Review: The Value of Homelessness

Craig Willse’s The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States examines how and why the government and nonprofit sectors rely upon the homeless population. Published in 2015 by University of Minnesota Press, the book is clearly designed for an audience of sociologists and other academics (i.e., not attorneys). Nevertheless, those willing to give the required attention to Willse’s sometimes-effusive explanations of Foucauldian and Marxist philosophies will gain new perspective on the homeless “industry.”

The book begins with an introduction describing Willse’s interest in housing. After graduating from college and having no career goals in the late 1990s, Willse moved to Los Angeles. He took a variety of low-skilled jobs, and eventually found work as a residential supervisor at a transitional living program for gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender youth. Though he quickly received multiple promotions, he began to question whether the home’s residents lacked housing due to their sexual identities, a question that challenged “the official agency narrative.”[1]

Instead, Willse came to understand housing and homelessness as a manifestation of societal failure:

The systematic nature of housing insecurity is masked by the objectifying work of the term “the homeless.” When we speak of “the homeless,” we mobilize a pathological category that directs attention to an individual, as if living without housing is a personal experience rather than a social phenomenon. Instead, we might talk in terms of “housing deprivation.” This phrase expresses that living without housing is systemically produced and must be understood as the active taking away of shelter, as the social making of house-less lives.[2]

This understanding was based his observations that residents often came from particular socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Sexual identity, alone, was too simple of an explanation for housing insecurity. His employer failed to recognize the complexity of the situation, and instead focused solely on its social agenda. This ideological schism eventually led Willse to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology, and he is currently a Cultural Studies assistant professor at George Mason University, where he focuses his research on neoliberalism, biopolitics, urbanism, and activism.

Yet, the housing provider’s response cannot be deemed unexpected nor as a deviation from what may be considered standard thinking in regard to homelessness in the United States. Willse writes that “as a system of insecurity and deprivation, housing manages our lives in such a way as to disaggregate our common experiences, individualize our challenges, and pit us in competitive, hostile fights with one another….”[3] This siloing effect was demonstrated by Willse’s former employer, which served only those homeless individuals with a particular sexual orientation or identity.

More broadly, housing insecurity also separates the homeless from the housed. The separation is explicitly visible; some people live in structures and others live on the streets. More insidious aspects of the separation between those with homes and those without can also be extracted when comparing respective health outcomes of each population. Indeed, lack of housing can even result in death. In addition to “bumbashing” and existing in closer proximity to other sources of physical violence, HIV infection among New York City’s shelter population is 16 times the rate infection among the overall population.[4]

Willse attributes these social conditions to the function of biopower, as exercised through the neoliberal ideology of the United States. Biopower was defined by Michael Foucault as “what brought life and its mechanisms into the explicit realm of calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life.”[5] Such life is politicized through two poles: anatomopolitics, which refers to the individual as he relates within space, and biopolitics, which refers to population-based regulation.[6] These poles are applied through technological tools, designed to expand life.

Importantly, biopower operates on the principle that “not all life is deemed worthy of investment. Rather, some life, or some parts of a population, is considered a drain on the life of the overall population.”[7] Therefore, a political regime will employ its technology to manage the “unworthy” forms of life.[8] This process was deemed “state racism” by Foucault, and can be viewed as “internal racism of permanent purification.”[9]

Expounding upon the work of other social theorists, Willse explains that state racism has been incorporated into United States property law since colonial times. Early in the nation’s history, black people were treated as property, and white people were property-owners. This privilege catapulted white people forward, solidifying their political power which, in turn, allowed them to amass increasingly more capital. Those without these advantages – people who are black, Hispanic, and Native American – became essentially “surplus,” a “permanent redundancy.”[10] Without a metaphorical place in society, many also were without a literal place to call home.

Although the codification of white privilege begets state racism, Willse argues, the state is not alone in subjugating the homeless.

A diverse range of non-state and quasi-private institutions, including nonprofit homeless social service agencies, do the work of state racism, making the cuts of investment and abandonment. But considering the evolution of welfare policy and administration will demonstrate how, insofar as the state takes on projects of distribution related to economic growth, state offices and policies have been key mechanisms for instantiating technologies of state racism across the social.[11]

The last three chapters of the book detail this neoliberal paradigm, in which welfare “programs serve the economy directly as part of the economy….”[12]

Whereas prior governance models lacked the means to support “surplus” individuals and would forsake them, the neoliberal paradigm wields “technologies [to] reconfigure biopolitical governance… Illness and waste, and populations organized as such, become fertile sites for economic investment, as they multiply opportunities for developing and extending governance mechanisms, making the economic life of governance possible.”[13] In the United States, homelessness continues to exist, despite a plethora of resources that could be applied to rectify the problem. It is in the interest of government and nonprofits that populations like “the homeless” exist, so the status quo is maintained and managed rather upended.

