On the streets

Philippe Bourgois, PIK professorPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

In order to get at the heart of taboo subjects—drugs, homelessness, HIV risk and crime—Philippe Bourgois does more than simply study them from afar.

For his 1995 book on street-level crack dealers in East Harlem, “In Search of Respect,” he moved into a house in the thick of that community’s drug trade, befriending sellers and managers to understand what he calls the “extraordinarily appealing and dynamic economy that’s an economy of destruction through dealing.”

For his newest book, “Righteous Dopefiend,” Bourgois took to the streets again, this time to look at the clients of the dealers at the heart of “Respect.”

With funding from a National Institutes of Health pilot grant, Bourgois hung out with homeless heroin and crack users a mere six blocks away from his San Francisco home, even sleeping outside in homeless encampments to gain a true sense of what life is like for the addicts. In return, the addicts let down their guard, and shared their stories of survival and addiction, of violence and hope.

Bourgois, the Richard Perry University Professor of Anthropology and Family and Community Medicine, and a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, says this participant observation fieldwork gave him valuable insights into a largely ignored segment of the population.

“I realized we don’t know who these people are, we don’t know how they survive and some of us are giving dollars and quarters and all of us are wondering should we or should we not. We project whatever biases we have about the goodness or badness or neediness of people,” says Bourgois. “I really wanted to figure out who these people are and take them seriously as human beings, and learn how they live. That’s what participant observation field work in anthropology allows you to do—you suspend your moral judgment and you dive into the universe of the people you want to study to try to see the world through their eyes and walk in their shoes as much as you can.”

The resulting book is interspersed with first-hand accounts from addicts in the streets, field notes from Bourgois and beautifully brutal black and white images by photographer Jeffrey Schonberg. It also offers solutions to the multilayered problems of homelessness, disease and addiction.

“Nothing is a complete magic bullet, because these are really deep historic problems of the human condition, of social inequality, of historical transformations, of how historical transformations affect the socially vulnerable,” says Bourgois. “But you can certainly, often quite easily, lower the sort of brutal levels of suffering that we have in the United States that are just extreme by any country’s measure.”

Q. How did you approach the homeless population you wanted to study? Did you tell them who you were?
I went up to them with a student of mine who was a needle exchange volunteer and had initiated a relationship with them. I asked him if I could come along with him on one of the days that he went along there. He introduced me as this professor who was interested in where they live. I told them about the book I had just finished on crack dealers [“In Search of Respect”] and wanted to start a new project and they were absolutely, totally, into it from day one.
One goes in completely nervous. At first, you’re just not prepared for the smells, for how dirty it is, for the mud, for the sort of desperation of the scene and you go, ‘I’m not going to be able to survive this, maybe I’ll turn around and run away.’ You’re also embarrassed, bizarrely, because the same forces that make the urban destitute into pariahs sort of start reflecting on you. You’re standing there on the corner, you’re walking through this thicket of bushes that anyone who’s from the neighborhood knows is where the drugs addicts go. All of a sudden, you’re another one of the drug addicts going into where the drug addicts shoot up.
During the intense years, when I’d be hanging out on the corner, people in the neighborhood just took for granted that I was either a drug addict or someone about to fall into drug addiction. I remember being embarrassed in front of my son’s friends, because my son at this time was about seven years old when I started the project, and so all of his friends lived in the neighborhood and would say, ‘I saw your father hanging out on the corner where all the drug addicts are.’ I was worried about my son’s friends’ parents, because they were seeing me. You see how those forces of opprobrium affect you and as soon as you let go of all that, you’re there, you’re in the scene. As soon as you treat people with dignity and respect and interest, I’ve always found they reflect that back on you unless of course, they’re just completely crazy. The scene that I was in was actually very friendly. They actually represent the plurality of the homeless today in the United States. ... These are the people we see who are basically disheveled, with ripped clothes, flying a sign asking for spare change.

Q. Did it surprise you how close the homeless community was to where you lived?
You know what was more mind-boggling is I literally had to walk maybe six meters through this little thicket. You can hear all these people, I mean, literally, hundreds of people at rush hour, walking to the bus stop, and you’re in this separate universe, and the two don’t touch. You can spend several hours in this separate universe listening to people go by and they don’t look through the bushes and notice these people. You almost feel falsely protected in this cocoon.
People don’t want to see it, either, and the point of my book is to make it visible. That’s why we’re showing such challenging pictures, because we realize that there’s a dangerous politics of representation to showing pictures of addiction and vulnerable people, but I think what’s more dangerous is not seeing them and their suffering and just treating it as normal that we have so many tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands of people, as indigents with no long-term survivable shelter.

