On Morality: Homelessness, Sociality, and the Promises We Break

Review Essay by Jessica Cooper, University of Edinburgh

  • The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order, by Bruce O’Neill (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
  • Ours to Lose: When Squatters Become Homeowners in New York City, by Amy Starcheski (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)
  • Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor, by Joan Maya Mazelis (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

Sometime in the early 1960s, Joan Didion passed a day sweating in a Death Valley motel room, the air conditioner erratic, the heat oppressive, a deadline looming. What did Didion make of morality? The American Scholar wanted to know, but Didion did not, disclaiming the subject of the query as “a term I distrust more and more everyday” (1965: 157). You can imagine the scene: Didion frittering away the day in front of a window unit on the fritz, her mind wandering in circles around the distrusted concept of morality, radiating out into oblivion like fuzzy waves of heat above the Death Valley asphalt. Indeed, in her attempt to circle around, if not circle away from, morality, her mind spun precisely there, to asphalt: specifically, a stretch of it running through the Valley somewhere outside of Bishop, California, where the night before there had been a motor vehicle accident. A car had turned over. A passing truck, with a nurse and her husband inside, stopped. The girl inside the overturned car was badly injured and the nurse drove her to the nearest, far-off hospital. The boy inside was dead and the husband stayed with the body. Didion reports speaking with the nurse at some point during the time she spent at the motel. She wanted to know why the nurse’s husband had stayed with the corpse out in the remote darkness, awaiting the authorities, rather than accompanying his wife and the injured girl. In Didion’s retelling, the nurse seemed taken aback by the question. Knowing what desert dwellers know about how coyotes scamper around the Valley floor, it would have been “immoral,” she tells Didion — who accepts this invocation of the moral on account of its specificity — to “just leave a body on the highway” (158).

Fifty-something years later and three hundred or so miles to the west of Bishop, while conducting field research with homeless people in the San Francisco Bay Area, I saw plenty of bodies — bodies, not corpses, sleeping, resting, sitting — on various patches of pavement, under highway overpasses, in building entryways, on subway platforms, and, sometimes, just in the middle of the sidewalk. One day, I was having dinner at a restaurant by my apartment off of Ninth Street, an area known for the density of people living outside without shelter. The Ethiopian joint had anticipated the wave of gentrification that would soon engulf the area – Twitter had recently opened a city-block-sized office building around the corner – but that had yet to crash at the time of my dinner. The scene outside the restaurant’s plate glass windows was incongruous with the dining experience within. Inside, a waitress took our order and brought out an endless supply of injera and we feasted on a meal that ran about $40 for two people. Not too bad for a night out for two graduate students, but also about 1/20th of a monthly disability payment in the county (payments that were, in any event, nearly impossible to come by).[1] Outside, people leaving the Twitter offices stepped over obstacles in their paths on the sidewalk. Those obstacles were, of course, other people, some bundled up in layers of clothing, others in sleeping bags, others in alarmingly little clothing to protect them from the descent of the fog. Who, I wanted to know, would just walk over a body? Who could lift their feet to step over someone else’s legs or torso or outstretched arms? Who would keep walking, without so much as checking on the questionable state of the life underfoot?

Me, among others. I would go on to step over people who were sleeping – sleeping, I told myself. Doing so felt like an inevitable and practical consequence of working on those same streets and with some of the people who lived there. There were reasons to keep walking, as there always are. But leaving someone on the pavement, seeing them strewn across asphalt and continuing on, is the type of morally specific challenge that eases Didion’s tetchiness at the breadth of the question of morality writ large. She writes as much: “Whether or not a corpse is torn apart by coyotes may seem only a sentimental consideration, but of course it is more: one of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes. If we have been taught to keep our promises – if, in the simplest of terms, our upbringing is good enough – we stay with the body, or have bad dreams” (ibid).

