Book Review: Vincent Lyon-Callo, Inequality, Poverty, and Neoliberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry. Broadview Press, 2004.
In recent years there has been increased discussion of the role that the non-profit structure has had on building radical struggles. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence's edited volume The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, which focused on the role of foundation funding on movement building, was a watershed on this issue. Lyon-Callo's book, published as an academic monograph three years earlier, functions as an important, but largely overlooked, companion work.
The focus in this volume, based in the author's experience in the 1990s working as a shelter staff member, is the way structural factors that create poverty become normalized and reinforced in day to day thought and action, and the difficulties particular actors encounter in challenging that normalization. Lyon-Callo's narrative is based on the small city of Northampton, Massachusetts, which experienced a significant loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s, accompanied by a decrease in affordable housing and the consequential appearance of homelessness. Since the 1970s there was also a major shift in wealth, and an increase in low-wage and low-hour jobs that made accessing enough wealth to obtain basic stability all the harder.Throughout the nine chapters of this book, Lyon-Callo argues that the transition to neoliberalism – the dominant economic system since the late 1970s, which stresses privatization and free market approaches to social problems– has involved both the dismantlement of the social safety net and the development of hegemonic governing forms based in blaming those without access to wealth, the medicalization of poverty, and the normalization of economic precarity. In line with the neoliberal model, where everything boils down to individual action and where the oppressive effects of capitalist markets are downplayed, governments and service providers have viewed the growth in homelessness largely as a matter of individual problems and deviancy rather than a matter of privilege, access, wages and affordable housing. Interventions have thus focused on changing individual behaviors rather than structural factors.
The “homeless sheltering industry” has been heavily impacted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Continuum of Care model, which views homelessness largely as a matter of addiction, mental illness and personal unpreparedness. This model plays an important functionary role for US. capitalism by helping to recreate the subject of “the homeless,”who must be “treated”for this or that issue if their homelessness is to end and whose individual behavior is the major barrier to housing stability. Lyon-Callo shows how service staff and shelter residents often enact and reinforce this model in their daily actions, whether it be residents blaming other residents for problems or calling for tighter shelter rules, or staff seeking out behaviors to target for change, such as social drinking.
The author utilizes his first hand experience as a staff member and administrator to illustrate his argument. He shows how funders utilize frameworks that focus on individual behavior and staff focus their actions and interventions with residents toward the desires of funders, whether government or private funding. Staff has been taught that deviant behaviors are the core issue at play in homelessness, and they work within institutions that function from that belief. Homeless people often internalize the self-blaming model as they interact with it. The discourse of self-blame is pervasive and recreated throughout the entirety of all these dynamics.
How does this work out on the ground? A major argument here is that shelter staff push a biomedical model from start to finish - from intake and through shelter stay - and throughout that process they reinforce a certain type of homeless subjectivity: someone who must be “fixed,” or “cured,” or “trained.” This approach restricts the types of responses that the homeless person and staff may have to overcoming barriers a person is facing – for example, low wages or not enough hours at a supermarket job. In Lyon-Callo's narrative, when shelter residents do resist within the shelter, it is often individualized rather than collective, and they often experience staff discipline. Active disagreement with a provider's assessment is understood as non-compliance to a treatment plan; accordingly, residents often learn to quickly comply to get by.
In a particularly important chapter for his argument, the author tells the story of Ariel, a shelter resident who did not want to apply for supplemental security income (SSI), a form of government income assistance. Ariel's story was illustrative of someone who intently sought decent employment but could not find it. Shelter staff pushed her to apply for SSI, a route she steadfastly resisted. Some staff read this as a “denial” of her mental illness and disciplined her accordingly – at points denying her a roof over her head because she did not meet the goals they set for her. A similar story is experienced as the town fights against the presence of homeless youth by instituting new laws – limitations on park usage, skateboarding ordinances and so on – while ignoring the structural factors that caused many more-hidden youth into homelessness, like abuse.
Part of the author's discussion of the hegemony of neoliberal approaches to service provision is an important analysis of resistance and collective organizing efforts. The author spent years at the shelter trying to push staff toward avenues of intervention that focused on structural factors and utilized community organizing to respond to homelessness. These efforts spiraled out of the shelter and throughout the community into larger projects, and they show the importance of developing an alternative-discourse and the power a few people can have in catalyzing collective organizing within a given area.
Lyon-Callo's analysis of the dynamics of shelter service provision and the actors involved are useful for academics, radicals, providers and those who utilize shelters. The author does an impressive job examining the role of the varied actors in the sheltering industry: homeless folks who both internalize and resist their conditions, staff scared of losing minimal class standing who internalize the neoliberal framing of homelessness, governments who facilitate the gentrification that fosters homelessness. Perhaps the most important insight of Lyon-Callo's book is that collective organizing and resistance to the neoliberal narrative can develop from simply raising questions with other workers and clients.
The book could have benefitted from a more developed analysis of the reasons that social service staffs take service jobs. Arguably, such an analysis would have helped to better flesh out a little bit more why organizing is so rarely seen by staff as an option, and the different types of emotional and societal compensation social service staff members receive for their work. It may have also been useful if the author widened his scope and examined the times when homeless folks and service providers have successfully organized in other areas and brought his analysis of resistance efforts in Northampton into dialog with those efforts. Such an analysis may have created a more politically useful picture of the organizing landscape and some larger lessons.
The author's focus on a singles shelter in a small New England city could also benefit from a discussion of other shelters and sheltering industries, comparisons with other cities, and even different homeless populations in Northampton. It could also benefit from a more straightforward and consistent analysis of racism in the sheltering industry. Racism is not substantially dealt with in this book, though it is usefully discussed on a few occasions, particularly in his analysis of the situation faced by homeless youth of color. Racism often plays its own key role in what options are conceived of, or considered in responding to homelessness and poverty.
Readers with interest in activism and social services will find this book indispensable. Those interested in the functionary role of non-profits will find it particularly useful in fleshing out the ways that neoliberal discourse pervades approaches to poverty. Activists interested in ways to potentially radicalize social service agencies will also find the book helpful in conceiving approaches to shifting neoliberal discourse. Indeed, the picture drawn by the author that shows service staff largely complicit with neoliberal approaches to imposed economic poverty was all too familiar to me, and all too haunting. I suspect others will experience the same. Accordingly, the author takes analysis to an important place with his discussion of resistance and organizing. This book both inspired me and helped me think of alternative options, and will likely do the same for others.