A Taxonomy of Homelessness

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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45 Responses

  1. zic says:

    Vagabonds; Stephenson’s made me love ’em.

    I’ve a dear friend who spent several years on the street; the last two with her first child. After hearing her tales, I am much more likely to hand out a dollar or two.

    I’m glad you wrote this in the comfort of a home to call your own.Report

  2. Stillwater says:

    Yesterday on the way home from work (!!) at about 4:30 I saw a dude with what looked like all his worldlies on his back utilizing every possible inch of the available sidewalk, pausing in his lurching only to shout at demons or friends inaccessible to my eyes. Of all the thoughts that could have struck me in that moment, the first – and second – were a surprise. The first was “It was easier to be homeless not too long ago.” The second was “We live in a world where being homeless is a crime.”

    I don’t advocate homelessness as a wise choice, one leading to long-term mental, material or spiritual benefits, but I do think we live in a world where that small percentage of folks who simply cannot or refuse to conform aren’t accorded any respect or even room to breathe as individuals, irrespective of the reasons they are – in effect – non-conformists. (Insanity is culturally defined, afterall…)

    Of course, after driving away I thought about the apparent psychosis – alcohol induced or whatever – he may have been experiencing, and the degree to which that was a cause or an effect of his being drunk on the street without a home cursing at shadows on the sidewalk.

    I’ve probably been close enough to that outcome myself, if I’m gonna be honest about things. Not necessarily the psychosis, and not necessarily the backpack. But I did live in a pickup for three plus years. The twist is that I had a community of people I ran with who also lived in trucks or vans, or threw down tents, so it was culturally normal to be outside normal culture.

    Damn, dude. This stuff bums me out. I’m glad you wrote it, tho.

    Long live the hobos!Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Stillwater says:

      This reminds me that I should probably update the article. There are loitering laws, of course. Then the city where I live actually tickets people for panhandling, fining them a few hundred bucks a pop. The obvious result is they almost never collect on the tickets- only a few have ever been paid- but they have a legal reason to stop and question the homeless until they go elsewhere. The implementation of these laws was, not surprisingly, started at the same time as the real estate boom here.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Rufus F. says:

        One of the first things Boulder did to inaugurate the “New Economy” was to run the homeless outa town. Usetobe those folks defined the downtown (Pearl Street, FWIW) culture, but when the decision to maximize dollahs was made, they were the first to go. Even tho they were an integral part of the cultcha that made Boulder wonderful. (Back in the day.) Just like all the musicians, artists, weirdos and freaks who used to live here made Boulder wonderful. (Back in the day.)

        It was so wonderful that even materially-defined rich folk couldn’t help but see it. And wanna piece of it.

        And there goes the neighborhood.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Stillwater says:

      There’s a game you can play with yourself. It was described in, I think,the Illuminatus Trilogy somewhere, but it’s far older than that.

      Basically, pretend to be an alien. (As the book explained, in the distance past, people pretend to be an angel.) I like to pretend to be a time traveler. Just pretend to be someone who can see what we do, but does not know anything about *why*.

      And then try to explain things to yourself.

      The other day, I could not actually explain to myself why we don’t let homeless people sleep in parks. I don’t mean I disagreed with the reasons, I mean I literally could not come up with any justification that did not sound completely insane.

      ‘So you let people use public land *recreationally*, but won’t let them sleep there?’
      ‘What if people lay down on the ground during the day?’
      ‘We…usually allow that, but not if we think they’re sleeping there?’
      ‘They might be…dangerous?’
      ‘Sleeping people…might be dangerous? I’m pretty sure sleeping people commit crimes only very rarely?’
      ‘No. Uh…like, just letting them hang out in the park is dangerous, they could…hurt people?’
      ‘So it’s safer if they sleep in random alleys?’
      ‘Technically, we don’t legally let them do that, either. Although they do.’
      ‘But if you actually spend the time and effort kicking them out of parks, but not alleys, you must think it’s better they’re in random alleys, which is rather odd if you think they’re dangerous. I mean, alleys are needed by other people, and people might not realize there are dangerous homeless in them. Whereas people could just stay out of parks in general after dark…actually, don’t most people do that *already*?’
      ‘Erm…I think the theory is more they’ll go somewhere else.’
      ‘Oh, to a place that does allow them to sleep on public land. Are there places like that?’

