neutralizing homelessness, 2015: the story so far

(This essay is adapted from a panel given, along with Tim Harris, of Seattle’s Real Change street paper, and Tony Sparks, of San Francisco State University at the 2015 annual Conference on Ending Homelessness organised by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. That panel was inspired, and the three of us brought together through the work of the Relational Poverty Network—on whose blog this essay will also appear. Our panel, therefore, attempted to treat the question of homelessness—and how to end it—relationally. The work of ending homelessness, we argued, must entail more than new shelters, additional services, or more money—although these are surely necessary. Rather, the panel called us to interrogate and transform the larger political, economic, and cultural context that creates it.)


introduction: thinking relationally about homelessness

Herein, I’d like to revisit Peter Marcuse’s influential essay, Neutralizing Homelessness, to see what new light his conclusions—now nearly thirty years old—can help us shed on the contemporary landscape of homelessness in the United States (and, increasingly, of comparable nations). It might be a testament to his insight, or an indictment of our inaction, that much of what he wrote still holds true.

“The new situation that explains the current rise in homelessness is,” he wrote in 1988, “on the economic side, deindustrialisation. Politically it can be attributed to the new conservatism. On the housing end, its reflection might well be labeled the gentrification/abandonment pattern,” (Marcuse 1988: 129). The conservatism is no longer new, but beyond that, he might just as easily have written this today. And yet each of these factors has evolved in ways that demand attention.

What might be most important about his analysis, though, was not any of these three conclusions, but rather his method. That is, he approached homelessness not as a phenomenon, but as a symptom of changes that were interrelated and systematic. Nowhere in his essay does he try to understand why a given type of person comes to be homeless, or how to keep more formerly homeless people from returning to the streets, or how best to organise an encampment. These are all important questions, of the sort often debated by city councils, service providers, but they are not questions about how to end homelessness. Indeed, as Marcuse puts it, “First and foremost, homelessness must be seen as a component, an extreme reflection, of general social, economic, and political patterns, not as an isolated problem, separate and apart,” (134).

(People experiencing homelessness, of course, know this better than anyone. Those of you reading this who are homeless or have been, forgive me for stating the obvious. It’s not always obvious to everyone else.)

Marcuse’s systematic way of thinking is profoundly relational. This is something qualitative researchers like anthropologists and geographers do especially well. (I’m an anthropologist who has worked for several years chronicling the work of Food Not Bombs, an anarchist soup kitchen, in Seattle and several other cities. Tony Sparks is a geographer who worked with Tent City in Seattle.) Where the language of statistics can demonstrate tidy relationships of causation or correlation—an indispensable language for speaking to policy makers—they often also artificially isolate an abstract category like “the homeless” or “the poor” from their context—and from the rest of us.

Far from muddying the issue, as some overly linear thinkers claim, Marcuse’s kind of plural thinking multiplies our sites of intervention. Consider Marcuse’s solution, for example: “Theoretically, the problem of homelessness has three answers, corresponding to its three causes: uncouple the housing system from the rest of the private market system and make it respond to need; change the economic system so that all have a decent living wage; or provide government subsidies to provide housing for those who cannot get it through the private market,” (129).

With that plural framing in mind, I’d like to think through some of the evolutions in each of these three realms over the last three decades.


homelessness, post-fordism, and the city

Let’s begin not with housing as Marcuse does, but with deindustrialization, because in a way, this is the broadest, most far-reaching consideration. Through that lens, some of the developments on the other two fronts can be made more sensible. What Marcuse was pointing out was the already visible outline of the global social and economic system would be called post-Fordism. “Fordism” because it shared the mass consumption and mass production exemplified by Henry Ford’s assembly line—a model that was the basis of the economic system of the United States and many other capitalist countries in the mid-twentieth century. And “post” because the mode of manufacturing has changed. This is not only a matter of outsourcing, although the loss of many manufacturing jobs to cheaper labour forces in other countries has left a definitive hole in the US economy—one not filled by the proliferation of low-waged service industries. More than that, though, as Marcuse put it, “Both the extent and the nature of unemployment and employment have changed, and so have the power relationships of employers and employees,” (130).

