On the Margins Previous - Next



There are many different reasons for people to become homeless, yet society has had a predictable response over the centuries. Peter Marin has 'hung out' with homeless people in the U.S., lectured on the subject, and is now writing a book.

By Peter Marin
When I was teaching college, instead of lecturing my students about homelessness, I just told them to go out and hang around with the homeless... I became interested in the issue of homelessness because I like the kind of people who are homeless in the Hobo jungle near where I live in Santa Barbara. I like their sense of freedom. They are like the people I used to travel with in freight trains when I was 18 - sort of modern versions of that old culture. Because they are wild and outside things, they see things very differently; they have a whole different hierarchy of values. Ecologically, the homeless are model citizens because they recycle everything and use almost none of the world's resources they're the best of us in that respect.

I used to feel very much at home in missions and shelters. There's a part of me which identifies with the kind of exile of marginality. I don't think you can learn anything without seeing it first hand, so I spent the better part of three years whenever I had any time in any one of maybe a dozen cities just being on the street and looking at things.

If you go back and read history or economics, you see that homelessness was a great problem in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Enclosure Laws and other great social changes dislocated people and they began to wander from place to place. So it's not a new thing; it's a very familiar thing, and it happens in America every 15 or 20 years. In 1870, 1890, 1912, 1921 there were recessions or what used to be called panics, which put people immediately into the streets. And so there's a whole history to homelessness and a whole history of ways society has reacted to it. In l9th-century England, if you were a wandering worker, you had to have a little ticket to get into a town or else you had to stay on the road. And here in this country there'd be transient workers who came through to pick crops. But in years when the crops were bad, they would not let them into town. All along the line there were calls to imprison the homeless, or exterminate them, because they represented some fearful disorder.

So the attitudes towards the homeless are deeply rooted in the Western, Protestant traditions and are difficult to change; as soon as homelessness begins to appear, it triggers in bourgeois middle-class people an almost ritualised response. You hear arguments that if the middle class is going to be protected, it has to take care of the poor not because they are human beings but because of the disorder arising from their midst. Crime also the 19th century has a whole literature about what they called "the dangerous classes" which were the poorest among the poor and the homeless. Anybody without a place in the social order was seen as a threat or the source of terrible things. You help people because it will destroy society if you don't. Or, on the other hand, you must imprison them. There's a whole history in American institutions of a kind of Puritanism that wants to reform the poor so they fit into your idea of the social order. And if it requires a little force, you train them or educate them to fit into the world you imagined. The reformers are sort of utopian, and they don't think they're doing harm to anybody. These are classical responses that occur again and again and we see them to this day.

I was never in a mission where people didn't think they were doing good for the people they were doing a certain amount of violence to. If they took their clothes, or made them pray, or gave them sermons, they were sure they were doing them good. So, it's my position that you can do two kinds of harm to deviant people: one is, you can do real harm because you want to destroy them or exile them, but you can do equal amounts of harm by "helping" them if you don't help them in the right way.

When I was teaching college, instead of lecturing my students about homelessness, I just told them to go out and hang around with the homeless, listen to them, or become homeless themselves so they could see what it was like and how you were treated. No longer would the poor be voiceless objects, they would become real to them they would have interior lives.

When asking the question what to do about homelessness, one should ask the homeless themselves what they need. They almost always will say jobs, never housing. In another age the homeless would have been called the jobless.

The insistence on a job has a certain dignity, but the insistence on housing does not. It makes you into a supplicant in some strange way. The very word "homeless" helps deprive people of the right to speak for themselves. Nobody asks them what they want, not even liberal advocates.

And yet these jobless people have a low chance of getting jobs. First, they don't have usable skills. Secondly, the skills that most of the guys I know do have directly compete with immigrant skills; and the immigrant guys were willing to work harder and longer and cheaper, and the money meant more to them because they sent it home. It's simple - if you send home fifty dollars a week that you saved to Mexico, that's a lot of money. If you save it here, all you're going to do is drink it up because there's nothing else to do with fifty dollars. So you work all day and then go to a bar and by the end of the night your money is gone.

