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Shelters vs. Streets: Where Would You Feel Safer?

By Lucy Belnora
Review | January 26, 2010

athome.jpgSALINA, Kan. - For days at a time during a four-year period, the two men slept under bridges and in makeshift camps set up by homeless individuals they befriended. They also spent a night in a shelter and visited other shelters for their research.

Jeffrey Michael Clair, Ph.D., and Jason Wasserman, Ph.D., set out to find the answer to one simple question: Why do many homeless individuals prefer living on the street to living in shelters?

So the two ventured into the streets of Birmingham, Alabama to interview homeless people, learning in the process that many programs and policies designed to help the homeless succeed only in alienating them.

Clair and Wasserman say armchair proclamations by experts and politicians about dealing with homelessness are routinely dismissed by those on the street with this response: "They don't know us."

Most policies rarely take into account how those on the street see themselves and understand their homelessness, they argue.

In their new book At Home on the Street: People, Poverty, and a Hidden Culture of Homelessness, Clair and Wasserman give readers an in-depth look at long-term homelessness and show the true meaning of life on the street.

"The shelters often were dirty and unsafe," says Wasserman, who teaches at Texas Tech University. "We experienced cramped quarters and some violence. We spent only one night in a shelter, but we ate at the shelters many times and participated in activities offered there.

"It was often a chaotic experience and even threatening, and we really felt more comfortable on the street than in the shelters."

Clair and Wasserman say common misconceptions about the homeless have resulted in an overabundance of social services that target the homeless who are drug-addicted or mentally ill.

But too few services are available for those who are homeless due to the loss of a home or job because of misfortune or the bad economy. The authors found that the few shelters that did offer job training required people to participate in substance-abuse-treatment programs in order to access the training. This is generally the case nationwide, Wasserman says.

Clair, who teaches sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the standard view of homelessness is that it is largely a function of addiction and mental illness, and shelter programs are primarily focused on treating these conditions. In the process, however, those same shelter programs often make problematic assumptions and judgments that ostracize the street population.

"Most of the homeless that we met were creative and resourceful people," Clair says. "Most work and are not panhandlers. That's the stereotype. Many are well-read. We met many people who were religious. . . Most people would be surprised at just how so-called normal many of the homeless are.

"Public policy should be oriented more toward enabling people to work and to secure a dwelling," he says. "But current policy in our American culture tends to approach homelessness with rigidity fueled by fear of difference and uncertainty."

Clair and Wasserman say they want to be clear that they are not critical of the treatment programs offered in the shelters.

"Many people need treatment and should be able to get the treatment," says Wasserman.

"But rather than punishing those who don't need treatment or won't engage the process, there ought to be other alternative approaches."


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