A review from Social Forces, Volume 76.3 (March 1998)

Something Left to Lose: Personal Relations and Survival among New York's Homeless
By Gwendolyn A. Dordick. Temple University Press. 220 pp. Cloth, $59.95; paper $17.95.

Reviewed by Leon Anderson, Ohio University

The concept of the bricoleur, popular among symbolic interactionists and critical theorists during the past decade, evokes a sense of agency within constraints; the bricoleur creatively adapts the materials at hand to his or her own needs. Although she never refers to the homeless men and women she describes in Something Left to Lose explicitly as bricoleurs, Gwendolyn Dordick portrays their creative efforts to survive in ways that bring the term bricoleur readily to mind. "Homelessness," Dordick argues, "is about improvisation." Something Left to Lose contributes to the sociological understanding of homelessness by examining improvisation among the denizens of four distinct niches in Manhattan's homeless topography. In each case, Dordick focuses on the ways in which the homeless develop situationally specific social relationships that facilitate their survival.

The "station," as she refers to her first ethnographic site, is one of Manhattan's busiest bus terminals. Amidst the bustle of commuters, several cliques of homeless individuals carve out their daily lives. Dordick explores the intersection of social relationships and survival in a group of five men, four African American and one Puerto Rican, in their twenties and thirties. She describes the "hustles" (such as panhandling and singing for commuter donations) that they use to make money, and the "group bank" into which members are expected to put a significant portion of their earnings. In a theme repeated throughout the book, Dordick makes the case that the social world of the homeless is a moral and rule-bound world. At the station, a setting devoid of private space, the rules emphasized reciprocity and integrity among members of the group. Such relations tended to protect the men in the moment, but they inhibited them from developing more long-range plans, and they encouraged superficial, exploitive relations with the women at the clique's fringe.

The homeless at the "Shanty," an encampment of makeshift huts on an abandoned lot near the East River, inhabited a distinctly different economic and social environment from the "Station." Surviving largely through day labor, prostitution, and selling drugs, the two dozen racially diverse men and women were individualistic in their orientation. While the Shanty provided an environment rich in one-on-one (albeit transitory) relationships, its residents were not expected to share with their peers the way the Station homeless were—due largely, Dordick argues, to their ability to retreat to the privacy in their "homes." Rather the normative expectations of their relationships centered on fairness as traders in the Shanty's informal economy.

The other sites studied by Dordick include the "Armory," a city-run "shelter of last resort" which provided "three hots and a cot" for up to 800 primarily African American men who were bedded on an undivided drill floor, and the "Private Shelter," a small church shelter for up to ten men. In each setting she again explores personal relationships and survival strategies. The Armory is a place where violence is rampant and where social relations are organized primarily toward the goal of physical protection. The staff do little and relegate much of the running of the Armory to "the crew," an organized group of physically intimidating longterm residents. In a variation of fictive kinship, same-sex "marriages" (some sexual, some not) serve as a basis for interpersonal solidarity among many of the Armory's men, who define themselves as romantic couples and provide each other with physical and social support.

The Private Shelter is free of physical intimidation that characterizes the Armory. However, while the shelter provides a physically safe space, its ideology and organization create an isolating environment. Staff and volunteers see residents as moral failures and discourage them from forming friendships with their peers lest they thwart each others' moral recoveries. During the day, the men are expected to be out of the shelter, working on the personal failings that made them homeless. At night they return to the tightly monitored shelter with its ever-changing volunteer staff of church members and university students. The Private Shelter provides Dordick's grimmest ethnographic vignette. In its tightly monitored "administered social world" the men find little opportunity for the social improvisation characteristic of the other settings.

Something Left to Lose subtly interweaves narrative and analysis in a manner reminiscent of Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner and Elijah Anderson's A Place on the Corner. Dordick does not seek to mask her presence in these tales. She frankly discusses her frustrations, uncertainties, and failures in field research: how her familiarity with the men at the station limited her ability to get close to the women she met there, the fear of reprisal from the "crew" that kept many men at the Armory from talking to her, her struggles to distance herself from the role of shelter volunteer at the Private Shelter. Such difficulties notwithstanding, Dordick has produced a sympathetic but unromantic account of social improvisation among the homeless.