Faculty Spotlight: Craig Willse's New Book

Congratulations to Craig Willse who recently published his book called The Value of Homelessness.  Read his interview with graduate student Christine Rosenfeld and learn about how the category of the chronically homeless was constructed and Craig's methodological choices in conducting his research. 

Your book argues that homelessness is an effect of social services and sciences. Can you expand on that?

We usually understand both social services and social sciences as responding to a problem after the fact, to either fix or document it. The Value of Homelessness argues that, actually, homelessness as an idea and as a target of governance is produced by social services and social sciences; I describe homelessness as a retroactive effect of the discourses and technologies mobilized in its name. The book charts the history of this in the United States in order to understand how contemporary ideas and policies on homelessness come to exist in their current form, and how that form comes to be taken for granted. I look, for example, at how social scientific studies produced a category of the “chronically homeless,” understood to be a subset of the overall shelter population that uses those shelters the most. Chronic homelessness is at its heart an economic category concerned with the consumption of resources. The research that produced and circulated this idea of chronic homelessness has had an enormous impact on housing services. Targeting chronic homelessness has been a key priority for the federal government for more than ten years now, and this has moved us toward thinking of homelessness in terms of population dynamics and their economic impact on cities and states. In my book I call this the “invention of chronic homelessness.” Chronic homelessness is not real, even while of course real people have been pushed into living on the street. Chronic homelessness is a technology that organizes housing insecurity in a certain form—the population—that makes particular interventions seem logical and necessary. This marks a transition from thinking of homelessness as a social problem to a governance problem, an approach that prioritizes standardization and efficiency of services while accepting the persistence of housing insecurity.

What was your methodological reasoning for not conducting interviews with homeless people? What did you gain and lose from this approach?

The book is deeply informed by my experiences as a social worker in a housing program and as a tenant organizer. And so what I learned from the residents and tenants I worked with is reflected in the book, in terms of the political commitments that drive it and the questions I ask. But I chose to conduct interviews with social workers, staff psychiatrists, program managers, and other workers in the homeless services industry, rather than clients and residents of housing programs. This methodological choice responds to a sociological fixation with documenting poor people, and especially racially subordinated communities. Instead, I wanted to focus scholarly attention on the institutions and practices of power that produce ongoing housing insecurity and deprivation, including social services and social sciences. This means the book does not discuss how people living without shelter understand these policies and their impacts on their lives, and that is an important story. But there is such an overrepresentation of “homeless people” in scholarly work on housing, I decided I could live with this gap, and it was worth emphasizing the point that homelessness is a systemic phenomenon that cannot be explained at the level of individual experience. I think a great outcome of this book would be if other writers found its framework useful, and expanded the uses of that framework to do work about those living in shelter systems, for example. I would be very pleased if the book could be useful in those ways.

You mentioned chronic homelessness earlier. One chapter of the book offers a critiques of programs focused on chronic homelessness. What alternatives could you suggest?

I often get asked a version of this question when I give talks about my work. My answer is, in some ways, very simple: we can end homelessness with housing. People need somewhere to live, and people are homeless because housing has been made inaccessible. You might be surprised how many conversations about homelessness never address housing. I think this results from decades of moralistic social policy and social science that have obscured the fact that we live in a capitalist system of privatized, financialized housing, and this is a part of a larger system of racial capitalism. And so homelessness is made through a long history and a powerful present of racisms, from housing discrimination to redlining to urban renewal—not to mention wage and employment discrimination—all of which have produced a very racialized housing insecurity which has as its inevitable outcome a massive homeless population that is predominantly not white.

And so the simple answer is a start, because it redirects attention to housing itself, but it is not enough. Materially, we need to demand housing for all. Practically, that must happen as part of broad movements for racial and economic justice that attack the capitalist, white supremacist roots of housing insecurity, rather than just responding to the outcome of homelessness. So, current chronic homelessness programs, while they are essential and life-saving for those they house, do literally nothing to challenge the reproduction of racialized housing insecurity in the United States. A few people may be rescued from the streets, but racial capitalism is just going to keep tossing more people onto them. You can’t end homelessness by just housing those immediately in need. More will just keep coming. And so we need sustained social movement responses that connect homelessness to gentrification, to public benefits, to policing and prison abolition. A broad racial justice movement for housing is, in my mind, the only way to end homelessness in the United States.

You have a background in sociology and now are part of the Cultural Studies Program at George Mason.  Can you articulate the role of each disciplinary tradition in your book?

The project comes out of critical race and Marxist traditions in sociology. One early influence for me was the work of Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, who demonstrated that categories of sociological knowledge are not neutral, but bring with them political commitments and exclusions. So that very much impacted my approach to thinking about “homelessness” not as a natural state, but as an artifact of social sciences and social services. Sociology of course is also present as a discipline that I take on and am very critical of, even while I try to push its boundaries. Here the work of Roderick Ferguson, Patricia Clough, Raewyn Connell and others has been so important—for thinking about how sociology has been a technology of the state. Of course the sociologists I draw most from may not even identity as such, and there is overlap between sociology and cultural studies. Cultural studies has been a key site for formulating post-positivist approaches in the social sciences that do not take the existence of the world and its conceptual frames for granted, but ask about the genealogies of our concepts alongside the phenomena they try to explain. A basic premise of The Value of Homelessness is that how we think about homelessness directly impacts what is and is not done to combat it. And so I'm asking us to think about homelessness differently, because I believe—and cultural studies taught me this—that there is political work to be done in how we conceptualize our research as scholars. The ways we describe the social world can be a kind of intervention, an intervention driven by a desire for a different, and more just, world.