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Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders

Homeless in San Francisco

2010
Author:

Teresa Gowan

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders

A powerful ethnographic account of life on the streets in San Francisco

-Winner of the 2011 Robert Park Award for the Best Book in Community and Urban Sociology, American Sociological Association, 2011.
-Co-winner of the 2011 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture, American Sociological Association, 2011.

In Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders, Teresa Gowan vividly depicts the lives of homeless men in San Francisco and analyzes the influence of the homelessness industry on the streets, in the shelters, and on public policy. This powerful ethnography makes clear that the way we talk about issues of extreme poverty has real consequences for how we address this problem—and for the homeless themselves.

"Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders is spectacular ethnography, fearlessly conducted by a ‘small, white English woman’ among homeless men in San Francisco’s roughest neighborhoods. The big surprise is not the hostility of the police or the shortage of services, but the determination of so many of these men to build a career out of recycling trash. Gowan’s respect for her subjects and her willingness to pitch in with the dirtiest of work—dumpster diving, for example—make this a gripping read as well as a powerful call to reassess how America treats its most despised and marginal people." —Barbara Ehrenreich

When homelessness reemerged in American cities during the 1980s at levels not seen since the Great Depression, it initially provoked shock and outrage. Within a few years, however, what had been perceived as a national crisis came to be seen as a nuisance, with early sympathies for the plight of the homeless giving way to compassion fatigue and then condemnation. Debates around the problem of homelessness—often set in terms of sin, sickness, and the failure of the social system—have come to profoundly shape how homeless people survive and make sense of their plights. In Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders, Teresa Gowan vividly depicts the lives of homeless men in San Francisco and analyzes the influence of the homelessness industry on the streets, in the shelters, and on public policy.

Gowan shows some of the diverse ways that men on the street in San Francisco struggle for survival, autonomy, and self-respect. Spending time among homeless men—working side-by-side with them as they collected cans, bottles, and scrap metal; helping them set up camp; watching and listening as they panhandled and hawked newspapers; and accompanying them into soup kitchens, jails, welfare offices, and shelters—Gowan immersed herself in their routines, their personal stories, and their perspectives on life on the streets. She observes a wide range of survival techniques, from the illicit to the industrious, from drug dealing to dumpster diving. She also discovered that prevailing discussions about homelessness and its causes—homelessness as pathology, homelessness as moral failure, and homelessness as systemic failure—powerfully affect how homeless people see themselves and their ability to change their situation.

Drawing on five years of fieldwork, this powerful ethnography of men living on the streets of the most liberal city in America, Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders, makes clear that the way we talk about issues of extreme poverty has real consequences for how we address this problem—and for the homeless themselves.

Awards

Winner of the 2011 Robert Park Award for the Best Book in Community and Urban Sociology, American Sociological Association.

Co-winner of the 2011 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture, American Sociological Association.

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders

Teresa Gowan is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders is spectacular ethnography, fearlessly conducted by a ‘small, white English woman’ among homeless men in San Francisco’s roughest neighborhoods. The big surprise is not the hostility of the police or the shortage of services, but the determination of so many of these men to build a career out of recycling trash. Gowan’s respect for her subjects and her willingness to pitch in with the dirtiest of work—dumpster diving, for example—make this a gripping read as well as a powerful call to reassess how America treats its most despised and marginal people.

Barbara Ehrenreich

This elegantly written and clearly analyzed long-term ethnography of homelessness takes off where Righteous Dopefiend ends. Teresa Gowan offers the reader a comprehensive analysis of the full range of survival strategies found on the streets of San Francisco at the turn of the 21st century: from dumpster divers, recyclers, panhandlers, and triumphantly oppositional petty thieves who pursue heroin and/or crack by all means necessary, to self-blaming addicts bemoaning their failure to adhere to self-help sobriety regimens.

Philippe Bourgois, author of In Search of Respect and Righteous Dopefiend

Like the best nonfiction, Hobos transcends the limits of fact to become a great story. Gowan weaves the lives and dialogue of her companions with analysis and history. . . . Hobos will strengthen readers’ convictions and persuade them to reconsider the institutions and histories they thought were positive, and the populations and behaviors they thought were deviant.

Bookslut

It is a powerful wake-up call to a nation that has largely abandoned its historic commitment to provide affordable housing for all Americans.

Beyond Chron

This engaging, relevant, and beautifully written book offers what other ethnographies have also revealed: the human face of poverty and its complex roots. It is a sad commentary on our times that such a book is still needed.

Choice

An interesting and compassionate description of how three different groups of homeless people in San Francisco think about their own lives.

Real Change

This work is truly a multilayered, multilevel, multiperspective presentation of information that makes connections between national, regional, city, and neighborhood dynamics, a significant contribution unto itself.

American Journal of Sociology

Teresa Gowan confronts readers with an intimate ethnography of diverse individuals struggling with systemic failure....Gowan’s analysis carries a relevance that extends well beyond San Francisco to all cities.

H-Net

This insightful work . . . is a highly original contribution to the literature of San Francisco history and is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the city’s future.

WIlliam Issel, San Francisco State University

Anyone . . . whether or not acquainted with San Francisco or acquainted with the homeless elsewhere, will certain learn a great deal from this book.

Anthropology Review Database

Essential reading for anyone interested in the political economy of homelessness.

Labour/Le Travail

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders is a welcome addition to both ethnographies of inequality and discourse analyses of American homelessness for its depth of engagement with homeless informants and for its thoughtful representation of the voices and lives of homeless individuals.

Urban Studies

Not only is it an important contribution to the now expansive literature on homelessness in the United States, but it is among the best books written on the topic in recent years. It clearly warrants the attention of academics, social welfare practitioners, political policy makers, and whoever else is interested in this persistent and pressing problem.

Social Service Review

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders is an enlightening and interesting read, and it makes a strong argument that we, as a society, have a responsibility to treat all our members with respect.

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders

One of Gowan’s great strengths lies in her raw accounts of life on the streets, which will speak to (and perhaps provoke) those working in many disciplines.

American Anthropologist

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders

UMP blog excerpt: "No One Loves a Loser"——life on the streets in San Francisco.

Willie, a lanky, gravel-voiced white man with a stoop, came from a hard-drinking “hillbilly” family in Stockton. His mother ran off when he was seven, leaving him with his biker brothers, who beat him frequently and taught him to skip school. On New Year’s Eve, 1973, fifteen-year-old Willie witnessed one of his brothers killing a man in a drunken rage, smashing his head with a heavy chain. Overwhelmed by fear and disgust, Willie left home early the next morning and caught the bus to Fresno, the nearest sizeable town. There he slept rough for a few weeks while looking for work. Lying about his age landed him a mediocre job in a rubber goods factory, and he soon found an apartment to share with a couple of other young men. He never went back home. Read more ...