The Homeless

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE HOMELESS is among the latest of many recent books on this social problem evidencing mounting public concern. The author, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, acknowledges his debt to Martha Burt’s OVER THE EDGE (1992), Charles Hoch and Robert Slayton’s NEW HOMELESS AND OLD (1989), Elliott Liebow’s TELL THEM WHO I AM (1993), Peter Rossi’s DOWN AND OUT IN AMERICA (1989), David Snow and Leon Anderson’s DOWN ON THEIR LUCK (1993), Jennifer Toth’s THE MOLE PEOPLE (1993), William Tucker’s THE EXCLUDED AMERICANS (1991), and Richard White’s RUDE AWAKENINGS (1992). The most chilling anecdotes in THE HOMELESS are drawn from an article in ARCHIVES OF GENERAL PSYCHIATRY (June, 1992) dispassionately titled “Mentally Disordered Offenders Who Push or Attempt to Push Victims onto Subway Tracks in New York City.”

Jencks blames both liberals and conservatives—liberals for insisting on releasing all but the most dangerous inmates from mental institutions, conservatives for insisting on cutbacks in welfare funds. He examines the many causes of homelessness including deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1970’s, the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s, competition for unskilled jobs by immigrants, rent control, and zoning practices.

Jencks asserts that dormitory-type shelters are no solution because many are already underutilized. Noise, filth, stench, vermin, and the dangers of theft, rape, battery, and murder cannot be controlled among a transient population characterized by alcoholism, drug abuse, and insanity. He proposes government-funded shelters with partitioned cubicles that would offer safety, privacy, and even a minimal sense of having a “home.”

Although THE HOMELESS contains statistics, tables, graphs, and much documentation, it is written in language not difficult to follow. Jencks, who says he is “conservative about some things and quite leftish about others,” seems sensitive to the feelings of the homeless as well as to the feelings of those who are repelled, frightened or angered by them. Although he does not pretend to have the ultimate solution, his partial solutions sound sensible and feasible.