      Sometimes I think all of society just runs on nonsense we’re all been taught, and it makes almost no sense at all if anyone objective were to look at it. We’ve decided there’s a homeless problem, we’ve decided we want them to be somewhere else so we make it hard for them (As does everywhere else) and that’s the end of the story, no matter how stupid it is.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to DavidTC says:

        “People with power or influence are the people have internalized ownership of the park to themselves, even if they never use it. They are more than happy to share ownership with other people with power or influence and reluctantly allow for people without power or influence to use the park under the limited circumstances that people with power or influence would themselves use it. As such, there’s no problem with the homeless using a bench upon which to sit for a spell, but they shouldn’t claim a bench for themselves as their own or even use a bench for more than the time it takes to, say, eat lunch. When the sun goes down, just as the people with power or influence wouldn’t be in the park after dark, neither should anyone else be.”


        “People with power and influence have internalized ownership of the park. They see it as their park to be used under very specific circumstances. Sleeping there is outside of those circumstances.”Report

      • zic in reply to DavidTC says:

        I actually think there are some very ancient social mores at work here — mostly having to do with the spread of plagues. Vagabonds were the first to die in plagues, and probably helped spread them.

        (Can you tell I’m reading Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle?)Report

      • DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

        As such, there’s no problem with the homeless using a bench upon which to sit for a spell, but they shouldn’t claim a bench for themselves as their own or even use a bench for more than the time it takes to, say, eat lunch.

        Yeah. The discussion with my hypothetical time traveler was actually a bit longer than that. I could almost sorta justify closing the park at night, a little. Safety concerns, you know. (Which, as my time traveler kept pointing out, made little sense, because logically that just distributed crime elsewhere, randomly. If the problem is crime at night, the solution is a general curfew, not keeping people out of places *no one has to be in*. I, as a last ditch effort, made a ‘police resources’ argument that sounded weak, even to me.)

        I had a good deal more trouble explaining why we’d let a group of people, for example, play frisbee at noon, which is mildly annoying and has a (trivial, but still there) amount of risk to others, and takes up a lot of space, but not let someone quietly sleep in the park at noon.

        And, yeah, you’ve pretty much nailed it, and that’s basically what I was forced to admit, that we just don’t want homeless people cluttering up the place, as a general anti-homeless policy. The justification is basically ‘We want the homeless *over there*, not here.’, which, uh, resulted in the time traveler being a bit disappointed in our localized selfishness.

        And that, really, is the entire purpose of the thought exercise. Keep talking to a guy who says ‘And why is that?’ and ‘Does that really make sense?’…to make you strip away all the ‘Because that is how it is’ answers.

        It only works if you do it honestly, but it does work for all sorts of things, and often you’ll end up in touchy subjects and become oddly defensive (against yourself!) of obvious societal stupidity, even stuff you agree is a problem, but can’t quite bring yourself to admit that society is apparently a bunch of assholes and has literally no justification for doing things.

        Another fun topic: Try to explain the difference between avoiding jail time by bribery of the police, vs avoiding jail time by paying a fine.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to DavidTC says:

        “The police are organized criminals who are merely shaking down people for money and use the threat of jail as leverage against the non-connected.”

        This is probably a game that is more fun to play against people who argue for the continued existence of the state, now that I think about it.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to DavidTC says:

        A fellow I know from the Czech Republic said that during the Communist days they would send people to take pictures of the homeless in New York and then say to them “Do you want to live like this? In a country with homeless people?” He says they never mentioned that they didn’t have the same problem there because they just put them in jail.

        It seems like the US has these two problems: there are these homeless people around and nowhere they can go; then there are all of these abandoned houses around after the housing crisis, a good number of which once housed those people. What to do? What to do? I could think of one solution, but surely it would sound crazy.Report

      • Kim in reply to DavidTC says:

        you’ll find jail in scandinavia is quite nice. worth it if the alternative is the street for a night.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

        It seems like the US has these two problems: there are these homeless people around and nowhere they can go; then there are all of these abandoned houses around after the housing crisis, a good number of which once housed those people. What to do? What to do? I could think of one solution, but surely it would sound crazy.

        Cut property taxes on abandoned houses so that the people who own them would hire the homeless people to shine their shoes?

        Remove regulations so that the homeless people can start up their own landscaping company and keep the abandoned houses looking nice?

        Reduce the estate tax so that when the owners of those abandoned properties died, their descendants would be able to keep more of the money, allowing them to give more of it to a private charity to help the homeless?

