Documenting Survival Strategies

Perhaps anthropology's greatest contribution to our knowledge of homelessness has been in describing and understanding the methods of adaptation and survival in life on the streets and in the shelters. The thick, ethnographic descriptions of the daily rounds of the homeless have brought the concept of "the street" to life in these studies.

Skid Row Studies

One of the first contemporary examples of homelessness research was the work of Spradley (1970). Utilizing participant observation and methods of linguistic anthropology, Spradley was able to document the broad array of adaptive strategies used by men on the streets of Skid Row in Seattle, Washington. He sought to understand why the men who spent so much time in the "drunk tank" of the local jails, immediately returned to drinking and to the streets upon their release. Twenty years after Spradley, Cohen, and Sokolovsky (1989) turned their attention to the survival strategies of older men on the Bowery. Their study was characterized by more statistical rigor than earlier skid row studies: approximately 10% of the estimated 2,700 men over age 50 living in flophouses, apartments, and on the surrounding streets of the Bowery were sampled during the study period of 1982-83.

The methodology of the study involved participant observation, intensive interviewing, and semi-structured questionnaires utilizing previously tested measures of physical, mental, and socioeconomic well-being, as well as measuring the degree of social interaction of older people. They were most impressed by the intense reciprocal sharing of resources among the men on the Bowery. The social and material support the men got from each other served as a buffer to the harsh life on the streets and in the flophouses.

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