A Review of a Review

Still progressing with this blog. The website is now live and, in theory, accessible, although it is invisible to search engines and therefore it is a speck of flotsam in the ocean that is the internet. For right now, I’m content to keep it this way. In the meantime, I want to keep writing this blog.

What I’ll do this evening is basically write an open email to a friend in Australia with riffs on his review article of three books in the current edition of the journal Social Service Review. As such, this amounts to a review of a review, and hence the title of this post. Cameron Parsell, the author, is a top-tier researcher on homelessness who mixes rigorous research with a keen sense of social justice. I also enjoy his ability to incorporate a wide range of material to make interesting and thought provoking connections. In homelessness, the only other person I’ve read who does this as well as Cameron is Kim Hopper. I liken it to sampling music, and it is a skill I envy. I met Cameron a few years back at a conference, and lately he was most helpful in giving a local perspective for a piece that I wrote (with Yi-Ping Tseng) on using administrative data for research on homelessness in Australia.

The article at hand, “Do We Have the Knowledge to Address Homelessness?” (Social Service Review, 2017, vol. 91(1)… if you don’t have access then email me and I’ll send you a copy, or contact Cameron directly), three books that is an Iron Chef exercise of sorts in that Cameron needs to throw together a meal from reviewing three recent books on homelessness. Unfortunately, of these three ingredients, two are a bit off. This implicitly begs the title question, as one book (Moss and Singh’s Women Rough Sleepers in Europe) “makes no contribution to knowledge” (141) and the second (Willse’s The Value of Homelessness) makes a limited contribution “because of a lack of evidence to support its claims” (144). After systematically flaying these two books, Cameron still makes a pretty tasty meal using the one remaining book (Padgett, Henwood and Tsemberis’s Housing First).

Ultimately, for Cameron addressing homelessness is not an issue of knowledge but of justice. Housing First, a book about what is currently the predominant approach to addressing homelessness, gives us the knowledge necessary to do that. Addressing homelessness is more an issue of moral and political will. This speaks to a fundamental paradox of homelessness, it is an injustice borne of much larger forces. Thus you have the conundrum of someone like Bill di Blasio, who must address the immediate problem of 60,000 homeless people in New York City with a solution that will take ten years to make any appreciable dent. This leaves the tools of Housing First to work with what is currently available, a more measured but equally necessary facet of addressing homelessness. Cameron explains this here nicely, and should we be content to have this served to us a bit too neatly, he messes things up a bit by throwing in some incongruencies that come from applying housing first to European and Australian contexts. This essay is a nice little companion to Padgett, Henwood, and Tsemberis’s book; the inclusion of the other two books notwithstanding.

Two other comments I have on this. One is a little parlor game for those reading who are into homelessness research. Which recent books on homelessness would have made better companions to Housing First in this essay? Matt Desmond’s Evicted is a too obvious and, given its success, too overbearing of a choice. I’m currently reading a book, Christopher Dum’s Exiled in America, an ethnography of a low-rent residential motel, could fit the bill. And beyond that I’m drawing a blank on recent books on homelessness. But it is late, I’ll likely wake up tomorrow and come up with other candidates.

The other comment is that, while the reviews of the other two books in this essay are skippable for the main point of the essay, it also can be fun, in a schadenfreude kind of way, to read a well-done critical review. Cameron methodically picks the other two books apart in a manner that seemed too easy. While I haven’t read Women Rough Sleepers, I am all too familiar with Willse’s book, as I reviewed it for The European Journal of Homelessness. The opportunity to compare our reviews on this book was interesting, and they were by and large consistent. Another friend, Dan Treglia, also reviewed this book for another outlet, and while we were careful not to discuss our thoughts until after we read and wrote, we all agree that The Value of Homelessness does not play well beyond limited academic circles enamored in critical theory. It’s too bad, for as Cameron said, the questions it raises are important ones.

Stephen Metraux