What images might be conjured in these bad dreams, dreams that are brought about by our capitalist practices of leaving some bodies behind? How do our nightmares index the promises we make to one another, promises that we may well fail to keep?  And how do those bodies with no shelter but the pavement – most of whom, after all, are alive and are dreamers themselves – understand, develop, deploy, and struggle with their own modes of survival, as more fortunate others pass them by? These are political questions and I would suggest, harnessing Didion’s specifics and intimate scale, moral questions too. They are the kinds of questions that animate several recently published qualitative studies on homelessness and poverty, including Bruce O’Neill’s ethnography of those living on the margins in Bucharest; Amy Starecheski’s oral history of squatters on the Lower East Side; and Joan Maya Mazelis’s interview-based study of Philadelphians living in poverty. Each author writes from the positions of their interlocutors—of those left behind. O’Neill’s homeless men missed the opportunity to ride tides that they were told would rise through Romania’s shift from communism to capitalism. Starecheski’s squatters moved into their buildings as landlords moved out in the 1970s and 1980s. And Mazelis captures Philadelphians at two moments when the American trend towards austere social services was at its steepest: in the mid-2000s and again as the country and Pennsylvania (if not Philadelphia) turned toward Trump in the runup to the 2016 election. Each author takes destitute living conditions as their starting point and mobilizes descriptions of homes and homelessness to ask questions about modes of life. How do people live without the materials that many of us take for granted as necessary for survival—shelter, heat, food? And what does it say about the broader political communities in which these people struggle to live (political communities of which we, as readers, are a part) that such struggles are socially and morally tolerable?

***

Asphalt is where O’Neill, like Didion, begins. O’Neill describes sitting with Tomas, a homeless man, in a parking lot outside of a day center in Bucharest for those who have nowhere else to go. Tomas shares how he spends his days looking for work that will hardly pay, looking for food, looking for a place to stay for the night. But the worst, Tomas says, is the stultifying boredom (O’Neill 2017: 1-2). Every interlocutor of O’Neill’s expresses the same sentiment: the boredom of extreme poverty is deadening, both a “symptom” and a “conduit,” O’Neill will go on to argue, of the “devastat[ion of] inner worlds” brought about by Romania’s economic restructuring (120). O’Neill leans into his interlocutors’ reports of boredom —it peppers nearly every page of his ethnography – and uses it as a tool to introduce another perspective on the colossal shift in economic and political regimes that brought about homeless Romanians’ displacement. Boredom is an “affective relationship” (3); it is what the tides turning, the ebb of social and financial capital flowing away from one’s own shores, feels like. Laying on asphalt and waiting—for coyotes, for social services, for capitalism to arrive—need not feel as dramatic as the grandiosity of those moral questions might suggest. This bored space between everyday monotony and the massive enterprise of national economic restructuring is the space of O’Neill’s ethnography.

This is how O’Neill narrates the experience of Romania’s turn to capitalism: People who are homeless in Bucharest are bored. Their boredom indexes their stigma, exclusion, and displacement from what O’Neill calls the “slowing global order.” Since the fall of communism in 1989, Romanians have been promised inclusion through consumption. But unlike under communism, some people have been precluded from the promised hyperspeed of capitalism and those left behind are now homeless and bored. O’Neill suggests that boredom is a “material space,” such as squatters’ camps and shelters, a “shared social orientation,” and also “inwardly derived” (16). By occupying material spaces and participating in their affective orientations, O’Neill attempts to access the inward trajectories of boredom. What does boredom feel like? And what does it mean for one’s sense of self? He answers that boredom feels like death and that it decimates personhood. O’Neill’s narrative compellingly demonstrates the depths of his interlocutors’ boredom, the oppressive weight of it, all under an economic program that Romanians had been told was their path to freedom.

The strength of O’Neill’s retelling lies in the juxtaposition between past and present promises. As O’Neill takes pains to point out, life was hardly easy under the dictatorship, despite his interlocutors’ frequent sporting of rose-tinted glasses. But still: under Nicolae Ceausescu, homelessness was “unthinkable” (3, 10). Everyone was guaranteed rations, shelter, and employment.  Paradoxically, the differences between communism and capitalism have little to do with materiality. People were hungry, poor, and cold under communism, as they are under a capitalist regime. The image O’Neill repeatedly paints of waiting in queue is particularly compelling as a metonym (19-20; 57; 61-65; 87-93; 99-114; 127-131; 138-140). The difference between the two images of the same practice – waiting – is that it signifies a social promise kept, however tenuously, of rations being provided under communism, and a social promise of economic growth broken under capitalism. O’Neill’s interlocutors fondly recall waiting in line for rations as spaces of solidarity and community, even if the rations at provided at the end of the wait were not enough, as was commonly the case. The boredom of capitalism is different. It’s boredom without knowing what lies at the end of the queue. Waiting…but without an object. Waiting for what?

