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Representing Homelessness.

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Stephanie Vanstone Amanda Grzyb MIT272A: Representing Homelessness 5 December 2003 The mass media provides a diversity of visual experiences that both inform and persuade public opinion. Through a wealth of images this pervasive form of media assembles an illusionistic world where the person and objects in it become equivalent to the public's perception of actual existence. This is the case for the homeless depicted in Jennifer Toth's, The Mole People. By merely portraying the underground homeless as a dichotomous subculture Toth proliferates the public's notion of "deserving" and "undeserving" homeless populations. The Mole People exemplifies the correlation between the "reality" of an image and the psychological and mythical constructs of society in the United States, allowing its authorship to explore a dualism that manipulates Western thought. In Jennifer Toth's, The Mole People, the author ironically intends to dismiss the urban myth of animal-like underground dwellers by presenting her readership with the personal accounts of those who inhabit the tunnels beneath New York City. It is unfortunate that Toth's lofty attempt to metaphorically resurrect the underground homeless bares more likeness to the 1956 movie monster series of the same name than to the perception of its ultimate purpose. Toth's interpretation of life in the tunnels beneath New York City becomes the sensationalized voyage of a dichotomous nether world. By merely depicting the underground homeless as a dystopic or utopic subculture Toth proliferates the misrepresentations of homelessness, all the while inadvertently dehumanizing the "mole people" to be as visceral as their label suggests. In the 1956 Universal Studios' release of The Mole People, intrepid archaeologists John Agar and Hugh Beaumont explore treacherous caverns only to discover an underground dwelling race of albinos who keep as their slaves the hunchbacked, clawed and bug-eyed Mole People. The film's trailer contemplates whether or not these heroes "can save themselves with only a flashlight for a weapon". ("Rotten Tomatoes" 1) ...read more.


On this thrill ride, Toth inadvertently propagates the very images of the "mole people" she is seeking to dismiss, effectively deceiving her readership to believe that what they see is the truth. It is for these reasons that Toth's, The Mole People, is a grave misrepresentation of homelessness. Americans have always found it necessary to distinguish between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor - the former, victims of circumstances beyond their control who merit compassion; the latter, lazy shiftless bums who could do better for themselves "if they wanted to" and who therefore merit contempt. Concurrent with the increased media and political attention being given to the problem, there has also been an outpouring of research studies that provide reliable guides to the relative proportions of "worthy" and "unworthy" homeless. My aim here is to review the findings of some of these studies, to see if we cannot be more precise about how many homeless deserve our sympathies and how many do not. For convenience, it is useful to begin by imagining a sample of 1000 homeless people, drawn at random, let us say, from the half million or so homeless people to be found in America on any given evening. Based on the research I have sketched, we can then begin to cut up this sample in various ways, so as to portray as graphically as possible the mosaic of homelessness in the United States of America. Our strategy is to work from "more deserving" to "less deserving" subgroups, ending with the absolutely least deserving: the lazy shiftless bums. Along the way, I call attention to various characteristics of and problems encountered by each of the subgroups we consider. Among the many tragedies of homelessness, there is none sadder than the homeless family. The homeless family is often an intact family unit consisting of a wife, her husband, and one or more dependent children, victims of unemployment and other economic misfortune, struggling in the face of long odds to maintain themselves as a unit and get back on their feet again. ...read more.


At the same time, their ability to care for themselves, especially in a street or shelter setting, is at best marginal. Compassion dictates that they to should be included amongst the "deserving" homeless. Subtracting the 125 or so mentally disabled men from the remaining group of 375 leaves 250 of the original 1000. Among these 250 will be some 28 or so men who are physically disabled and incapable of working. This includes the blind and the deaf, those confined to wheelchairs, the paraplegic, those with amputated limbs, and those with disabling chronic physical illnesses such as heart disease, AIDS, obstructive pulmonary disease, and others. Like the mentally disabled, these too can only be counted among the "deserving" group. Subtracting them leaves a mere 222, non-veteran adults males with no mental or physical disability, remaining. Of these 222, a bit more than half (112 men ACCORDING TO statistics) will be found to have some sort of job. When applying the data to a sample of 1000 homeless people it suggests that 7 will have full-time jobs, 27 will have part-time jobs, and 78 will be employed on a sporadic basis. Peter Rossi's Chicago data shows largely the same pattern (FOOTNOTE). The remaining 110 men must be unemployed. IF WE ASSUME THAT 61 of these men will be looking for work, then among the 222 will be 173 who are at least making the effort. These 173 people are most likely men who looking for work, but so far with no success, or have a job but not one paying well enough to allow them afford stable housing. This then leaves us with 49 people from the initial 1000 who are not members of homeless families, not women, not children, not elderly, not veteran, not mentally disabled, not physically disabled, not currently working, and not looking for work. Call these the "undeserving" homeless or, if you wish, lazy shiftless bums. They account for 5 percent of the total: a mere one in every twenty. ...read more.

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