I met a couple of cool new people today, and got ten new friends on Facebook. This, I suppose, qualifies as a good day. My friend Trevor turned me on to a talk at UW today on "The Invention of Chronic Homelessness," sponsored by Queer World and UW Women's Studies. Wild horses couldn't have kept me away. Dean Spade, who is new to Seattle University and teaches Poverty Law, brought his PhD candidate friend Craig Willse out from CUNY to talk about his dissertation, From Social Problems to Governance Problems: Health and Housing After the Welfare State.
I parked in the UW Bookstore lot and did my usual thing under those circumstances, which is to buy a remainder or two and save six bucks on parking, thereby convincing myself that the books are somehow free. I selected Granta 96 and On Beauty by Zadie Smith for a total of eleven bucks and change. When I went to pay, I discovered my bank card was missing from my visit to the ATM a few minutes before. As I raced out, thumbing through my wallet, all the plastic and cardboard from the pocket spilled out onto the floor. "Fuck!," I said. The woman standing there between the remainder tables was unphased as she helped me scoop the contents of my wallet from the floor. I got out to the ATM and someone else was there.
"You didn't see a card did you," I asked pathetically. "No," she said. "This machine sucks them back in. I've lost a few here. You won't get it from Bank of America either. A different company services these machines. You'll have to get a new one."
"Fuck!," I thought. As I walked back inside to pay for the books with cash, still thumbing through the cards, I spilled them again in the doorway of the bookstore. Fuck! Back at the cash register, I told the sympathetic bookstore clerk I'd lost the card.
"Well, that happens," she said.
"Yeah," I replied, "but this is the second time I've walked away from my card in an ATM this week.
"Oh dear," she murmured.
"Exactly," I said. As I put the change and receipt into my wallet, the gravitationally challenged contents of my billfold spilled once again across her counter, which set me off on a short hysterical laughing jag that I imagine she found unnerving. I had become the unwilling protagonist in a slapstick comedy about myself.
Happily, I was able to hold it together during Willse's presentation in the packed Women's Studies Conference Room. Here's how he describes his dissertation on his website:
Scholars have demonstrated that under neoliberalism, economic logics drive social welfare policy. They have also shown how national and subnational governments increasingly outsource welfare state functions to private nonprofit organizations. My research suggests that in this context, social problems are transformed into what I term “governance problems.” In other words, the focus of policy and administration increasingly centers on managing social programs, rather than addressing social problems. Thus, in housing and shelter provision, current federal initiatives concentrate on (1) developing quantitative measures for assessing service provision outcomes and (2) establishing “performance-based contracting” protocols for allocating federal, state, and private funds to non-profit organizations. In this move to organizational management, the individual subject (or client) of welfare services is not erased, but increasingly is understood and addressed through statistical population models of risk, recidivism, and cost. I hope my research will offer substantive knowledge about this important area of social welfare policy and administration as well as contribute to theorizing how governance works in “post-welfare state” neoliberalism.Much of what he said, once you got past the Foucouldian framework and all the grad-student speak that flew about the room, wasn't new to me. Academic lit on homelessness, he said, is a tug of war between the qualitatively oriented ethnographers and the quantitative data-heads over in public health, and these perspectives are both at odds with and informative of eachother. Both have focused on the problem of fucked up people at the expense of examining the fucked up system that produces said people, and this is a problem for those of us interested in system change. Sociology, he said, has turned increasingly from the work of identifying social problems toward being of service in managing them.
True enough. I guess it's important to have realistic expectations.
It was interesting to hear him date the dawn of federal intervention in homelessness to the passage of Mckinney-Vento in 1987, and to describe this in terms of assertion of federal authority by means of funding. Willse has written an interesting paper I haven't read yet on HMIS data collection called The Biopolitical Life of Homeless Populations. Data collection systems like Seattle's Safe Harbors, he said, are not about the control of homeless people, as advocates once feared. Homeless people as individuals are way beneath their radar. These data collection systems are about the control of the non-profit agencies that serve these people. Technology, he said, has become a "method of governance." This is about "population management in the neoliberal state." This was something that hadn't fully dawned on me, and made the whole unseemly trek more than worthwhile.
Perhaps it was the brevity of the presentation or the emphasis on the academic framework, or maybe it's just that this is a thesis in progress and Willse's ideas are still less than clear, but the promise of a critique on the invention of chronic homelessness was left largely unfulfilled. He described the evolution from the notion of "housing readiness" through "continuum of care" to Housing First, but none of this was news to anyone who's been in this work for more than ten minutes.
He also spoke of the increasing trend toward cost-benefit arguments for resource allocation, and the contradiction of government focusing on those who, in a more foucauldian universe, we'd properly expect to be left out to die. It's complicated, said Willse: "economic investment and social abandonment run parallel."
Indeed. Here's the thing. There's a whole lot more abandonment than investment going on out there. It's the investment — and the heartwarming success stories of lives and dollars saved — that make the abandonment so much more palatable to the misguided middle-class conscience. We all want so badly to believe.
Here's the other thing. People are left out to die. Now that we've decided that housing with services is the answer to homelesness, no matter how theoretical and underfunded that housing may, in reality, be, we've drawn the line against new emergency shelter and even become a little trigger happy in reducing what we have, regardless of actual demand.
Cities clear homeless campsites and hold up their ten year plans as an excuse. You can't have your tent tonight, we say, because noone should have to live like that, but sometime in the next ten years, we're going to get you the housing with services you really need, because we know what you need better than you do.
So what happens when there isn't enough housing, and when cities across America consider trashing people's survival gear and issuing citations for camping some form of enlightened public policy? People are abandoned, and sometimes they die. They're surplus, they're a problem, and government defines them as trash and treats them like shit. They just want to look good in the process.
When I spoke to Spade and Willse afterwards, I said I was happy that this work was being done. "The radical academic literature on homelessness is very thin," I observed. "Paltry," Willse agreed. Spade had been to the Critical Resistance conference in Oakland last weekend and seen our own Danina Garcia present on a WRAP panel about the convergence of homelessness and civil rights issues of criminalization and incarceration. This was one of the conferences more popular sessions. I'm sure we'll all be talking more. We radicals need to stick together, because soon the fuckers will be coming after us.