This is a question that only one of O’Neill’s interlocutors answers with any optimism. Most acknowledge that their immediate waits belie longer and more ephemeral waits for economic and social inclusion. Anton waits for the bus to come. Tudor waits for the shower to become available at the homeless shelter where he’s staying. Augustin and Adi wait for their next tricks. Bear waits to be selected for a construction job far away from Bucharest. Ana waits to visit her grandchildren in Central Bucharest, too ashamed to let them see her out on the fringes of the city, in the shelter. Only Victoria, a woman who is treated cruelly by others because of her health problems and the numerous bags that she carries with her on her long bus rides to seek care, expresses something hopeful, a desired end to her wait. She is waiting to move to California, a desire that O’Neill perhaps suspects he inspired, given that he was a graduate student at Stanford at the time of their interactions and that he attempts to change the subject, to steer it away from Victoria’s “unreasonable fantasy of the good life” (93). But what would a reasonable fantasy of the good life be for Victoria? And how might we rethink O’Neill’s account if we took boredom not just to be a symptom of ostracization and anomie, but an immanently political affect?

O’Neill sticks close to his interlocutors’ claims that meaning has been siphoned out of their lives to the point of inducing suicidality (esp. Chapter 4), an ethnographic choice that introduces a tension to his argument. In analyzing the dismal modes of existence to which Bucharest’s homeless are left, O’Neill employs a biopolitical lens of slow death (98), à la Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) and Lauren Berlant (2011), that emphasizes the violence of being left to die on the streets. Such an interpretation would seem to align with his interlocutors’ own: the violence is the evacuation of social meaning by global capital. O’Neill makes a point of sitting with his interlocutors’ claims to meaninglessness, rather than pursuing another “approach” that would paint “the homelessness’s sense of emptiness with a meaning and purpose that they themselves neither celebrate nor recognize” (117). I follow this, empirically, but see such a choice as resting in tension with all of O’Neill’s claims to boredom as affect (98, 121). As the outsider, he is able to see socialities come together, even if they do not alleviate suffering; his book is filled with stories of people being bored together. What political meaning, I wonder, might he be able to glean from these social spaces that go unrecognized by his interlocutors? To draw the line at meaning, to insist on the meaninglessness of boredom, of socialities that fail to generate more hospitable conditions, of unreasonable fantasies comes up short (98, 118-120).  Indeed, that seems to be a crucial question of the ethnographic material that O’Neill describes: what is the political meaning of these bored affective encounters?

To answer this question with a claim to meaninglessness stands counter to the richness of O’Neill’s ethnography. At the close of the book, in his exploration of a Nespresso campaign seeking to monetize boredom, O’Neill tips his hand. Boredom, he suggests, in explaining why capitalist advertising campaigns are running roughshod over political activity in Bucharest, is antithetical to “the instruments of civil society” (171). People who are existentially bored do not organize to campaign, to lobby, to protest. Perhaps boredom is antithetical to the motivation of counterpublics as we know them. But what form of civil society is latent within a politics of boredom? How might they prefigure what is to come, new modalities of sociality that are flush with meaning, if not necessarily immediate political impact? In what world might unreasonably fantasizing about California – a state in which, in reality, a quarter of all homeless Americans live (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2017), a state where people carry grocery bags and push carts and sit idly on sidewalk, as Victoria already does in Bucharest —  might be just as, if not more, political than reckoning with the dismal reality of what Victoria would find should she ever make her way there? Victoria is herself a dreamer, an unreasonable one at that, but rather than writing off dreams or the puttering socialities of boredom as divorced from political action, what if we were to consider them part and parcel of a different political order? The unreasonableness of dreams speaks to Didion’s monumental moralizing. Bad dreams, good dreams, their politics have little to do with their inevitability or achievability. They pursue politics in a different key. What can political activity be, other than absent, from the perspective of Victoria’s boredom, from the perspective of Victoria’s occupying fantasies?

