Texas Tech Sociologist’s New Book Uncovers Nationwide Problem with How Homelessness
January 21, 2010
Jason Wasserman uncovers one of the biggest problems with how social assistance programs
deal with the problem across the country.
Four years ago, a Texas Tech University sociologist took a different tack by studying
homeless people who preferred living on the streets to shelters.
When he asked why many stayed away from shelters, what he found uncovered one of the
biggest problems with how social assistance programs deal with the problem across
Jason Wasserman, an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology,
Anthropology and Social Work, chronicled the four-year research project in a new book,
“At Home on the Street: People, Poverty and a Hidden Culture of Homelessness.” The
book was co-authored by Jeffrey Michael Clair, an associate professor of sociology
in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The biggest reason why many homeless people shied away from shelter services was because
submitting to a drug-treatment program was a prerequisite for admission. The vast
majority of the street homeless population interviewed by Wasserman and Clair said
they didn’t have a drug problem and wouldn’t say they did just to access the shelter.
The other reason many refused shelter assistance is because they felt like shelter
workers treated them more like children than adults, he said.
“The book essentially covers questions including who are the homeless, how do they
build their communities, what is their life like on a day-to-day basis, and why do
they resist services available to them,” he said. “One of our key questions was why
would someone choose to stay on the streets rather than a shelter. And we found some
very lucid reasons as to why they stayed away.”
Wasserman and Clair accessed the homeless population living on the streets, rail yards
and urban camps of Birmingham, Ala., Rather than the standard clipboard-and-questionnaire
approach used in many homeless studies, the two stayed overnight with some groups
and infiltrated the complex rules and regulations of the city’s homeless communities.
“Originally, we thought that the problem with homeless services was that they were
not funded enough,” he said. “We became more critical of the services once we started
looking into them. It seemed the shelters dealt with addiction and mental illness
almost exclusively. That’s great if that’s your problem, but alienating if it’s not.
One thing nearly all homeless people do want is jobs. They don’t want treatment or
even meals. But they will work, and they will push and shove to get a job.
“Overall, we found the shelters followed a medical model of homelessness, where treatment
is required to access services. This puts a band-aid on just a few of the individual
symptoms associated with homelessness rather than being attentive to the way society
contributes to the problem. In that way, social programs sometimes can make the problem
Wasserman’s work spurred a documentary film, which will soon be accessible at www.americanrefugeesfilm.com.
For a copy of the book for review, contact Lynne Rienner Publishers at www.rienner.com.
CONTACT: Jason Wasserman, assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology
and Social Work, Texas Tech University, (205) 937-1605, or firstname.lastname@example.org.