The Struggle for Dignity by Barry J. Seltser and Donald E. Miller

Book reviews — Homeless Families: The Struggle for Dignity by Barry J. Seltser and Donald E. Miller

Anderson, Elaine A

BARRY J. SELTSER AND DONALD E. MILLER. Homeless Families: The Struggle for Dignity. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 154 pages. $29.95.

The authors of Homeless Families: The Struggle for Dignity should be commended for presenting information about the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, namely families. Clearly their intent is to inform those “who are fortunate enough not to be homeless” about some of the challenges homeless families face.

The data used to support the authors’ presentation were collected from one hundred homeless heads of households, predominantly mothers, who were living with their children in five different Los Angeles shelters. Part one of the book introduces the reader to a broad description of homeless families and their experiences. In addition, it includes an overview of facts about homelessness and a presentation of the structural theories related to explaining homelessness, coupled with an interface focusing on individualistic responsibility. The reference notes in this section refer to many of the timely and landmark original articles on family homelessness.

After a traditional introduction, the remainder of the book attempts to “break down the barriers to understanding and compassion” and “to find the common denominators of our lives that allow us to recognize that what is happening to them (the homeless) is a quintessentially human experience.” The authors work to achieve these goals through an increasingly subjective presentation. First, they look at the welfare system and argue that this institution often is an affront to the personal dignity and self-respect of homeless families. Second, the authors turn to the shelters where the families stay and illustrate the way shelters also can threaten the dignity of their residents.

Through stories told by several of the homeless mothers who were interviewed, the book allows us to examine the ways in which homeless parents cope with and make sense of their experiences. Specifically, defense mechanisms and religious beliefs provide a context for questioning and enabling the homeless families to interpret and give meaning to their experiences.

The authors skirt many of the reasons why families become homeless in the first place, choosing instead to focus on the question of how to respond to the homeless. They do acknowledge and attempt to reveal the complexity and multiplicity of the reasons for homelessness: “Listening to the voices of the homeless provides us with an important and revealing insight into the central values of American society. Stripped of most of the standard trappings of status and role, the homeless confront us with troubling questions. Do we truly value and respect people for their own sakes? Is the worth of a person determined by place of residence, occupation, or income?”

For those who are familiar with the homeless, through either direct service or research, or even from an assessment of current literature, the book contains few new facts. However, the authors challenge us to consider the people, not just their status. Efforts to ameliorate homelessness must begin by addressing poverty and the dangers of many more falling into poverty. This book ultimately is about dignity — “about its importance, its understanding, and its reassertion” — in relation to homeless families.

Elaine A. Anderson is an associate professor of family studies at The University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, where she teaches courses in Family Development and Family Policy.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Summer 1995

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