A chubby white lady sits on the steps in front of a large, closed, metal security shutter. She wears a light spaghetti strap top and a dark skirt that covers her knees. Beside her lies a ragtag assortment of bags, topped with a plastic garbage bag. She looks off to one side, but we cannot see what, if anything, she is looking at. Her wide-brimmed hat covers her eyes, making it difficult to tell whether her expression is pensive, patient, frustrated, tired, resigned or something else.
Elliot Liebow would probably say she is feeling all of these things. The image of the woman on the steps graces the cover of his book Tell Them Who I Am, which tells the stories of women like her, who for one reason or another (and sometimes for no clear reason) have ended up homeless, sleeping in shelters by night and roaming the streets by day. Liebow explores their hopes and dreams and deplores the injustices lobbed at them from imperfect and overburdened governmental and non-governmental systems. By accompanying these women in their everyday lives, he gains insight into their situation and manages to combat the social stigma surrounding homelessness in the United States.
Although the book is based on data gathered from 1984-86 and was first published in 1993, much of the content is still relevant. Furthermore, Liebow has a talent for drawing the reader into the situation through conversations with or between the women who participated in his research, for example Shirley’s comment about the way society’s perception of an individual shifts when she becomes homeless: “One day I was a productive and respected citizen, the next day I was dirt” (p.217). He often allows the women to speak for themselves both in this way and through the inclusion of two of his subjects’ comments on the text itself, as well as transcribed life histories at the end of the book.
In spite of his focus on the women themselves, Liebow presents other perspectives as well. Along with Kim and Grace’s comments, he also provides notes made by the director of one of the shelters. He outlines concerns of the staff and volunteers who provide for the homeless, such as their fear of violence (“Sometimes I can’t go to sleep at night because I’m afraid that one of them will attack me” [p.120]) and lack of resources (“understaffed workers” [p.145]), and their personal struggles to survive that are sometimes akin to those of the sheltered women, such as the situation of the “Varner Family,” with four jobs and two children, a “major illness” and a “family income supplemented by food stamps” (p.128, n.11). Through concrete examples like these, Liebow paints a picture of how it feels to be homeless and weaves a tapestry of the multitudinous factors contributing both to the slide into homelessness and the inability to break out of it.
Liebow has written a book that could be read by the women themselves. This point is supported by the fact that at least two of them did read it, and even commented on his accuracy and perspective. However, the book reaches farther than the community which it discusses. Liebow targets a general readership in the apparent hope of persuading its members that homeless women deserve to be freed from the “one-dimensional, stereotypical” (p.1) assessment given to their situation in most mainstream discourse. He also draws attention to the “less visibly homeless persons on the street or in emergency shelters” (p.2), a group which he believes has been largely ignored or hidden from view. Thus, his book contributes to the debate around solutions to homelessness by adding another degree to the widely accepted definition of the term as referring to street people.
In the book’s back matter, after the text itself, Liebow presents the interested reader with detailed life histories, research methodology, information on social services and background information on homelessness as a broader phenomenon than the book’s limited scope. He also explains what happened to many of the women who feature in the text. In this way, Liebow enables different types of readers to decide for themselves how in depth they wish to go; some may read the ethnography simply as a story, while others will pore over the back matter in search of clues on how to fix the apparently inadequate system. Unfortunately for the modern reader, the information contained in these appendices stems from 1992 and thereabouts, rendering some of it irrelevant or inaccurate.
Although Liebow’s book may be somewhat out of date, many of the issues he points to still apply in today’s world. Homelessness has obviously not been eliminated, and it is arguably still surrounded by an aura of blaming the victim, an attitude which he is attempting to combat in Tell Them Who I Am by presenting his participants as real, complex people. His book provides a compelling starting ground for similar research in a more current context.