***

In some sense, Starecheski’s oral history is a collection of remembered dreams. In Starecheski’s account, Lower East Side squats were borne of a dream, a dream of a life without capitalism, a life without currency, a life lived collectively. Starecheski aims to tell the story of these dreamers, and the stories they told themselves about the lives that they could live inside of abandoned buildings. The book examines the dreams of another way of being in the world and the (frequently fraught) ways some of the squatters tried to translate these dreams into something perhaps as improbable as Victoria’s fantasy of the California good life: an adverse possession lawsuit against the New York City in which the squatters endeavored to compel the city to recognize their legal right to the inhabit and maintain properties, without threat of eviction. However improbably, however fantastically, the squatters won. Starecheski explicitly endeavors to tell the tale of the lawsuit, the intersquat squabbles that it spawned, and the change to subjectivity invited by the transformation from squatter to homeowner. What happens when dreams – even good dreams – become realities?

To document these transformations, Starecheski embarks on an oral history. The book is populated with lengthy excerpts from her interviews with squatters from the Lower East Side, most of whom moved into buildings in the late 1960s through the 1980s. This was a time when property owners had just fled, abandoning properties in redlined areas that had been racially marked for disinvestment. Squatters strategized how to move into properties before the city could claim ownership and board them up. Starecheski commits ample space to describing the diversity of the squatters, from punks to hippies to undocumented immigrants to people using and selling drugs to homeless people to single parents to people poverty-stricken enough to fall through the city’s social safety net. This diversity is something that the squatters value, but also poses a problem for their internal deliberations over whether to seek recognition from the city or not. Seeking recognition would necessarily expose the most vulnerable – broadly understood to be those lacking legal status — to the city. With some resistance, a critical mass of the squatters decided to move forward with the legal claim regardless (93, 110-111, 122, 194).

Starecheski’s work deftly tracks the developments of the legal case, showing how squatting, and then claiming ownership, and then homeowning emerged in relation to state intervention. By the late 1990s, then-mayor Rudy Guliani “wanted out of the landlord business” (18) and the squatters decided that it was the right time to file a lawsuit claiming rightful ownership of the buildings. By the early 2000s, legal maneuvering had forced the city into a position where they offered to sell the buildings to an organization representing the squatters for a dollar per building, provided that a nonprofit charged with organizing the new homeowners assume the cost of bringing the buildings up to code (21). In other words, the squatters’ legal victory worked to place squatters within a debt-based, capitalist economy; they were incorporated into the system that they had tried, for years, to resist. And thus, neoliberalism arrived —  a frustratingly “over-used and ill-defined term” that Starecheski finds nevertheless useful in  “theorizing the linked processes of privatization of state property and services, the shift to entrepreneurial urban governance, and the promotion of market-based solutions to social problems” (23-24).

Having provided a robust history, the final two chapters of the book work somewhat off to the side, pulling away from the hitherto linear narrative, with a chapter on the “transformative power of work” (164; Chapter 4) and a chapter on “the valorization of indebtedness” (193; Chapter 5). Each of these chapters addresses, directly, a theme that Starecheski introduced in at the outset: the role of value in her discussion. Valuation commensurates multiple themes for Staresheski; it cuts across the value of property, the value of debt, the value of labor, and the value of homeownership as a uniquely American milestone. But Starecheski’s argument thins when she attempts to speak directly to subjectivity, as she does most explicitly in her discussion of labor. In a generic way, yes, Starecheski ably shows how labor and debt shape senses of self. But it is harder in a specific way, because Starecheski is reliant on people’s own recollections of how their senses of self changed over time. And, not being present at the fact, Starecheski is reliant on their own self-diagnostics. One could imagine a different text combing through the pragmatics of interview transcripts, conducting a micro-genealogy of sorts, to provide second-order commentary on changes in how people spoke about themselves to document changes in historical subjectivity. Instead, Starecheski sticks closely to her informants, giving us their statements and using them as evidence in service precisely of the same points that her subjects intended to make. She takes them at their word.

Doing so offers her readers a window into squatters’s self-understandings. But it comes at a cost, as Starecheski denies herself a critical distance from which to read her interlocutors’ self-understandings differently. For example, the squatters whom Starecheski interviews understand themselves, at least initially, to have chosen their destitute material conditions; they have opted for a politics in action, a commitment to non-ownership, and the rejection of capitalism. The material inequities that motivate these politics fade into the background. It isn’t surprising that people who have turned their destitution into political ideology emphasize the ideology over the destitution; the problem is that Starecheski has weaker footing, methodologically, to question her interlocutors’ emphases, to demonstrate what the squatters’ preferred narratives might obscure for them. Her rendering of subjectivity, then, is coterminous with self-understanding, rather than situating herself analytically in the position of excavating those parts of subjectivity to which subjects are either blind or inarticulate.

