Life on the Streets

Contemporary studies of the life on the streets of homeless people can be said to have begun with the work of Ellen Baxter, a psychologist, and Kim Hopper, an anthropologist (Baxter & Hopper, 1981) in New York City. Although many of the people on the street interviewed in this study appeared to have mental health problems (e.g., talking loudly to themselves, telling the interviewers about imaginary people), Baxter and Hopper pointed out that the daily stresses of life on the street can themselves be mentally exhausting and disorienting. Rather than seeing mental illness as a cause of homelessness, Baxter and Hopper see symptoms as the effect of life on the streets and in shelters. In fact, the symptoms of mental illness expressed by many homeless (e.g., pacing, rummaging through the garbage, talking to oneself) can be difficult to distinguish from behaviors that may arise as survival adaptations to homelessness. Acting "crazy" may be an effective adaptive strategy for keeping other people at a distance.

Jennifer Wolch, a geographer, and Stacy Rowe, an anthropologist, documented the mobility paths of the homeless in the Los Angeles area as they made their way in search of food, income, social support, and rudimentary shelter (Wolch & Rowe, 1992). Their time-space maps could then be used as a guide about where to position services for the homeless. This research indicates that when the person was not successful in meeting daily needs for food, shelter, and camaraderie, long-term goals were often sacrificed.

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