        Dammit, what’s your solution?! Don’t leave us in suspense!Report

  3. RTod says:

    This was most excellent. Nice job.Report

  4. dexter says:

    Rufus, This is really a fine piece of writing. The thing about mental illness is that it stays hidden. If someone has a broken leg they are taken somewhere to get it fixed. The bills will come later, but if someone has a broken brain they are on their own.
    I think the two worst things about being homeless would be the boredom and trying to stay clean.
    @Stillwater, I used to live in Boulder and was wondering what you call “back in the day”.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to dexter says:

      Early 80s. Before the “boom!”. Before bike lanes were speed-regulated for pedestrian traffic. Before all the music joints downtown were run outa town. Before the homeless were targeted.

      I lived thru all that stuff, so I might be misremembering. 🙂 But in the late 80s Boulder city gummint made a very conscious decision to “clean up” the town. And then the 90s boom hit and …. it’s a completely different town now.

      Except for the Sundowner. That’s about all that’s left.

      have you been here lately? It’s like, an entirely different town, dude!Report

    • Jaybird in reply to dexter says:

      Remember the mall crawl? Good times.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    And we look at these people and think “something ought to be done… maybe somebody should take care of them?” and damn few want to take care of them. Nowhere near enough. Then we might think “maybe we could take up a collection to have somebody take care of them?” and we take up a collection and each person chips in as much as it’s worth to them to have someone else take care of them and, after administration costs, we count up our money and it pays for damn few people. Nowhere near enough. Then we think “maybe we could raise taxes to have somebody take care of them” and we raise taxes as much as we can get away with (and with this group of legislators it might be more and with that one it might be less) and we count up our money and, after administration costs, it pays for damn few people. Nowhere near enough.

    At least we have libraries.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

      Oh! You’re talking about gummint interventionism and all that libertarian stuff. I thought you were just speaking as a human being.


      • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

        I thought I was talking about the failures of personal compassion and gummint interventionism and thinking that it’s not enough and feeling all “I have no idea what the solution is” and thinking “at least we have libraries”.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        I thought I was talking about the failures of personal compassion and gummint interventionism

        You’d certainly know best about what you thought you were talking about.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

        Maybe we just need more personal compassion.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        Who’s the “we” you’re referring to?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

        We. As a society.

        It seems that we, as a society, are more than happy enough to say “someone else should fix this” but not “this is my responsibility to fix”.

        We tend to say “the fact that I think that someone else should do something meets my obligation.”

        And that’s true for both charitable giving and increased taxation.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Stillwater says:

        I keep thinking about the handful of people I know who I could stay with if I lost my place. There are about five of them, I’d say. Similarly, I have about eight people who I can say unequivocally could stay with me if they needed it and get back on their feet. Admittedly, three of them are in my band. Maybe we should all be in bands. Moreover, if all of us had five or six we would take in and five we could stay with… well, we make enough networks and next thing you know, we’d have a society. I hate to sound like a small-c conservative or something, but as I have very little to no faith in the state or business to address the problem, I have to put faith in something and society it is.Report

      • zic in reply to Stillwater says:


        A few months ago, a woman came to me at the food pantry about a friend, single mother, no income, about to be evicted. Made me have to rummage around to find out how to guide them a bit. The best I could tell her (to tell her friend, who I met later, she was real,) was 1) The landlord was being put into financial hardship via her failure to pay rent, 2) there were no funds available to pay her rent, 3) her best bet was to go to an emergency shelter with her kids, which would trigger immediate emergency services, and 4) the low-income apartment complex in town had no income requirements and an available unit; but it might take a month to get her into it.

        I haven’t seen the woman since December, I don’t know if they’re still here. She’s from a couple towns over, so local, but in New Hampshire, didn’t have a lot of friends here, and from the looks of her teeth. . .

        It’s heart breaking sometimes.

        I’ve begun compiling resources to give as handouts when I hear people’s problems, nobody seems to have gone to the trouble of putting things in one place. I have a folder of programs that the non-profit who runs the low-income complex put together (it’s one of seven approved non-profits to gets most of the CDBG money, which is essentially housing money from the Feds.) It’s got all the gov’t programs, but it’s shy on the social networks that aren’t funded by government (most particularly churches), and that’s something I think should be improved upon.Report

    • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

      Actually we don’t spend much tax money on homeless folk. Most shelters are charities that get, maybe, some help for the local cities/areas. Having worked for years in a program to keep mentally ill homeless folk off the streets we used a lot of services. One of the best was Medicaid since all our clients were disabled; gov health insurance so we could get the MI folk medications and health care. Of course housing aid so we could get them in apartments and food stamps helped also. So yeah some tax money, but not lots. Although now that i think of it, i think our program was from a fed gov grant to help all the long term mentally ill who were tossed out on the street when they, for many good reasons, closed many big psych hospitals.

