#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #13: Ella Howard

This week’s entry is definitely in the “urban” rather than in the “planning” component of my challenge, as Ella Howard is a historian at Armstrong Atlantic State University. I read and used her book in my class on the Urban Context this year:

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

and I am thinking about using it in my class on urban social policy and planning in the spring. It’s framing in Chapter 1 helps illustrate the social welfare approach to housing: “The institutions that address poverty embody the values of their creators.” For my students thinking about how to state a strong argument you can spend the rest of the book supporting, here it is.

Dr. Howard’s book centers mostly on the Bowery, and I particularly like how the book uses that perspective–i.e., looking at the Bowery–as the place where federal, state, and city institutions attempted to reform and regulate homelessness. Her time period focuses predominately on the Depression onward, though she starts us at around the turn of the city in New York–1890s onward–in their attempts to figure out what to do with homeless men and women. The history deepens from the Depression era onward, and then goes decade by decade as there are important shifts in public policy that, nevertheless, always seem to be motivated by two internal tensions: 1) the desire to be humane to those in need, but not too humane, because, you know, dependency, and 2) the need to deliver services in place with the pressures to make sure the homeless move on, not be there, move somewhere else. Chapter 2 explores the treatment of the transient homeless during the Great Depression. The Depression was a game changer in multiple ways. First, economic hardship meant that more people than ever before struggled to maintain housing, and second, it saw the shift of policy response to homelessness to federal housing programs rather than, simply, local relief.

One major factor in serving those without homes concerned changing perspectives on alcoholism and mental illness, with religious and secular approaches to problem coming more into conflict as the century progressed. Organizations like the Salvation Army downplayed therapy or other, secular solutions, at the same time that homelessness became the object of social scientific study.

In the 1960s, the focus became increasingly spatial with urban renewal and ‘slum clearance.’ Most of my students can recite urban renewal history (more mindlessly than I care for) about how communities of color were destroyed to make way for highway projects, but few people ever think about the homeless men and women targeted by the program. Here is where the federal involvement in urban policy gets even more dicey, as local officials came to the conclusion that while homeless men and women may have to exist ‘somewhere’, skid rows were both unsightly and unhygienic. The feds put $5.4 billion into urban renewal programs from 1949 until 1966. As Howard points out, Eisenhower epitomized the federal problems: many people, like Eisenhower, favored urban renewal projects, believing them tickets to urban growth that would ‘lift all boats’ and yet viewed public housing with extreme suspicion. The result is a whipsaw we still live in: the desire for urban growth and population increase without the commitment to increased supply of affordable shelter, and by the 1980s, more affordable units were being destroyed than created in urban centers. Homelessness became viewed as something to be fixed:

Throughout the twentieth century, urban residents by and large did not want homeless people living in their neighborhood ,nor did they wish to fund residential programs to offer continued housing assistance. The homeless were to be returned to “normal” life rather than being placed in supported living conditions.

p. 122.

The Bowery escaped urban renewal due to widespread resistance to it in New York, including Jane Jacobs and others, who viewed urban renewal for what it was: a state-sponsored real estate development strategy that selected easy political targets for private commercial gain with specious public interest rationales. The plan for Cooper Square would have removed 4,000 beds; the plan failed, but eventually, efforts to redevelop the Bowery will win out. It will just take real estate markets a few more decades to make this happen.

Before we get there, however, Howard treats us to yet another means of dressing up old wine in new bottles in the neotraditional, punitive ways in which social science and media constructed narratives around men and women without homes and the neighborhoods that served homeless populations, like the Bowery. Here you get a strong flavor of American studies in Howard’s background as she connects older, more overly judging frames for impoverished people with the lurid, exoticed narratives constructed in particular media outlets. These are old ideas about danger and lack of hygiene dressed up for the spectator world of mediated imagery. Social science approaches were little better, framing individuals according to mainstream values of functionality and–a shocker–always finding their homeless subjects wanting. Nonetheless, good research conducted out of Columbia also began spending real time and energy with people living in the Bowery to understand how social life functions in homeless districts.

The later chapters of the book, like the earlier ones, are excellent, but they felt like less of a revelation to me as I had lived through many of the policy changes and conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the federal and state withdrawal from homeless programs, particularly the deinstutionalization of those with serious mental illnesses. That policy move prompted the very public conflict between New York Mayor Koch and New York Governor Hugh Carey, whereby Koch viewed his city’s increasing number of homeless people as a direct result of the state making homelessness into a city problem. As Howard notes:

The Koch and Reagen administrations and the advocates for the homeless agreed on a single point: each supported the expansion of the private, religious-affiliated homeless shelters. p. 208

And thus nearly a century later, theories about serving homelessness return back to its religious, voluntarist roots. By then, the Bowery had become, like many places where poverty exists, the spatial exemplar of ‘edginess’ that nightclubs, musicians, and other artists exploited as a means to commercial success. In the end, New York’s real estate boom will erase the Bowery, and Mayor Guiliani will capitalize on security narratives as a means to simply regulate homelessness out of New York so that, as in most contemporary cities, homeless people are simply expected to slide through the shadows of the city, in perpetual motion.

I highly recommend this book both for its subject matter and as an exemplar of just how good a dissertation book can be.