Marcuse was writing in 1988. He hadn’t even heard of NAFTA yet, but he was already anticipating the downward harmonization effect that outsourcing would have not only on the jobs lost, but on the jobs left behind. As US workers competed with workers abroad, working conditions, wages, and collective bargaining power at home were brought more in line with the shorter-term contracts, worse working conditions, lower wages, and the lack of collective bargaining power abroad.

The net effect was a national distribution of incomes that began to look more and more like a camel with two humps—and with more precarious futures all around. This growing disparity is significant for two reasons. First, of course, because it left workers in the bottom hump profoundly more vulnerable. And second, because it laid the groundwork for some of the class antagonisms that fueled the “new conservatism,” which we’ll talk about in a moment.

A third reason to pay attention to the newly precarious situation on the lower rungs of the income ladder is because it has led to a great deal of movement and migration—both within and between countries. Although it has featured relatively little in the public conversation about homelessness, one thing we need to be talking about is that fact that this new class of migratory labor—from fishermen to farm workers—is especially at risk of homelessness.

Three decades into these large-scale economic transformations, their effects can perhaps be best appreciated when viewed at the scale of the city. (I would be remiss if I didn’t pause to acknowledge the recent protests in Baltimore, Ferguson, and across the country, where the systematic disparities of the new economy have found expression in not only economic oppression and segregation, but racialised and militarised policing regimes.)

It’s worth examining, however, the ways in which these transformations have affected different cities differently. Some places, like Detroit, have found themselves devastated, while others have been well-placed to attract well-paid white-collar service industries. The sociologist Saskia Sassen calls the largest and most successful of these “global cities,” insofar as they concentrate the work of managing the global economy—corporate headquarters, research and development, information technology and so on (2001). Cities like Seattle have in fact fared especially well in terms of median income, property values, and so on. According to Sassen, however, they also exemplify the best-of-times-worst-of-times logic of the post-Fordist economy, as incomes in these cities are often starkly polarised between white-collar service industries and blue-collar service industries. (Seattle is exemplary in this respect (ibid).)

In contrast to Seattle’s boom, we might consider the story of a place like Stockton, California, which made headlines in the wake of the foreclosure crisis for its record number of foreclosures and its ultimate descent into bankruptcy. But the financial crisis merely compounded the bleak prospects of those residents who work primarily in its agricultural and service industries—industries which now promise low wages and precarious futures to many of the migrants, people of colour, and working class folks who live there (many of whom, we might add, are children or grandchildren of an earlier generation of economic refugees from the Dust Bowl). In any case, by the early 1990s, the city already led most of the nation in measures like its per capita murder rate.

But although deindustrialisation has affected cities across the US differently, it has not affected them separately. Not only are their fates tied to the same sea-changes in the national and global economies. The stakes for cities across the U.S. are deeply shared. Some of us may remember, for example, Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran’s editorial threat in the early 1990s that Seattle needed to act quickly to insulate upstanding consumers from the blight of panhandlers and public eye-sores, lest the shoppers abandon the city and Seattle become one of the country’s “formerly great places to live.” Sidran was explicitly identifying Seattle’s potential futures with other deindutrialised cities like Detroit. And that threat was instrumental in passing a range of “civility” ordinances which criminalised things like sitting on the sidewalk during business hours. (We’ll return to those civility ordinances in a moment.)


gentrification, foreclosure, and manufactured scarcity

With such an emerging portrait of the diverse dimensions and shared stakes of deindustrialization in American cities, we can begin to imagine how the new economic landscape might remake not only incomes but expenses, and particularly the cost of housing.

In 1988, Marcuse highlighted role of gentrification—and also of the related phenomenon of warehousing, in which housing was left empty while landlords speculated on the rising value of surrounding properties. And of course, these two phenomena are no less part of the contemporary landscape. Indeed, Saskia Sassen points out that high-income gentrification is part and parcel of the development of the “global” cities I described a moment ago (2001). And few people here will need reminding that global cities like Seattle, San Francisco, or New York City have some of the most prohibitively high rents in the country as a result. Marcuse also points out that it is not simply economic trends but also government policy that promotes this sort of gentrification. And again, we need only look at the public subsidies thrown at new locations like Seattle’s South Lake Union, or San Francisco’s South of the Market neighbourhood to find city government actively trying to attract high-income earners and appreciate property values.

