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Five books on homelessness

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My monthly OlaskyBooks newsletter comes out tomorrow, but I didn’t have room in it to write about books on homelessness, and it’s not a topic everyone cares about anyway. So here are mini-reviews of five books: two useful, two mildly interesting, one eminently skippable.

Let’s go from best to worst. Cathy Small’s Man in the Dog Park: Coming Up Close to Homelessness (Cornell U. Press, 2020) has truth in titling, because it is a street-level view. Her description of homelessness onset doesn’t take into account the severe mental illness of some, but it’s a useful generalization: “a series of falls from successive slopes, set up by larger conditions, abetted by some personal decision or circumstance; each slip in a lower slope leads the person closer and closer to the edge until one single or small event triggers a seemingly sudden drop into homelessness.”

One of Small’s chapters shows well what a day in a typical shelter looks like, and how some chafe at the rules and prefer to sleep under a bridge or hidden in a forest. She shows how some sell SNAP vouchers and blood plasma, some rely on panhandling and day labor, and most have cellphones. While taking us inside pawnshops and HUD housing offices, Small shows that many among the homeless are not helpless: They have learned to navigate life without a home, doing every day what would throw for a loop most of us.

Next: In How Ten Global Cities Take on Homelessness (U. of California Press, 2021), authors Linda Gibbs, Jay Bainbridge, Muzzy Rosenblatt, and Tamiru Mammo look at five U.S. cities and five in Europe and elsewhere in the Americas. One chart shows how various factors contribute to homelessness: Los Angeles with its climate and Paris with its culture have the highest ratio of unsheltered to the general population, and very cold Edmonton and very hot Houston have the least.

Personal choice is also important: “No matter how much or how little a city does… the homelessness situation persists.” In New York City, “one of the world’s wealthiest and most progressive cities, where any person without a home is entitled to a place to stay, thousands every night choose to sleep rough.” Conclusion: “It requires more than simply the availability of shelter to engage effectively those who sleep on the streets…. Street living to most people is undesirable,” but some prefer that to the rule-imposing alternatives.

The book’s subtitle is Innovations That Work, and pragmatists need realism: “Until an addict is sufficiently self-motivated to pursue sobriety, no amount of tracing the connection between addiction and fatality will be persuasive.” The authors seem impressed that “When New York City first established its Homeless Outreach Unit, many of the officers in it had master’s degrees in social work, psychology, or public health.” But that comes four pages after a realistic statement that, regarding homeless individuals, “effective frontline outreach workers need not have a college degree.” Should we be impressed with an algorithm that predicts “repeat homelessness with 46 percent precision.” How is that better than flipping a coin?

The third book, Max Holleran’s Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing (Princeton, 2022), shows the contemporary three-class struggle of rich and poor against the middle: Many affluents don’t want apartment towers that could reduce their property values, many among the poor don’t want gentrification, and millennials don’t want to be locked out. It’s useful to realize that YIMBY (Yes in my backyard) activists can be as self-centered as NIMBYs. A fourth book, Eva Rosen’s The Voucher Promise: ‘Section 8’ and the Fate of an American Neighborhood (Princeton, 2020), features good material for specialists but stodgy writing.

Another book from the U. of California Press, Homelessness is a Housing Problem by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern (2022), is the least useful. Back-cover blurbs are supposed to induce book-lookers to buy, but one endorsement of this book shows the problem. Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, writes, “This excellent book makes a strong case that only the growing gap in affordable housing—not individual failings—can explain the problem of homelessness.” Beware of “only” statements regarding complicated problems. Let’s debate the percentage of personal and structural reasons for homelessness, and not zero out either.