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Seattle Woman Studies Anthropology Of Homelessness

KUOW | May 30, 2008 8:15 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:15 a.m. | Seattle, WA

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Ann Dornfeld By Ann Dornfeld

Cities around the country are trying to solve the problems of homelessness.  Some try to simply get a roof over everyone's head, while others tackle the drug abuse or behavioral problems that might have landed a person on the street to begin with.

Correspondent Ann Dornfeld met a woman in Seattle who studies the anthropology of street people. 


It's a spring morning in downtown Seattle, and though the sun is out, it's close to freezing. Anthropologist Debra Boyer is examining an African-American woman. The woman is missing most of her teeth. She's singing softly to herself.

Debra Boyer: “You see a situation here where someone has probably been out all night and is very cold and probably hungry.”

The woman is sitting in a wheelchair alongside a Third Avenue skyscraper. She's covered by a blanket with multicolored hearts.

Debra Boyer: “She has a disability, she has a wheelchair, so my guess is that she's connected in some way. You can see the stress in her, what that has probably done to her mental health.”

Boyer has been studying the anthropology of street people for two decades. She has her own company for that kind of research.

Her work has focused on everyone from pimps and prostitutes to hustlers and junkies. Most recently Boyer turned her gaze to homeless street people.

Over several months last year, she interviewed homeless people wherever she found them: in tents, huddled in doorways, at the police station.

The United Way of King County is using Boyer's research to create a plan to get a thousand people off the streets and into housing.

The question Boyer wanted to answer is why it's so hard for many homeless people to stay in housing.

She found a lot of obstacles. Mental illness makes some people so mistrustful that they can't handle basic transactions.

Some homeless people are always chasing their next high, and don't have time to focus on anything else. And many have been on the street since they “aged out” of foster care. They've never known stable housing. 

Boyer found that as rough as it may seem to passersby, street life often feels safer to homeless people.

Debra Boyer:     “Because it's predictable. They know what's going to happen to them. So going into services sometimes people don't feel quite as safe because they don't understand all the systems and the rules.”

Outside Union Gospel Mission we pass a group of men rolling cigarettes. They appear to be Native American.

Debra Boyer: “Even on this very brief walk you've seen an overrepresentation of  people of color: African-American and First Nation, American Indian people.”

Boyer says homeless people tend to stick together with people of the same race or ethnicity. She says recreating the sense of community that homeless people have on the street is crucial to successful housing programs.

Debra Boyer: “We're all human beings. Being part of a social network in a community is very, very important to all of us. You can't expect people to be  sitting by themselves all day in a small room.”

Boyer says homeless people don't just form communities based on skin color. They often band together around a common level of addiction.

She says the 1811 Project in Seattle is an example. That's where 75 alcoholics are allowed to drink in their rooms. Jim moved in shortly after the program started two years ago. He'd been homeless since he was 16. Now he's 43.

Remember what Boyer said about street life feeling safer?

Jim: “They took me up to the room, showed me and for the first couple months I'm lookin' over my back - what's gonna jump out? When they gonna hit me with the hammer? What the hell's goin' on here? This can't be happenin' to me, this happens to the other guy! But two years later, I'm still here. Very pleased with it! It's been a lot of help.”

1811 is known as a  “housing first ” program. It connects residents with services only if they want them. Using Debra Boyer's research, and examples like Jim, the United Way is embracing housing first principles.

Boyer says the broader issue to contend with when it comes to housing homeless people is the economy.

Debra Boyer: “The more complex a society gets, the more marginalized people you have. And I think that we really are seeing that in Seattle. And it's just being intensified by the loss of low-income housing.”

Boyer says as it stands now, the stronger Seattle's economy gets, the more homeless people you see.

Back on the street, Boyer approaches her work with scientific distance. But she's clearly upset about  the situations she encounters. Like that toothless woman in the wheelchair.

Debra Boyer:     “Well, I'll think about her all day long. What services need to be put in place so that she's safe, and women like her are safe. What's missing.”

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