Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders
Homeless in San Francisco
University of Minnesota Press 2010
Why do people become homeless? Is it because some people have made bad decisions in their lives or can’t hold onto a stable job? Or is homelessness the result of a depilating mental illness or chemical addiction? From a different perspective, perhaps homelessness is less an “individual issue” but more a “systemic one.” As sociologists are apt to point out, maybe homelessness should be linked to broader issues like the lack affordable housing, or the short supply of well paying jobs, and even institutional racism.
In her new book Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), Teresa Gowan explores how these different ways of thinking, and talking, about homelessness not only shape the public policy responses to it, but also affect how homeless individuals themselves come to see their identities, daily struggles, and challenges. Gowan initially set out to produce an ethnographical study of homeless recyclers in San Francisco. Over time, however, the project expanded to look at how these individuals navigate different narratives of homelessness, depending on their relationship to the informal recycling economy, the city’s shelters and treatment centers, and their time spent in correctional facilities. As you’ll hear in this interview, the different ways that we traditionally think about homelessness–what Gowan identifies as sin talk, sick talk, and system talk–converge in interesting ways when placed in the context of actual life on the streets.