      Services delivered by trained people actually works pretty well for some things. Of course nobody can stay in those jobs for to long unless they had a spouse who made good money since they didn’t pay that well.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

        Actually we don’t spend much tax money on homeless folk.

        I thought I said that.

        The hospitals closing strikes me as something that I probably would have supported at the time… but now I wonder if it didn’t do more harm than good.

        I have no idea what the solution is.Report

      • greginak in reply to greginak says:

        Closing lots of psych hospitals was a good thing in many ways. To many people who stuck in wards when they could live outside of the hospital. However lots of those people still needed help to get by on the outside. That is how the program i worked in got started; keeping as many people out of the hospital as possible. Severally mentally ill people need, usually, a lot of help. If you have enough money, either as a family or your case managers can access enough programs, you can make a decent life for most people. Not everybody to be sure. Not all homeless want off the streets for a variety of reasons and some need rehab but don’t want it. Put lots of money into all sorts of proven Gov services and lots of homeless and mentally ill people can be helped and have a higher quality of life.

        I completely admit most newspaper comment sections are hellholes. However i , for no good reason, read a recent news article about problems with chronic drunkenness in one local neighborhood. Many people blamed the chronic drunks on……homeless shelters and the store front mental health program. The solution was to get rid of the shelters and services and chronic drunkenness among street people , and the street people, would disappear. The problem is hard hearts. That is the thing to solve.Report

      • zic in reply to greginak says:

        In the 80’s, there was a growing homelessness problem (emptying out the psyche wards, partly, but also dramatic cutbacks in welfare under Reagan,) that became rather troubling to people, particularly after a few high-profile stories about homeless children.

        At the time, I worked of a state Welfare dept. as a systems analyst/computer geek sort of person, considered good at dealing with computer crises as they arose. (I called it fire brigade work.) In a matter of just a few weeks, the welfare program for this state for helping people who were homeless went from this wee, sleepy little thing to a national issue, and it landed in my lap. The criteria (laid out by Congress) was a window of 30 days emergency shelter, food stamps, and cash assistance to purchase food, clothes, etc., plus help transitioning into a permanent home; but not to exceed this help more than once a year. That last bit was why it got thrown in my lap; it was some challenging logic that had to be applied to existing welfare records, it didn’t start out as a fresh thing, but kludged onto what was already there.

        It was gutted during the Clinton welfare reforms, and dismantled by Bush after.

        If you’re homeless, or on the verge of being homeless, there may, in some states, be small pockets of money to help, but in most places, there’s only charity. Meanwhile, the problems of schools who have students who do not have a home are huge; let alone the problems of the mentally ill and addicted on the streets.Report

  6. dexter says:

    @stillwater , I haven’t lived in Boulder since 72 and haven’t been there since 82. The last time I was there I went to the top of Sugarloaf to look around and found the whole thing so sad. Where once was clear skies and long views, now there was smog and the road to Denver was especially fouled. Even though we go to Colorado every few years we don’t go to Boulder.
    When I lived in Boulder there were no homeless or so few that they weren’t noticed because it was so easy to live there. Rent was reasonable and blue collar wages were enough to live well. I have looked at some real estate prices there and don’t think labor would find it easy to exist in Boulder.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to dexter says:

      An old (deceased) friend of mine live in Boulder in the 60s. he thought it was already over by the early eighties.

      That’s the way it goes, I guess. Each generation just fucks things up! But we’re all still here…

      I guess what I’m talking about was a big shift away from DirtyFunBoulder to a consciously chosen decision in favor of UpscaleTrendyBoulder. That happened around ’87, if you ask me. I might move on that by a month or two if presented with compelling evidence. 🙂Report

  7. Saul Degraw says:

    A few years ago I remember reading an article about how many librarians in big cities have also become de facto social workers because of needing to take care of the large number of jobless, homeless, and close to homeless who spend their days in public libraries.

    What you wonderfully described here is also true in SF. The Smaller branch libraries do not have security guards though. The main library does and I’ve seen them break up fights and arrest people (they might be members of the SFPD). You also have homeless people who use the bathrooms for hygine.Report

  8. Will Truman says:

    There was a while there when I was on the west coast when I regularly went to the dollar theater. It was regularly used by the local homeless people because it was a place you could stay for at least a couple of hours and probably longer for only a dollar.

