My dissertation examines the homeless crisis in New York City. In the early 1980s, the number of people without homes in the city rose dramatically, and they became a highly visible part of the urban landscape. The media, policy makers, activists, and ordinary citizens described this group as "the homeless," but conflicts over who these people were and how to solve this perceived crisis revealed that "the homeless" was in fact a nebulous and ill-defined category, based as much on assumptions about race, gender, poverty, behavior, appearance, and location in space as on housing status. Even as many New Yorkers across racial and socio-economic lines called for the municipal government to help the homeless, they also protested the placement of homeless shelters in their neighborhoods, citing the risk of communicable disease, the danger of a population they viewed as unruly and mentally unstable, and the lowered property values they feared would accompany a shelter in their neighborhood. The homeless personified the city's physical filth and decay, and the imperative to "shelter our homeless," as one New Yorker put it, was never separate from the quest to "save our streets," especially in a gentrifying city.
My work demonstrates that since the early 1980s, homelessness has been a primary axis around which public policy and neighborhood activism have revolved, and it has shaped popular understandings of poverty and urban space across the United States. I also examine how the sights, sounds, smells, and behaviors associated with street people became a focal point of public unease: physical evidence both of the humanity of the homeless and their profound otherness. Studies of space, health, cleanliness, and civility have generally been the realm of nineteenth and early twentieth century histories; by introducing them to the study of the late twentieth century, I demonstrate the importance of understanding the homeless crisis as a raced, gendered, and embodied phenomenon.