Ironically, the soaring cost of housing in these cities often coincides with a surprising vacancy rate. The housing activist organisation Picture the Homeless, for example, counted enough vacant buildings and lots to accommodate New York City’s entire homeless population five times over.

Under these circumstances, it is not a surprise that housing markets do not always behave according to the rational logic predicted by free market enthusiasts. Indeed, according to sociologists Logan and Molotch, real estate markets in booming cities like Seattle are often under the influence of what they call “growth machines,” complex systems of urban elites, businesses, and policy makers that reinforce and amplify each others’ incentives for further development (Logan and Molotch 1987). In these growth machines, not only does it often seem profitable to keep on developing new real estate projects beyond the city’s immediate need for them, but paradoxically, the growing supply can inflate the cost of housing—rather than shrinking it, as the capitalist law of supply and demand would seem to predict. (A quick reality check with Seattle’s growing housing costs and proliferating property developments would seem to confirm this, despite the dogged, perhaps naïve, insistence of some development lobbyists to the contrary.)

Oddly enough, though, to return to our comparison with Stockton, both economic growth and recession can result in the displacement of people from homes. While, in Seattle, the skyrocketing rents have helped to push the number of homeless residents to over ten thousand, in Stockton the reverse phenomenon has had a comparable effect—the bottom fell entirely out of local housing markets leading up to the recent recession (partly as a result of predatory lending, itself a kind of property speculation), and the city led the nation in foreclosures, with one out of every ten homes being foreclosed upon at the height of the crisis.

If these two different post-industrial urban scenarios seem extreme, however, it is worth pointing out that such manufactured scarcity is not out of the ordinary for the functioning of a housing market. According to the Census Bureau, in the United States, there were approximately 13,791,000 units of housing vacant year-round in 2014. Compare that to the 578,424 people estimated by the National Alliance to End Homelessness to experience homelessness on any given night during the same year (quite possibly a conservative estimate) and you arrive at the figure of almost twenty-four empty homes for every person experiencing homelessness.


citizenship, entitlement, and criminalization of poverty

The third of Marcuse’s three factors, what he called the “new conservativism” in 1988, is of course old hat by now. However in some ways its proliferation and evolution has been the richest and most innovative over the last three decades. Marcuse highlights, of course, deep cuts to the safety net—particularly in terms of income supports and federal housing subsidies—in the name of fiscal responsibility, free-market economics, or the disciplining of labour markets. And, to be sure, these have continued apace, particularly with the Republican “welfare reforms” of the early 1990s. There is now, simply put, less emergency assistance available, and less federally subsidized low-income housing than at the time of Marcuse’s writing.

One of the key arms of this new conservativism worked at the level of an attack on entitlements—or even the very notion of entitlement (to food, shelter, cash assistance, and so on). However a, parallel development partly anticipated by Marcuse, is the growth of charitable nonprofit endeavours to fill the spaces left behind by those lost entitlements.

With great foresight, Marcuse observed that these charitable projects, often run with volunteer labour rather than state funding, had the net effect of depoliticizing poverty. Marcuse wrote, “The chartitable tradition leads to a narrow view of homelessness… The emphasis of [such] groups was a single-mindedly charitable one limited to the particular object of their concern. Such church groups are an important and frequently effective voice for specific programs but do not question the housing system as a whole,” (132).

To wit, as Marcuse was writing in the 1980s, food banks, soup kitchens, and other emergency food programs were recent innovations, imagined, like shelters, to respond temporarily to a passing economic crisis. But by 1998, when the crisis had passed and the emergency food programs remained, sociologist Janet Poppendieck was able to remark on their large-scale acceptance and naturalisation as having undermined the entitlements of citizenship (1998). Why, she asks aloud, did the United States naturalise voluntary charity to deal with such emergencies, rather than reaffirm the right to eat? The net effect, in the present day, according to anthropologist Maggie Dickinson, is that the volunteer labour that staffs emergency food programs amounts to an outsourced “third tier” of the shrinking welfare state (Dickinson 2014: 118).

Poppendieck sums up the situation with Mark Twain’s rejoinder that after his travels he had found the United States “Kinder, but less just” than he had expected.

