WMU News

An unconventional look at homelessness

Nov. 17, 2004

KALAMAZOO--A new book by an associate professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University is shattering stereotypes about homelessness in the United States and shedding light on dysfunctions within the nation's homeless sheltering industry.

"Inequality, Poverty and Neoliberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry" by Dr. Vincent Lyon-Callo combines political-economic analysis with the rich detail of ethnographic study to offer a rare view of homelessness and inequality.

"My research looks at the well-meaning practices whereby those in the homeless sheltering industry try to resolve homelessness," Lyon-Callo says. "What I found is that even the best practices are limited when attention is focused on market-based and individualized practices of reform and governance."

Lyon-Callo, who joined WMU's faculty in 1998, has a bachelor's degree in economics, a master's degree in labor studies and a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology. He did five years of ethnographic fieldwork while assistant director of a Northampton, Mass., homeless shelter and also was a counselor and manager of a Connecticut shelter for three years.

In his book, Lyon-Callo contends that America is increasingly dealing with homelessness by applying principles of "neoliberalism," which he argues has created great wealth for some but poverty and homelessness for others.

"Neoliberalism is often promoted as more efficient government to help individuals and countries compete better," he says. "It's both a return to classic liberalism's embracing of the private, "free" market as the solution to social problems and an embracing of the role of government to promote individualized competition and market-based policies.

"Privatization and deregulation in the name of efficiency and productivity have become the norm. Punishment and imprisonment have replaced many social programs, and those that remain,...have a renewed focus on reforming individuals to better compete in the 'free market."

As a result, Lyon-Callo says, it has become easier to incorrectly view homeless people as deviants and to accept vast social inequality and widespread homelessness.

"Many people care about homelessness," he continues. "But is has become 'common sense' for that caring to take the form of charity or services aimed at reforming homeless people and for shelters to focus on helping homeless people cope with inequality."

However, Lyon-Callo says homelessness is rooted in an economic system that depends on low-wage jobs, declining housing affordability and the dismantling of the social safety net. He says not challenging this economic system helps explain why homelessness remained pervasive during the past decade, even though the economy was supposedly booming and hundreds of millions of dollars were being pumped into the homeless sheltering industry.

"It seems that the goal is no longer to make society well through developing collective resistance strategies against social injustice," Lyon-Callo concludes in his book, "but rather to normalize the homelessness of individual people."

Chapters in the book include "The Political-Economic Context," "Medicalizing Homelessness," "Shelter Statistics and the Silencing of Systemic Concerns," "The Non-Compliant Homeless: Ariel's Story," "Defining the Role of the Sheltering Industry," "Helping Homeless Youth," and "Managing Homelessness."

The 191-page paperback was published in 2004 by Broadview Press and sells for $22.95. It is available through Kalamazoo-area retailers, including the WMU Bookstore, as well as online through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. For more information, visit the Web site at <www.broadviewpress.com>.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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