical geography and intersectional feminism frequently intersect each other. Factors relating to critical geography often work in concert with factors related to intersectional feminism aggravate poverty and increase the likelihood of homelessness. Factors increasing the likelihood of homelessness can be so intricately woven together one can conceive of them as a web with each strand pushing an individual deeper into the traps of poverty, isolation, and oppression. Homelessness is the nadir of poverty, isolation, and oppression, a continuation of the downward spiral, not a separate entity. One could even conceive the ideas presented in this thesis as a “web theory” or a “funnel theory”, reflecting how pervasive and tightly wound together are factors leading to homelessness while at the same time showing the relationship between poverty and homelessness.
As in the analysis, it is important to stress nuance. The ways factors relating to critical geography and factors relating to intersectional feminism contribute to homelessness are different for each person. The case studies show that each person’s life is deeply subjective to the person experiencing it, so no two lives are the same. This prevents anyone, no matter how brilliant, from reducing human beings to any simple theory. One cannot merely say, “Poverty plus racism plus sexism causes homelessness” because it would be so broad subtleties of all kinds would be lost.
The interviews and other case studies have added benefits that the statistics in the literature review cannot provide. They add a realism and emotional depth beyond statistics and academic theories. The interviewed homeless people are the voices behind the numbers. Reading about how homeless women are likely to have a history of domestic violence is one thing. Hearing a homeless woman tell you how the husband she trusted and lived with betrayed that trust and hurt her for years with a pain that never fully goes away is something else altogether. Whenever one wishes to collect data, such as statistics or interviews, for any academic purpose in the social sciences, one must always remember of the people behind the numbers.
DISCUSSION: Thoughts on the Homeless Shelter System
A theme related to neither intersectionalism nor critical geography, but nonetheless important, is how problematic many homeless people found the shelter system to be. Throughout the case studies, homeless people described the bureaucracies in homeless shelters as either inept or corrupt. John described New York City as a place that enabled people to be homeless, implying that the shelter systems anesthetize homeless people’s suffering but does not effectively provide a cure for it. John also mentioned how terrible Randell Island was for drug rehabilitation, though he never specified exactly why. Scott went to a men’s shelter only to be locked up in an asylum in Belleview as if he was dangerous or insane rather than suffering from severe depression.
At least two of the children and their families from “The Voices Behind the Numbers” did not like the shelter system any better. Mariah mentioned how much her father hated the different shelters the family stayed in since the shelter system split her father from the rest of her family. Her father had to stay in a separate shelter for single men, threatening the integrity of the family. Reba experienced something like joint custody through the shelter system even though her parents did not divorce, living either in a shelter with her mother and siblings or living with her father.
Buckley, protector and leader of his community underground, criticized liberal churches for drawling a thick line between donors, people who have money, property, and “good” lives, and recipients, homeless people who have none and need guidance. Churches, even those with many liberals, also have an evangelical side: they anesthetize homeless people by “working on their souls” rather than on their material conditions. Bernard regards the Coalition for the Homeless and other institutions as condescending. He despised the tedium of cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, and even rejected a shanty apartment an agency gave him.
In all cases, the homeless people above criticized the shelter system extensively, but most still relied on them for support, indicating ambivalent feelings. Their complaints reveal a few overall themes about the shelter system. Bureaucracies saddle the homeless shelters, systems created by the very neoliberal capitalism that isolates the poor and homeless in the first place. Homeless shelters separate men from women and children, understandable enough, but go so far as to even separate fathers from their families. For that reason, some families avoid using shelters all together. The shelter system tends to anesthetize their residents by providing a system where they can live off of without changing their lifestyles. This fact is true, to a degree, even for New York City Rescue Mission, the shelter I volunteered and tutored in. Only a small number of the residents went through an educational and job program to get them back into a working life. The rest of the homeless people seemed either to be incapable or unwilling.
Emi Koyama discussed how bureaucracies corrupt women’s shelters in “Disloyal to Feminism: Abuse of Survivors within the Domestic Violence Shelter System”. As executive directors and bureaucracies take over women’s shelters, the shelter ceases to become places of solidarity and self-empowerment and becomes places of enforcing unjust rules and punishments. This is an extremely important fact. It reveals how women’s shelters turn from places that help and empower abused women to change their situation to places that merely tolerate and house them. Women’s shelters lose their ability to truly help abused women and instead become part of a larger system that helps keep homeless and abused women in their situation.
Both homeless people and activists, who have been homeless, such as Koyama, speak similar messages. Homeless shelters far too often function less as places to empower homeless people to leave their situation and more as places that anesthetize the homeless, keeping them in poverty. Homeless shelters essentially function as a business to manage homeless people, to keep homelessness in check, sequestered away from the mainstream, rather than actually tackling homelessness as a society-wide concern. If one were a radical leftist, one could go so far as to say that homeless shelters, with their bureaucracies, function as instruments of neoliberal capitalism to keep homeless people out of sight and out of mind. If we want fewer people to be homeless, we seriously need to tackle homelessness more thoroughly and attack the root causes for homelessness and poverty.