While homelessness, hunger, and the eroding safety net has been publicly depoliticised in this way, Marcuse points out that it has been part of the erosion a range of liberal concessions achieved social movements during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Where Marcuse emphasizes the retreat of the federal government from supporting those experiencing homelessness, in the last three decades the new conservatism often devolved upon cities. Mark Sidran’s anti-sitting ordinance and other such “civility” laws, for example—referred to by some homeless advocates as the “criminalization of homelessness”—have proliferated across United States cities. Recent research by Seattle University counted over 288 new such city laws passed since 2000 in Washington State alone.

Closely echoing Marcuse’s argument, the geographer Neil Smith identified such laws as part of a political project “revanchism”—a term alluding to the vengeful the 18th century crackdown by Paris elites on the underclasses who they felt had stolen their city (Smith 1996). In like fashion, civility ordinances constituted part of a suite of urban policies that reasserted middle and upper class interests over the public spaces of the city through policing a range of so-called “broken windows” and perceived threats to public order. This affected not only homeless denizens, but a range of working class, minority, and immigrant constituencies, all of whom have disproportionately born the brunt of deindustrialisation. Seattle sociologists Katherine Beckett and Steven Herbert, for example, found that extrajudicial exclusion orders used in many cities ostensibly to deter petty drug offenses and other instances of disorder were disproportionately and often indiscriminately used to exclude poor people and people of colour from public spaces (2010).

Perhaps the most recent manifestations of this revanchist tendency which directly target homelessness have included a range of prohibitions of public food sharing. Seattle, for example, permits outdoor food sharing in only a single location—under the freeway, a stiff uphill walk from a number of shelters, and well away from downtown foot traffic. These feeding prohibitions clearly illustrate the entanglement between cities’ post-industrial economic stakes and an assertion of middle- and upper-income control over the spaces of the city. (Remember, after all, Mark Sidran’s alarmed warning—if left unaddressed, the visible threat of homelessness might drive away the shoppers.) Describing the decision-making that led to the location of Seattle’s single permitted outdoor meal program, for example, one local advocate I spoke to described to me suggesting to a city councilmember that the outdoor meal site represented an opportunity for expansion—to include a range of indoor-outdoor services and projects for social justice. According to the advocate, the city councilmember responded by saying “over my dead body… that’s not my constituency.”



Such prejudices and priorities, of course, don’t represent simple knee-jerk after-thoughts about the problem of homelessness. They further compound the problem itself—the Seattle University study I mentioned a moment ago, for example, also found that antihomeless laws actually cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than simply helping people. As such they remind us that every facet of the three factors I have outlined above is intimately entangled with the others. The postindustrial economic stakes of a city are closely tied to the spending priorities and class antagonisms expressed in its municipal ordinances. The dwindling of affordable housing is directly tied to the growth of income inequality. The proliferation of charitable volunteer projects is directly implicated in the erosion of public entitlements. And so on.

The take home point I would like to end on, then, is that, as Marcuse reminds us, homeless advocates cannot be single-issue activists. Homelessness mustn’t be depoliticized or divorced from the range of systematic factors that produce it. As he puts it, “Building temporary shelters is no solution to a permanent, structural problem,” (134).

We must think of education policy as homelessness policy. Zoning policy as homelessness policy. Food policy as homelessness policy. Parking enforcement policy as homelessness policy. (Indeed, thanks to my colleague Graham Pruss, we’re only now coming to understand how directly ill-thought-out parking enforcement can push people from car-camping—the last vestige of shelter they have left—onto the street.)

In other words, we need to think relationally. Again, of course, anyone reading this who has ever been homeless knows only too well how interconnected these issues are. It remains then for the rest of us to prick up our ears.



Beckett, Katherine and Steven Herbert. 2010. Banished: The New Social Control in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dickinson, Maggie. 2014. Consuming Poverty: The Unexpected Politics of Food Aid in an Era of Austerity. PhD Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York.

Logan, John R. and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Poppendieck, Janet. 1998. Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and The End of Entitlement. New York: Penguin Books.

Sassen, Saskia. 2001 The Global City, second edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Neil. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge.



About artnoiserhetoric

So much to say, so little time... Watch this space.
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