July 2010

Kati Nolfi


Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco by Teresa Gowan

Teresa Gowan’s ethnography of homelessness in San Francisco is a lucid and devastating examination of poverty in the United States. While the title indicates that this is a narrow treatment of a specific time and place, Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco is about wide-ranging issues: public vs. private, systemic poverty, urban planning, drugs and mental illness, and America's prison-industrial complex. 

Gowan develops the three ways of analyzing and managing homelessness: sin-talk, system-talk, and sick-talk, and the shifting dominance of each throughout history. Sin-talk is the only form that allows for individual agency, but it’s a destructive agency. Gowan claims that the “outlaw street version of sin-talk remained tied to its straight twin, and any form of resistance that stays so close to its template is liable to suddenly capsize, to do a normative flip into straight turf and exchange bravado for guilt and regret.” Sin-talk is located in the “ex-con milieus” of the Tenderloin, sick-talk in shelters and rehabs, and system-talk by the recyclers in the Dogpatch area, a previously industrial area that has since become gentrified. In sin-talk, homelessness is “moral offense,” in sick-talk it is “pathology,” and system-talk it is “the product of systemic injustice or instability.” 

Gowan situates present-day homelessness in the history of Western and North American poverty and the methods in which it is studied and managed. San Francisco has historically been a nexus of homelessness, and therefore is an ideal place to study poverty. Gowan reveals the maps of homelessness and their deviation from the maps of the housed; homeless people head toward resources and freedom from surveillance and harassment. Gowan’s study focuses on single able-bodied men, a population that is often forgotten and mistrusted. Many of her homeless companions spend their days doing difficult recycling work. 

Most of Gowan’s homeless companions are mentally and physically healthy. Many of them find succor with drugs, but in a way that doesn’t destroy their lives. Men on the street are often hardier than people in shelters. Women are less likely to be on the street, because they are more vulnerable to violence, more likely to be survivors of domestic abuse, and they often have children to care for. Gowan describes women as being “put in their place” in the shelters, and men owning the streets where they have less access to resources but more freedom. At one time San Francisco was an optimal place for homeless people. It attracted countercultural types and had cheap SRO (single room occupancy) hotels, and the country’s best General Assistance (GA) payments -- small amounts of cash that kept people out of shelters and often living with friends. The post-WWII emphasis on family eroded the single person’s safety net of SRO hotels and GA. 

Gentrification and quality of life codes have now made San Francisco a site of “authoritarian medicalization,” like other American cities. Homeless people’s disruption of social norms through public “home practices” is criminalized in opposition to many cities’ new middle- and upper-class residents and visitors. San Francisco’s Matrix program fined homeless people for blocking the sidewalk, panhandling, urinating in public, and sleeping in doorways. San Francisco has implemented various strategies to keep the homeless cordoned off from a wealthier public, giving out free bus tickets out of San Francisco, emphasizing multiservice shelters at the expense of crisis shelters and soup kitchens, and dismantling the GA system in favor of Care Not Cash, a program that provides housing for the few, most disruptive homeless. This, plus city workers’ destruction of homeless individuals’ camps, tents, and vehicles, disorganizes a marginalized population more than it helps them. The privileged classes’ main objection to homelessness seems to be that is discomfits them, the well-heeled, those who worked hard to mitigate their own suffering through the process of elevating and insulating.

Homelessness is obviously not a new phenomenon. In the late nineteenth century, there were tramps who migrated for work and rode the rails. War and social welfare took many off the street, especially white men, but a combination of layoffs, union busting, welfare cuts, de-industrialization, health insurance costs, and skyrocketing rents have made homelessness a reality for many. The homelessness industry has enabled a circular transition from jail to hospital to shelter, but rarely to housing and work. The domestic utopia of white suburbia was an unfortunate result of the New Deal, and thus the city was displaced by the quietude of the suburban home as the desirable place to be.

In addition to her own fieldwork, Gowan includes critiques of the varying modes of ethnography. According to Gowan, some ethnographers “inflate and romanticize those aspects of the poor that illustrate how similar they are to other Americans -- their mainstream aspirations, their law-abiding behavior, their conventional morality” in order to defend homeless people so often under attack. Some ethnographers employ “ethnonoir” strategies that overemphasize the grittiness of the life, or “neoromanticism” that idealizes the simplicity of the struggles of the homeless.

Like the best nonfiction, Hobos transcends the limits of fact to become a great story. Gowan weaves the lives and dialogue of her companions with analysis and history. One recycler named Morris was connected to the hobo legacy and a proponent of system-talk:

We are not people that have had much of a chance, the people out here. You have your war veterans, your abused kids, your people with a mental illness. But a lot of this is about being poor, always being poor, and your family before you being poor, not having no rich aunt to pick you up. And there’s us out minding our own business. Like me, I work all day picking up cans and bottles. It’s dirty, it’s tiring, but there’s nothing wrong with it. We are like your traditional hobos. We don’t ask for much, but we would appreciate being left alone and not treated like trash.

The recyclers are engaged in what is perceived as meaningful blue-collar work. In the hierarchy of homeless workers, the recyclers are the most similar to housed workers. With them, we see that work gives dignity and distracts from suffering and allows for true leisure. Walking with 200 pounds of rattling bottles and cans to the recycling site, and being harassed and ticketed for disturbing the peace, is a difficult and poorly compensated 12-hour workday. As challenging as recycling is, many found the “emotion work” of hustling, panhandling, and selling drugs more exhausting than recycling. Recycling afforded both an outlaw identity and independence from the system.

Gowan describes the different institutions and professionals homeless people encounter, often as obstacles: “Doctors diagnose them as depressive, social workers treat them as chaotic addicts, and police officers treat them as impediments to the quality of life of other San Franciscans.” This emphasis on sickness and sin has roots in the religious approach to poverty. The Protestant moral construction of poverty and transiency influenced the American management of homelessness. Poverty relief seems to have been always constructed as relief from the impoverished, not relief for them. The Catholic tradition of almsgiving expresses compassion for the poor only to expedite entrance to heaven for the charitable. Gowan writes that those influenced by Bentham, Malthus, and Ricardo “hoped that a centralized institution of confinement and hard labor would deter tramping and applications for municipal relief.” Asylums, orphanages, jails, farms, and poorhouses were all used to warehouse the poor. Today we have similar systems to manage and corral the less privileged. The strategy is to ticket, clear, and confine. President Clinton’s 1996 Family and Personal Responsibility Act articulated a therapeutic “rhetoric of care and inclusion,” poverty as depression, not a lack of financial resources, that continues today. 

To know that the antipathy to the poor and homeless is nothing new is surprising and alarming. These roots are so deep, will we ever excavate them and transform? Hobos will strengthen readers’ convictions and persuade them to reconsider the institutions and histories they thought were positive, and the populations and behaviors they thought were deviant.

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco by Teresa Gowan
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 0816669678
368 Pages