Sometimes, though, interlocutors’ words are particularly prescient. The title of Starecheski’s book – Ours to Lose – is actually a quote from one of her interview subjects, a quote held in suspense until the close of the book, when Maggie Wrigley, a formerly undocumented immigrant who now has a green card and owns her own apartment in a former squat, utters the titular phrase. She tells Starecheski, “I am a homeowner and it is incredible. As long as we keep our act together, nobody can put us out. It’s our building. It’s ours to lose” (215). What an incredible limitation of self-sovereignty. As long as…That, right there, is the cost. To keep their own dominion, a space in which there might be a chance to reject those capitalistic and debt-motivated politics, squatters acceded to notions of public and private, the precise and originary conceptual distinction that gives rise to those politics of individualism to which squatters objected in the first place. Not to mention the price: inclusion in the network of debt relations. The squatters won the buildings and lost the ideological war.

***

Like O’Neill and Starecheski, Joan Maya Mazelis is interested in the connections between community and poverty, a relationship that she explores in interviews with women living in poverty in Philadelphia in the 2000s. The women with whom Mazelis engages are divided into two different groups of research subjects: half of them are involved with an activist organization, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), while the other half are not. The primary conclusion that Mazelis draws is that the women who are involved in KWRU have access to a social support system unavailable to the women who are not involved in the group. The observation is more than just the obvious fact that those women involved in a social group possess social ties; rather, Mazelis is making the claim that group membership encourages a faith, confidence, and solace in social ties not fostered in the women who were not involved in KWRU.

Mazelis aims her intervention at the popular myths Americans maintain about poverty that sustain the availability of the category “undeserving poor”— the popular notion, for example, that people who find themselves in poverty are lazy, unwilling to work, and comfortable living off of entitlements. (The fallacy of this claim is revealed in the presumed existence of entitlements abundant enough to live off.) In excerpting the interviews she conducted, Mazelis shows the social shame manifested by people who are stuck in poverty. These women, too, maintain, internalize, and promulgate an American myth of meritocracy. Many — too many — of the women whom Mazelis interviewed demonstrate a kind of self-loathing to their interviewer, blaming themselves for being poor, insisting, even in light of ample evidence to the contrary, that had they only worked harder or made better decisions, they could have overcome structural inequities and familial histories of deep-seated poverty. This shame is connected to their hopes for the future: in believing that they have caused their own misery, they believe that they themselves can pull themselves out of it. Only one more training course, one more application for public housing, one more appointment with a job counselor and they will be on their ways to the American middle class.

How does KWRU figure into this picture? Mazelis’s approach is twofold. By getting involved with KWRU, Mazelis’s interviewees tap into a social net, however tattered. This comes with social ties (as members of KWRU collectively advocate to improve the lives of Philadelphians and volunteering is strongly encouraged) and materials (as members distribute much-need resources, such as food, clothing, and couches on which to crash, to one another). In contrast to the group of women involved in KWRU, the non-associated women are far more isolated, unwilling to turn to others to help them with their needs or to benefit from the emotional good of socializing. That — the self-evident good of socializing — is taken for granted in Mazelis’s argument. For whatever material resources are haphazardly made available through the social network, the emotional good of locating oneself within it pays dividends and encourages future opportunities for resource gain. Social ties are always good — hence her final recommendation that community organizers work on creating spaces for sociality and solidarity for the poor (175-179).

But what about violence? Mazelis avoids considering the possibility of violence as a manifestation or consequence of socializing. People can be dangerous. Consider the interview that Mazelis conducts with Pauline, a KWRU member whose fourteen-year-old niece was knifed on her way home from school by other teenage girls who slashed her face and throat to the point that she required over a hundred stitches. Pauline could hardly recognize her. Describing the aftermath of the gruesome attack, Pauline says to Mazelis,

Because they know the girls that took and cut [her], they knew them and they’ll tease [her], “that’s why your face is cut. And if you keeping running off your mouth and getting smart and stuff and having a lot of mouth, we’re going to take and put another slice on your face”…[She’s] been in the house for two weeks. She don’t socialize with nobody. She goes to school. She [goes] in the house (73).

