“Reckoning with Homelessness” by Kim Hopper is a scholarly study of homelessness and its roots. While that may sound like a dry read, “Reckoning” is anything but.
Hopper has spent time living with and documenting the experiences of the homeless since the 1970s, and his travels have taken him to well-known homeless encampments in New York such as the Bowery and the subway tunnels. Though “Reckoning” is essentially a textbook, Hopper, because of his firsthand experience, humanizes the men and women who call the streets and shelters their home.
Hopper starts his book by giving some historical perspective. It may surprise many readers to learn that homelessness was illegal until a few decades ago because of a law against vagrancy. The law was overturned in 1972 when the ranks of the homeless started to explode.
The author counts three major factors as contributing to the great numbers of people living without a home — unemployment, housing scarcity, and deinstitutionalization. Hopper documents each factor well and spends additional time on the issue of deinstitutionalization, which put large numbers of mentally ill patients out on the streets in the 1970s and 1980s.
The book is organized into three easily readable sections. Each section and chapter includes quotes, stories and vignettes from homeless men and women the author has interviewed. The firsthand perspective, combined with Hopper’s meticulous research, creates a vivid account of life on the streets of New York. After reading the chapter on life in New York’s subway tunnels, you can almost close your eyes and visualize a homeless encampment, complete with the smells, dampness, and loneliness that must accompany it.
Still, the book does not romanticize the homeless or their problems. Just as the author recounts many pleasant encounters with homeless people, he also recounts some threatening moments. Once, in a shelter in the Bowery, Hopper spent a night next to a man suffering from apparent mental illness who was brandishing a knife and mumbling about killing someone.
The section on life in the shelters and “flophouses” is among the most riveting chapters. It includes photographs of several shelters and interviews with residents about the travails of such public living. Residents detail the robberies, sexual predators, and abusive staff members they encounter.
The book also explores a less publicized topic: people who call the airport home who are suffering because of increased airport security measures. The millions of travelers who pass through airports every year may be surprised to find that they’re passing through someone’s home. The book explains the advantages to living in the airport, including constant temperature control, a steady source of food, and clean bathrooms. This last advantage contributes to the fact that homeless citizens who live in the airport are generally cleaner and not as unkempt as homeless people who are forced to live on the streets.
The one perspective the book is missing is that of homeless families and children. Although this is certainly a growing problem, the author scarcely mentions or interviews homeless families. But that does not take away from the quality of Hopper’s work