Q. What was it like to sleep outside in the encampment?
The first time it happened without me realizing that it happened. Basically, I had been staying out longer and longer and all of a sudden I found myself at 3 o’clock in the morning and I hadn’t gone home and I was sort of comfortable and it was a warm night and then I realized, ‘Oh I slept out here.’ The first time I actually did, I did it with one of my collaborators. We brought down sleeping bags and we made a date with them in advance to make sure it was okay.
You feel nervous and they feel nervous about the potential for violence and that’s why they sleep together in groups. In the smallest encampment, there were three other people; they’re not sleeping side by side, but they’re sleeping within a couple meters of each other. You get a feeling of safety in numbers. This scene that I was in was not violent like the young crack scenes that I studied in East Harlem. These guys don’t have a lot of money because they’re indigent, and most crime is about struggling for money or control of territory. They’re not fighting with people to control territory. They’re too old for that. There was a lot of that violence going on 20 meters away among the crack dealers, but we weren’t studying the crack dealers. The crack dealers would call us ‘stanky dopefiends’ and when we tried to reach out to them, they said, ‘Get away from me, dopefiend,’ because we were associated with the addicts. It’s sort of a realization I was low on the totem pole in the street hierarchy.

Q. Were people open with you and willing to talk? Did their trust come easily?
Yeah, I mean, the relationships change over time and they change over how long you stay in your visits. So we did learn different kinds of things. When one stayed over 24 hours and went through a cycle of a night, you just see things that unfold in their natural environment in a much more natural way. Once they trust you and see that you’re serious, they want to tell you the truth. They get more intimate. You’re not manipulating people in a negative way, you’re getting close to them. Then they’re getting excited about the project and deciding that they are important and that their stories should be told.

Q. Did you find any common threads in people’s stories?
Everyone’s different, obviously, on an individual [level], but what is terrifying is seeing—and this is in a sense what the book is about—how structural forces beyond our control, historical forces, shifts in the economy, shifts in the political organization of public policy, come crashing down on vulnerable sectors of the population and basically shove them around in very unpleasant ways. These are the people who weren’t able to recover from the downsizing of the industrial sector in the United States. A bunch of other types of industries arose in place of that, but those people who aren’t able to make that adjustment, those people who don’t have the education to shift from being a factory worker to being an information technology processor, are people who fall into indigent poverty. The guys that we studied—their parents were the people who lost their jobs working on the docks of San Francisco, working in the steel mills, working in the warehouses that were serving the active factory sector of San Francisco as a port industrial city.
These are forces that are much larger than the will of any individual or the moral ability of any individual to act in a way that’s going to make them a productive member of society. The book is trying to show those dynamics and when you dig deeper you then see these other patterns, that whites are affected by this very differently than African Americans.

Q. What about men and women?
Completely different experiences. A life is much, much harder for women on the streets. It’s much more violent and there’s the ever-present danger of rape. There are not that many women on the street. In the generation that we were dealing with, which was people around 40 years of age, which is the plurality of people who are visibly homeless on the street, no one has real good figures on this, but I would say, about 15, 20 percent are women. ...
I don’t want everything to be negative. You also see tremendous amounts of solidarity and love and that’s the magic of human beings. The homeless, we discovered very fast, cannot survive on their own. They’re not operating solo. They’re nervous and distrusting of other people, but they’re operating in communities where they have mutual obligations towards each other and they’re specifically developing alliances and it’s very hard for outsiders to understand it.
You see tremendous acts of solidarity, where this homeless person who has nothing, who’s literally got a blanket that he or she is sleeping in and the next supply of heroin that he or she is going to inject and the clothes on their back, will share half of that heroin and part of that blanket with another homeless person. Then, at the same time, in the same act of sharing, the same person will steal something from the other person when they’re not looking. You see this tightrope of solidarity and betrayal going on that’s very hard to understand as an outsider and we had to delve very hard into figuring that out.

Q. Did you find it difficult as an empathetic person not to intervene in these people’s lives?
Oh, absolutely. We completely engaged in ways of helping whenever we could. We were worried about creating a false sense of relationships by being patrons. We wanted to avoid just being sort of sugar daddies.
What was incredible about that was that it turned out that there was so much less that we could do for them than we thought we could. We would work really hard to get them into services, to get them into treatment, to get them into emergency housing, even simple things like when they would get an old car—because they would often live in old, abandoned cars—to offer to pay for the smog test on their car so that their car wouldn’t get towed when their registration was overdue. We would then take field work notes on how complicated that was and why it often, usually, most of the time, didn’t work out. Part of our project was an ethical imperative to help—[we would] drive them to the emergency room, accompany them into the emergency room to try to advocate for them when they were being thrown out, and then getting thrown out with them, and seeing how bureaucratically hostile that process is. That becomes part of the subject of the book.

Q. What are some solutions?
We end the book specifically with solutions because we don’t want to be just another academic book that throws stones at an impossible set of problems. We list a dozen of them—very concrete ones that we saw in place—and discuss in the conclusion the kinds of programs that have worked around the world.
One of the programs is [something] that Philadelphia has, which is a housing-first program, where you tolerate certain levels of non-disruptive substance abuse in order not to have people living under the bushes and becoming more disruptive and more destructive.

Q. Do you have plans to go back and show the subjects your book?
Tragically, over half have passed away during the study and in the two years since the end of the actual field work. There are only two who have actual telephones that function, but we’re eager to go back and see who’s on those corners still, and who’s still alive.

Originally published on May 21, 2009