You get used to living day to day. Half of the world consists of a subsistence culture, which is people working and living simply, not building up a surplus, doing as much work as they need, and then not working anymore. And I think lots of people have subsistence natures. You see guys who pick fruit for half a day, and as soon as they have enough to get a bottle, they go off and buy the bottle.

Among all the homeless guys I know, I've never been able to tell how many wanted to work and how many didn't. It's a problem. And I've worked with some guys who will work as hard as anybody I've ever seen for four days or two weeks, and then they're gone. You say the wrong word or someone comes by and says let's take off and that's it. They don't have the nature and/or the skills to work 40 hours for low wages for some asshole who is telling them in an unpleasant voice what to do.

The street also habituates that. Once you've had that freedom and that sense of being left alone, there's a slightly untamed quality about it. It isn't easy to just go back to taking orders from people. I know a lot of vets who came back from the war in Vietnam where they'd been freer than they've ever been here free to kill, free to smoke drugs, free to have sex, free to do all kinds of things. They got back here and had to be a box boy or something after having been a killer in Vietnam you don't make that shift easily. All of a sudden you're a nobody taking orders from people.

The homeless population keeps changing. There's the mentally ill, though I don't think that's a significant segment any more. At one time one-third to half of the guys on the street were vets. It's like a funnel and everybody ends up down at the bottom. So at different times different people are on the street. And now across the country it's at least fifty percent African-Americans, which is a different process altogether. The average age has dropped considerably over the last five years. You hear from the Black people how young men are extraneous, and they end up in jail and they end up dead, or they end up on the streets. Partly crack came into it and played a big part in this.

Immigration played a big part because it upset the balance in a lot of African-American neighbourhoods so that Black people in general were dislocated. Where you could have stayed in your neighbourhood before and slept at your sister's house or this house or that, people end up down here. If you made a graph, I'm sure that Skid Row turned Black as South Central was turning Asian.

So, immigration, competition for low paying jobs, and the disappearance of industrial jobs, all have contributed to the problem. Minimum wage jobs, of course, go to women and teenage workers it's very hard for a man to get hired at a fast food place, for instance. They don't want a big hulking man who isn't going to "behave" and smile at the customers.

Another contributing factor to the rise of homeless men is welfare policy. The state will give money to unmarried women with children only if they disengage from the unemployed men involved. So, the women and children end up on welfare, and the men end up on the street.

The school dropout rate in some places is 40%. If you don't have a father or an uncle to teach you a skill such as plumbing or brick laying the way people used to learn it, you're in the street.

A lot of things now are dumping people into the street. There's redevelopment. In the last ten to twenty years there was a great boom in redeveloping downtown areas, and as this continued, the places where the poor had been living boarding houses, Single Room Occupancy hotels, and other cheap housing were torn down. A lot of federal money poured in, and tax breaks for redevelopment made it economically sensible to buy up old property and redevelop it in new ways.

We're a society which has too many extraneous people. Other societies have only a few extraneous people, perhaps because they're a single ethnic society so they have an easier time socialising people. But we have many cultures, open borders, and large numbers of people who aren't socialised and we don't know what to do with them. It's a great moral question we don't want to give those who don't want to work nothing because that wouldn't be nice, but we don't want to give them too much because then we'd be encouraging not working. So we settle on this minimal amount which lets people barely survive, but makes their lives intolerable enough that they're going to want to work, we hope.
... when I talk to students, I ask them how many think they could go off to war and come back whole. Another aspect of homelessness is people with marginal personalities. I think the range of acceptable behaviour has in some ways grown narrower in the last 20 or 30 years. There's a whole system of people getting marginalised. If you don't do well in schools, you drop out; because you have a particular kind of nature, not because you're necessarily a bad guy. If you go to war and you see a lot of stuff that you can't integrate into the world around you when you come back, then you drop out. You're marginalised because you've seen too much of death and violence. Almost everyone whom I've known on the streets has had a horrendous childhood, they had the shit beat out of them, or families had fallen apart, or someone had died. There's all kinds of violence and tragedy in American life which is continually undercutting the socialising we try to do with people. It used to be if you dropped out, you went to sea, or you went to dig gold, or you went to cut lumber. There were things to do economically if you wanted to be on the fringe of things. Now, very little. So, nowadays, if you're on the fringe of things, you end up homeless.