    I missed the climax of the movie Armored because a fight broke out in the theater.

    I’m not making any point of significance here. Was just reminded of it all.Report

  9. Maribou says:

    Thank you for posting this, @rufus-f . It resonates with a lot of my experiences, as someone who worked in the heart of downtown for many years, goes to the downtown library every week, and has seen all of these types of folks and more in my own workplace.

    I would add that many of the homeless folks I see actually pass for “not quite homeless” – if they are neither angry nor clearly mentally ill, people think they must not be living on the street or in a shelter. When really they are.

    There’s also, at least down here, a huge number of homeless teenagers. Who have their own culture and subgroups. Many of ’em that I’ve talked to or been told about were kicked out of their houses – often times for being gay, or trans, or otherwise not fitting into their parents’ boxes.

    If I think about it too hard, it overwhelms me. I could never have written something as lucid and moving and frank as your post above, but I’m awfully glad you did.Report

  10. LWA says:

    Thanks for the beautifully written essay. Allow me to ad to the taxonomy, that of the invisible homeless.
    Mrs. LWA works for a large theme park, where the employees are virtually all minimum wage or slightly above. She overheard one of her coworkers mention how she and her husband live in theri car, and on weekends splurge and get a motel room.
    Andrea Pelosi in her documentary “Motel Kids” shows several more people like that, who are not visibly homeless, but have no permanent stable place to live; some live in motels, others in storage containers, others cars.

    I often wonder how many of the waitresses and retail clerks we see every day are like that- not the visible hobos, but invisibly desperate, living on the precarious edge of survival.Report

    • Kim in reply to LWA says:

      The people on the precarious edge of survival often don’t know enough to be desperate.
      Life is what it is, and a person can walk to the slaughter just as easily as a pig.
      And lest we think that in any way I’m comparing the relatively comfortable life of a pig to a humans…
      one can be in pretty dire straights before someone decides you’re not worth keeping alive.

      Man, am I in a bad mood today. Apologies.Report

  11. LWA says:

    Mrs. LWA taught me once, not to think of homeless people as political abstractions, but as individuals. She uses that old story of the starfish- where instead of worrying about all of them, you look at one single one and focus on that.

    There is a homeless guy named Troy I see once in a while. He is the classic transient- caked with dirt, shoeless, wrapped in a sleeping bag of some indeterminate color. He is missing a few teeth, head bizarrely shaved on one side, and carries a lighter. He isn’t obviously mentally ill, speaks clearly and articulately. The odds and subtle clues suggest he is a meth addict or something.

    Yet I stop and chat with Troy, and give him lunch when we meet. I make a point of trying to chat with him as a person, and befriend him without trying to fix or cure him. Because I know I can’t- there is no outside fix for addiction. He may or may not enjoy my companionship- for all I know, he may be enduring it so as to keep the meals coming. Or not, I really don’t know.

    ‘sTruth is, I really don’t care. The story of Troy’s life isn’t mine to write. It probably won’t have a happy ending. Statistics tell us that his life will be short, and end miserably.

    Eric Law, in his book “The Bush Was Burning” talks about suspending judgement, of learning to live in that ambiguous state of accepting people as they are, without judgement. Saul Alinsky spoke of the same thing, advising people to accept the terrain as it is, rather than how we want it to be.

    I think of that when I meet with Troy. I can’t fix him, and whatever judgement I make about his life story is wholly irrelevant. He is still a person, and there is an obligation on my part to treat him with compassion and friendship, accepting him as he is, rather than who I wish he were.Report

    • Kim in reply to LWA says:

      Stories like this make me want to cry.
      And then make some blood pudding or something squishy and appropriately gory.

      “Accepting him as he is, rather than who I wish he were…”

      which sounds all great and wonderful, when you’re talking about the man playing the silly “I don’t leave my house until JUUUUST before he leaves his house, so I can say he’s following me.”

      … but… that’s not really everyone out there. and there are people right now in far worse situations, that you aren’t helping because you’re helping this one guy.Report

  12. Rufus F. says:

    Thanks also to those who offered kind words on this piece. As someone who writes many things and sends a good number of them off in little empty bottles towards distant shores of publishing never to be heard from again, it’s always nice to post things here and read what everyone else has posted.Report