Pauline’s horrifying description of the attack on her niece tells us many things. It tells us something about her neighborhood, her fears, her love for the niece she found and nursed back to health while listening to her niece’s own fear. It tells us something about the social ties that Pauline’s niece has to other girls in her school – namely that they knew one another and the violence of that particular day was preceded by teasing at school and followed by further threats, threats that frighten and shame Pauline’s niece. These are social ties, ties that injure.

Pauline’s description, then, also tells us something about the tautology that lurks in Mazelis’s argument. In defining her terms as she does, Mazelis only considers good social ties to be social ties. Dangerous social ties are definitionally excluded. And then Mazelis proceeds to claim that social ties are good in a normative sense, such that they should be promoted by community organizers and policymakers. Mazelis leaves interpersonal violence, the kind of violence that happens between people, violence that isn’t only but also structural, entirely unanalyzed. The issue isn’t that Pauline and her niece, among others, stay indoors. The issue is that their community isn’t safe enough, by their own measure, for them to feel comfortable going outdoors. Individual involvement with KWRU may not change that—as evidenced by the fact that Pauline, she who attempts to withdraw and self-isolate, is a KWRU member.

Mazelis somewhat strangely mirrors the individualist ethos that underpins the American myth of meritocracy with which she so strongly and so clearly disagrees. Insofar as a community is just an accumulation of individuals, bringing more people together necessarily offers more resources than individuals attempting to make it on their own. Gathering brings goods. But what happens in the space of the collective? Mazelis engages with networks, not collectives; people are nodes in a system, not parts of a society that exists sui generis, beyond the confines of any individual participant. In that messy space of the social beyond the bounds of gathered individuals, Mazelis’s praise for community hits its limit.  Perhaps because of her chosen methodology, interviews rather than extended ethnographic participant-observation, Mazelis’s analysis of the “social” in “social ties” ironically reduces to individuals, rather than the excess of sociality that forms between them, for better or for worse, when they come together.

Because, of course, people do come together. It would be impossible for people to not come together, an inevitability that renders Mazelis’s praise for social ties somewhat curious. The conspicuous absence of an analytical engagement with violent socialities redounds to another counterintuitive distinction Mazelis draws: namely, between “social ties” and “kin.” If we do not see a difference in these categories, but rather see kinship as a social tie, rather than, presumably, biological connection (Carsten 2004; Sahlins 2013), Mazelis’s explanatory variable loses its explanatory power. Even the most “isolated” of women in Mazelis’s non-KRWU population has connections to kin. Most of them live with their children. Their children’s fathers are sometimes living with them, sometimes not, but are referenced throughout their conversations. Most rely on extended kin — parents, aunts and uncles, in-laws — for material support. How do these not count as social ties? Were we to recognize kinship as a particular formation of social tie, a different picture than the rosy one that Mazelis presents emerges: one in which social connection is an inevitability, and an inevitability that entails risks alongside resources. Many of the non-KRWU-involved women have been hurt by kin— physically, psychologically, materially. Divorcing kin from social ties obfuscates the violence of sociality, violence that is arguably exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, by intimacy and proximity. Social ties are inevitable, such that an analysis of them ought to include a discussion of the things in life — violence, support, abuse, solidarity — that come along with them, with equal inevitability.

***

O’Neill, Starecheski, and Mazelis seem committed to insisting on and broadcasting their interlocutors’ self-understandings: that capitalism has wrenched meaning from social life, that squatting can produce the type of radical collective that can legally defeat the behemoth of New York City, that grassroots-mediated social ties can offer resources for the forebearance of poverty. Each mobilizes these points to combat the myth of meritocracy and middle-class achievement perpetuated by capitalism. In so doing, across methodologies, engagements, and insights, these volumes collectively animate a politics of exposure. If we readers, as members of our own political communities, only better understood how people without or with minimal shelter frame their own needs, we would be better equipped to create more inclusive worlds in which everyone stood a better chance to thrive.