Willse describes that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not significantly attempt to manage homelessness until the Stewart B. McKinney Assistance Act was passed 1987.[14] The Act established an Interagency Council on Homelessness, as well as provided funding for new homelessness programs. In 2009, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act reauthorized the McKinney Act. In 2013, Congress authorized nearly $2 billion for HUD to address the Act’s objectives, reinforcing a system of “metagovernance.”[15] That is, by “setting parameters and facilitating transactions among state, municipal, and private entities,” HUD “creates the conditions of path dependency that partly determine what HUD is able to enact.”[16] Homelessness becomes an expected component of contemporary society, accepted as an inevitability.

Local governments and nonprofits must follow HUD regulations and grant terms in order to receive funding. One of the most taxing mandates that accompanies HUD funding is data collection and reporting. By focusing on numbers, and aggregate numbers at that, HUD perpetuates the myth that homeless people are a distinct population. Instead of addressing the respective needs of each homeless individual, the current paradigm ultimately maintains the stereotype that homeless people are either mentally ill or responsible for their circumstances, due to either an unwillingness to work or a history of poor decision-making. Thus, the “problem” is not properly understood as lack of housing, but rather deemed the homeless themselves. Nonprofits then offer their assistance, either conditioning it on the receipt of mental health treatment or full engagement in a continuum of care process whereby homeless people work their way toward short-term housing. These “solutions” fail to address the root of the problem, and the cycle continues.

Willse does explore the Housing First movement as a potential means of improving conditions for the homeless. This movement recognizes that homeless people, by that very designation, are in need of housing. Housing First providers recognize this need, and provide clients with permanent housing, no strings attached. Providers will facilitate mental health and other social services if requested by the client, but clients are not coerced into any treatment nor exposed to programmatic content without explicit consent. Interestingly, once the crisis of finding a home is solved, many individuals have the stability to seek and benefit from such services.[17] Their health improves, but having the home is a prerequisite. Nevertheless, without addressing the structural foundations of homelessness nationally, Housing First offers only a limited remedy.

Readers unfamiliar with the details of homelessness management and advocacy will assuredly benefit from exposure to Willse’s critique of the neoliberal paradigm. Although Willse’s ideas are complex and philosophically-demanding, even non-academics willing to apply themselves should be capable of following his arguments and conclusions. But, unfortunately, increased knowledge of the status quo is the only reward for making it through the book.

Instead of equipping readers with a blueprint for improving conditions for homeless people, the book largely avoids delving into policy reform. Indeed, this criticism has been made by other reviewers.[18] Despite this reviewer having a background in political science, the question of how to shift into a new sociopolitical paradigm is daunting. It would have been nice if Willse offered some ideas on where to begin advocacy to genuinely address homelessness.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in another critique of the book, which is that its ideas derive from a very particular point of view. One reviewer euphemistically writes that the book “certainly fits within social work’s social justice agenda.”[19] At times, Willse’s work did resemble a manifesto and failed to acknowledge successful work that has been accomplished with and on behalf of homeless people. Surely, the current paradigm must offer – or at least permit – some benefits, aside from the purported perpetuation of white privilege. This reviewer would be interested in learning how to leverage them.

In sum, The Value of Homelessness offers an enlightening prospective on homelessness management within the United States. Readers will gain insight not only into homeless communities and activism, but also into how their own tacit acceptance of the neoliberal paradigm may contribute to the existence of homelessness. Yet readers looking for concrete solutions, as opposed to a philosophical challenge, may wish to deny this book a home on their shelf.

[1] Craig Willse, The Value of Homeless: Managing Surplus Life in the United States (2015) (e-book).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Note that racism does not refer to the racism of contemporary political vocabulary, in which members of a particular race or ethnicity are deemed superior or inferior. Instead, Willse explains that Foucault’s racism refers to the human race broadly.

[10] See Willse, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Lindsay McCarthy, Society & Space, http://societyandspace.com/reviews/reviews-archive/willse-craig-2015-the-value-of-homelessness-managing-surplus-life-in-the-united-states-reviewed-by-lindsey-mccarthy/ (last accessed: Apr. 1, 2016).

[19] Wayne C. Evens, Book Review,  J. of Soc. Work Values and Ethics, http://jswve.org/download/fall_2015,_volume_12,_no._2/book_reviews/105-106%20Book%20Review%20-%20The%20value%20of%20homelessness-JSWVE-12-2.pdf (2015).

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