Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community
October 21, 1993
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Winner of the C. Wright Mills Award
During the past decade, homelessness became a widespread phenomenon in the United States for the first time since the Great Depression. The public frequently blamed the poor for their plight. Journalistic and academic accounts, in contrast, often evoked pathos and pity, regarding the homeless primarily as objects of treatment and rehabilitation. David Wagner challenges both of these dominant images, offering an ethnographic portrait of the poor that reveals their struggle not only to survive but also to create communities on the streets and to develop social movements on their own behalf. Definitely not passive victims, the homeless of Checkerboard Square survive within an alternative street culture, with its own norms and social organization, in a world often hidden from the view of researchers, journalists, and social workers. Checkerboard Square reveals the daily struggle of street people to organize their lives in the face of rejection by employers, government, landlords, and even their own families. Looking beyond the well-documented causes of homelessness such as lack of affordable housing or unemployment, Wagner shows how the poor often become homeless through resistance to the discipline of the workplace, authoritarian families, and the bureaucratic social welfare system. He explains why the crisis of homelessness is not only about the lack of services, housing, and jobs but a result of the very structure of the dominant institutions of work, family, and public social welfare.