The class that I teach on Streetpapers, Homelessness, and Poverty each spring at the University of Washington starts this Friday, and I've been working up the syllabus and building the wiki this week. This will be my fifth year doing this course. After flailing around for awhile, I've decided that the ways in which homelessness is understood serve mostly to deflect attention from what's really going on.
As I was working up the reading list, I remembered an article by Peter Marcuse that made a huge impression on me in the late 80s.
Massive homelessness within a wealthy nation such as the US, he argues, can be understood as clear evidence that our economic system is not meeting the needs of a great many people and needs to change. This could conceivably present a "legitimation crisis" for the whole capitalist system.
On the other hand, homelessness could be framed as a problem of individual dysfunction and the need for more social services to fix all those screwed up people.
This would be the, "It's the people who are broken, not the system" argument, which seems, over the past few decades, to have largely prevailed.
First published in Socialist Review in 1988, Peter Marcuse's influential Neutralizing Homelessness article shows up in a great number of lefty academic bibliographies, but proved remarkably hard to find today. The Seattle Public library does not carry this particular journal.
The article was excerpted that year, however, in Shelterforce and in Christanity and Crisis. While the library's subscription to Shelterforce did not start until 1990, they had the other one on microfiche.
Here's the first paragraph:
"Homelessness has three related causes: The profit structure of housing, the distribution of income, and government policy. Housing is supplied for profit, as a commodity. There is no profit in supplying housing for those now homeless. The cost of provision has increased, and alternate uses are more profitable. Changes in the economy have deprived many people of the income needed to pay for housing. The government only acts to provide housing for persons unable to pay the market price when the economy may need such people in the future, or when those people threaten the status quo. Neither situation prevails today."
You gotta love a good bracing Marxist analysis. No wonder the library didn't see fit to order the leading socialist journal in the fucking country!
Anyway, I walked down to the library, printed out the microfiche, scanned it into my laptop, and turned it into a PDF, which is here. I'm still working on getting the more detailed original article, and when I do I'll post that as well.