Care, in this view, is the hinge between knowledge and action. This is faith, and it reminds me of a faith described by Catherine Fennel (2015) in her work on yet another form of housing: public housing in Chicago in the mid-2000s. Fennel shows how the Chicago Housing Authority sought to marshal a liberal politics of neighborly integration; by replacing massive public housing complexes on the fringe of the city with mixed-income areas closer to the city’s core, CHA bet that exposing middle-class people to the challenges of navigating poverty would work to destigmatize the poor and increase political pressure to support services to help people escape poverty. Fennel’s assessment is that proximity did incite some compassion, and also some vitriol. Exposure has a way of amplifying those vulnerabilities it aspires to address, all too frequently without the desired ends of political inclusion and mobilization. Care, it turns out, can be fickle, never landing so stably in a posture that promotes inclusion or justice.

I understand the mission to promote voices of poor people to whom others frequently do not listen as one gesture of care, the mode most on display here. But there are other analytical stances that it might behoove us to consider. Think back to Starecheski’s narrative, the way her own retelling mirrors her interlocutors’, such that their ambivalences and inconsistences are enfolded in her own writing. Her fidelity to her interlocutors’ changing memories of their experiences squatting allows the analytic field of a category like “choice,” in regard to squatting, to rest fallow. The absorption of a language of choice into Starecheski’s writing demonstrates the gleam of the concept, it’s glimmer and flicker. In one light, an action is a choice. In another, its compelled, a choice only made in the context of an economy of options. The glint of a concept like, in this case, choice does something to the politics of exposure that hopes awareness will animate action. To maintain faith that shining a light on a social problem will result in the mobilization of a particular politics on the path to social justice is to turn away from the inherent flickering of light. Exposing one corner of the story necessarily draws another into the shadows.  The question as I see it, then, not necessarily to lean into one interpretation over the other but to ask how to position ourselves alongside our interlocutors to convey this ambivalence.

Ambivalence, after all, qua Didion, deals in particulars, lending its own particular glint to what are essentially moral stories. The stories of unhoused lives told by O’Neill, Starecheski, and Mazelis invoke our ties to the people living them – through political community, through global capital, through our own daily interactions with others. Such implication in the lives of others gestures back to Didion’s characterization of the social nightmare of leaving some behind. Reading these works, I was left with the impression that the authors discussed here would aspire to rouse us from that bad dream, to encourage us all to wake up to the devastating consequences of poverty and to attempt to better the worlds we live in. But I find myself in that ambivalent space between sleeping and waking, where dreams twist and trick, asking to dream still more, however uncomfortably, with the people whom I encountered through the authors’ depictions of their interlocutors and interviewees in Bucharest, New York, and Philadelphia. Because in that space between, my mind wanders back to Didion’s description of the nurse’s husband, whose midnight guard might have served to stave off the coyotes but, of course, would not revive the body on the ground before him. Rather than being called to action by the authors’ descriptions, I find myself wanting to stay back, to listen to their interlocutors’ dreams and fantasies in addition to their articulated needs, to register rather than resolve the promises that will be variously kept and broken, never with any finality. Dreaming alongside these lives on the asphalt might, I think, be yet another way of keeping watch.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Carsten, Janet. 2004. After Kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Didion, Joan. 1968. On Morality. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, pp. 157-163.

Fennel, Catherine. 2015. Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Postwelfare Chicago. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mazelis, Joan Maya. 2017. Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties Among the Poor. New York: New York University Press.

O’Neill, Bruce. 2017. The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order. Durham: Duke University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2013. What Kinship Is and Is Not. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Social Security Disability Resource Center. n.d. Will I Qualify for Disability Benefits in California? https://www.ssdrc.com/state-california-ca-will-i-qualify.html Accessed 18 December 2018.

Starecheski, Amy. 2016. Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. 2017. The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.  https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2017-AHAR-Part-1.pdf Accessed 02 January  2019.


[1] I’m referring to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments, which, during the time of my fieldwork, averaged just over $800 per month for the county. I encountered few people who received SSDI payments. According to the Social Security Disability Resource Center (n.d.), only 31.9% of applications for the benefit are approved. While most of the people I knew who had applied for Disability were rejected, most of the people I knew never applied because of barriers to putting together an application, commonly including needing an attorney to guide the process, needing medical reports and other documentation, and needing to navigate social service bureaucracies to file the gathered paperwork.

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