Late last night, on a Route 15 RTD from East Colfax to the Civic Center in Denver, I stared out the window and saw the landscape change from derelict single family houses, and small store-fronts to refurbished buildings with modern apartments, and hip establishments. I looked around the bus and saw how these landscapes affected the people in it. There was a certain eeriness in the air while passing through dimly-lit streets, on which cars rolled by with high-bass acoustics penetrating through their windows. This eeriness in the air became invisible the closer the bus got to the Civic Center. This mobility, of traversing the horizontal space of East Colfax Avenue, was of geographies of fear mapped distinctly on the faces of people. While I was reading the landscape moving past me - only stopping on red lights and bus stops - a man in the seat in front of me turned back, and we striked a conversation. I asked him where his home was. For me, ‘home’ is utterly personal, yet indefinable. He replied that he had been homeless for the past ten years - all of which he spent in central Denver, in its streets, storefronts and shelters. He bore a fresh scar on his face. He had been mugged in East Colfax by somehow he knew and was stripped off three cellphones that he said he had possessed for some odd reason. The bus stopped at the Civic Center, we warmly shook our hands, and I said goodbye to Rafa.
While reading Teresa Gowan’s Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders, I am reminded of the conversation with Rafa, and consequently of Gowan’s narration of a certain duality in homeless spaces, where “the strong abused the weak and the weak in turn exploited each other”, where “lasting solidarity seemed almost impossible”, and where “postmortems on encounters that looked friendly enough (to me) would morph into alienation” (Gowan 2010, 71). Rafa shared a similar narrative of the dilemma of trust in the streets, where even though he looked out for his friend, the same friend abandoned him through acts of theft and physical harm.
Through a discursive genealogy, Teresa Gowan shows how homelessness has been defined and understood in the United States through sin, sickness, and the system: “homelessness as moral offense, homelessness as pathology, and homelessness as the product of systematic injustice or instability” (Gowan 2010, xxi). Homelessness in the broadest of definitions is the absence of shelter, an absence of home in its material form. But, the homeless is not only devoid of property, they are also dispossessed of their ability to conceive a certain space as their home. Acts of policing targeted against homelessness, limitations of stays in shelter-homes, along with lack of affordable housing continually shuffle the homeless from one space to the other, making it difficult for them to define what home really means. In so doing, the homeless are devoid of both corporeal and cerebral understandings of home.
How do homeless bodies affect geographies of fear? What mechanisms do cities use to render the homeless invisible even though they are strikingly visible in city centers? How do we justify parks in cities that open during the day when people who own/rent property can leisure in them, and close at night when people who need shelter are abandoned from it?
*This is in no means a review of Teresa Gowan's book. These are instead reflexive thoughts engendered through my engagement with parts of the beautifully layered work of ethnography.