ATLANTA—Human rights expert Elizabeth Beck of Georgia State University and social work scholar Pamela C. Twiss of California University of Pennsylvania return to their roots as advocates for the homeless in the 1980s and 1990s to weigh historic patterns of homelessness against contemporary policy and explore its normalization and growth as a national industry in their new book, “The Homelessness Industry: A Critique of US Social Policy.”
“Medical models of intervention that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s pay little or no attention to addressing issues of poverty and housing,” says Beck, a professor of social work in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “Neoliberalist policy, which embraces free market ideals that systematically disadvantage the poor and working class, support deregulation, provide tax cuts to the wealthy and drastically cut safety net programs, has resulted in the widespread acceptance of homelessness as an ordinary feature of our society.”
Beck moved to Washington, D.C., to seek her fortune as a new college graduate in 1984: “One of the first things I noticed was the astonishing numbers of people living and dying on the streets. Mass homelessness was occurring across the nation. The phenomena so new there wasn’t even an agreed-upon name for unsheltered people. Were they bag ladies, street people or homeless people?”
She volunteered at an overnight shelter for homeless women and, about a year later, gave up her apartment and job as a waitress to live full-time in one the nation’s largest homeless shelters. There for more than three years, she helped care for more than 100 women.
Beck was also a part of the Community for Creative Non Violence (CCNV), whose members fought for justice and provided shelter to many of the city’s residents. She was present when CCNV won federal funding with President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides federal money for homeless shelter programs.
“For this book, I have spent the last five years turning back to what mattered most to me as a young woman, looking for answers to questions we asked then: What have we done as country that has allowed homelessness to become part of the normal fabric of society? Why have we made so little progress?”
The book offers policy, law, social service-based and moral responses to homelessness, and the co-authors argue for establishing a human rights agenda to end it.
“We believe homelessness can end,” says Beck. “Recent research suggests this may be possible if we adopt an effective perspective and a national willingness to make needed investments. However, to avoid the problems of the past, we must understand how the issue of homelessness has been historically constructed and reconstructed.”
Professor and Co-Principal Investigator
School of Social Work, Professional Excellence Program
Dr. Elizabeth Beck is a Professor in the School of Social Work at Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Her research interests are in the areas of community development, forensic social work, and restorative justice. She has pursued these areas both as independent lines of inquiry and more recently as a consolidated focus of research. Her present research explores the role of restorative justice as a strategy to address youth violence and community development.