Across the board, everybody I've ever talked to in a shelter, in a mission, on the street has a tale of a kind of rebellion or a kind of dejection where such bad things happened that they didn't want to bother any more with the world as it was. They just figured, "To Hell with it!" They've given up and they're either in mourning or in flight. There's men who can't please women. If you don't please women or a boss in this society, you're on the street. And there's just these guys who don't know how to do either one they can't obey bosses. Or you mess up you take too many drugs, or somebody leaves you, or you are mean to your children....

There was this guy who used to beat drunks continuously and I never knew why. One day he said, "I'll show you why." He had two uncles who were drunks and when ever he did anything wrong as a kid, they would take a straight razor and nick his shin with it. He showed me this ladder of scars up his shins. Well, you hear this stuff over and over again. It's rare when you don't hear it. There's a principle of disorder the Greeks knew this at work in human life, and lots of people fall prey to it.

I've seen guys in shelters who like barrack life. They're largely guys who came out of jail or the army and for them barrack life is easier, it's much less stressful. You know what is expected. There's company there. They've told me they live this way because no one depends on them. "I don't disappoint anybody," they say.

I don't know why certain things affect people more than others. I don't know why some vets came home and killed themselves, and some ended up on the street, and some went on to become real estate agents. You don't know who is going to be which. And when I talk to students, I ask them how many think they could go off to war and come back whole. They're all absolutely sure that they are the survivors, that no matter what happens they'll get through it. And so they don't have a lot of sympathy for someone who didn't make it through. Nor did they think people on Skid Row had a reflective, subjective life. When my students talked to the guys, they'd be astonished to find out these guys wrote poetry, or painted, were more sensitive or sometimes smarter than the students, and were actually superior to them in certain ways.

You can either succeed or fail at being marginal. Some succeed in taking care of themselves with no-one in authority over them, and they've escaped being dependent on people they don't like. But if you don't like authority and you end up being in a mission or a shelter, I would say that is sort of failed marginality because you have to put up with the shit anyway, you haven't gotten away from it. You haven't succeeded in living on your own terms.

Women have a harder time being marginal than men. Women have more services available to them and they have to be pretty messed up in order to have not taken advantage of these services. A single female on the street is too vulnerable. From my experience, most of them are either crazy or drunk. Women will become hookers before they'll live on the street. They have this one shelf, it's not terrific, but it's there.

Middle class people and poor people who become homeless are two very different groups. That's another mistake that advocates make when they tell people that the homeless are just like them "There but for a paycheck go you"; which, in fact, is not so. Middle class people can occasionally become homeless, but they eventually stop being homeless. But the poor become homeless when they are just poor. It may well be that the chronically homeless are guys who are intentionally marginal, they're messed up in one way or another, or they want to be left alone. But the temporarily homeless are people struggling to make a place in society but they get screwed over. And the way you deal with each group is radically different.

I don't have all the solutions, of course. But I think they should build SRO's all over. And I think they should have "free zones", or encampments where people are free to live as they want: the government isn't going to build housing anyway. Housing costs $50,000 per unit and they don't have the money for that. But at the very minimum, they should abolish laws that are so prevalent nowadays that say you can't erect anything to keep the rain off you because that would be a "shelter." And get rid of the laws that say you can't put anything between your sleeping bag and the ground because that would be "camping" rather than sleeping.

I think the ethical rule of thumb is if a society can't take care of people, it has to let them take care of themselves.

Peter Marin is a poet and freelance writer living in Santa Barbara, California. His work has appeared in national publications, and he is currently doing research for a book on homelessness.

Previous - Next