Seeing the Homeless in a New Light
Book Review: Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women (non-fiction), Author: Elliot Liebow, 1993
It's curious how often insight follows hardship. Elliot Liebow’s own insightful look into the lives of homeless women came during his period of hardship after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Instead of spending his remaining days on the 12th floor of a government office building, he retired on disability after 20 years as an anthropologist. Despite a dire prognosis, he felt well and began volunteering at a homeless women’s shelter. While there, his anthropologic background kicked in; he started to explore the lives of the women and attempted to understand their outlook. The product of his efforts, “Tell Them Who I Am”, isn’t an academic paper peppered with sociological jargon but rather an empathetic account of “how these women remained human in the face of inhuman conditions”.
“Tell Them Who I Am” began with the author’s own frustrations of succinctly describing the women who frequent the shelter. Liebow consistently faced discoveries incongruent with many common conceptions about homeless. One outstanding example was of a woman who had worked for over 20 years yet never earned enough income to transition out of homelessness! The final straw that resulted in homelessness was unique for each woman. Explanations ranged from mental disabilities such learning disabilities, mental retardation, etc. to financial shocks too great to bear when living paycheck-to-paycheck such as roommates moving away, divorce, or job loss.
A few of the women simply couldn’t tolerate their abusive households and decided the streets were less stressful (such as Martha whose father expected her to accept his persistent sexual assault or Grace whose stepmother forced her to have an abortion as a condition for staying at home).
Liebow frequently focuses on a few key concepts that surface repeatedly throughout his chapters covering topics such as employment, social services, family/relationships, and religion. On several occasions, Liebow implores the reader to understand that many of the womens' struggles, such as depression or alcoholism, are no different from our own; the major difference is that the challenges thrown down by homelessness amplify any personal vice or imperfection. "People are not homeless because they are physically disabled, mentally ill, abusers of alcohol or other drugs, or unemployed. However destructive and relevant these conditions may be, they do not explain homelessness; most physically disabled people, most mentally ill people, most alcoholics and drug addicts, and most unemployed persons do have places to live. … [therefore] The cause of homelessness is seen as situational rather than something that inheres in the individual.”
Drugs, craziness, and laziness are all frequently cited as causes of homelessness. Even Liebow observed that “[some of the shelter staff] believed that homeless people are generally undeserving freeloaders expect for the real life women they had come to know personally.” Liebow’s work suggests that these generalizations are often simplistic at best, and baseless at worst.