Righteous Dopefiends: The Perpetual Cycle of Habitus

I don’t have much time for a blog post in the coming weeks as I’m trying to get in a draft of my dissertation (ahh!!!), so this week is going to be a review on an anthropological work that influenced me strongly when I began thinking of graduate research. It is the kind of writing I one day aspire towards. It is my hope that one day I can produce a piece of work that is accessible and helps inspire action, whether from a policy perspective or at the grassroots level. So today is going to look at Phillipe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s rich ethnography of the homeless heroin addicts of San Francisco. This work looks at spatial segregation (something I focus on in my dissertation) and reveals the shortcomings of society in helping its members, and society’s (perhaps unintentional) support of the perpetual cycle that leaves many homeless homeless for life. Their photo ethnography shows the pain etched into the faces of those who sleep in the cold and who have married themselves to the addicting drug that is heroin.

This work is interesting given the current “Opioid Epidemic” because it shows this epidemic is not new- it is historical. It is only when it begins to affect White communities that it becomes a focus of policy makers and politicians.

Righteous Dopefiend begins with a discussion of an “intimate apartheid,” or the “segregation” between whites and blacks found within these homeless camps in San Francisco. For instance, Felix, who is a hispanic heroin addict, is often embraced as a “white” man and placed in contrast to the African-American members of the community. Felix can even be described as a liminal figure who does not have a defined place within either the white or the black camps as he often moves back and forth between them. While “individuals do not consistently behave in a racially dichotomous way,” offensive racial language (in particular “nigger), is used by members of these homeless heroin addict camps (42). In discussions of race, Bourgois and Schonberg reveal that “blackness and expressions of hip-hop or working-class street culture exclude individuals from access to upward mobility in the corporate economy” (30). In doing so, this ethnography exposes the hypocrisies within a nation that has, for a long time, prided itself on being an land of “liberty and justice for all.” However, as we come to see, regardless of race or ethnicity “the United States has consistently had the highest levels of interpersonal violence of all industrialized nations, and that violence is disproportionately concentrated in poor urban communities” (31).

In this way, Bourgois and Schonberg set up the condition into which these homeless people are thrust into, an environment they have known their whole life; a condition which begins in early childhood. The childhood stories and upbringings of the individuals in this ethnography (Hank, Carter, Petey, Felix, Sonny, Tina, Nickie) underscore the almost helplessness of the situation they now find themselves in. Most came from situations of abuse or molestation and from working-class families (many of which lost their small-owned businesses right when these individuals were growing up). Bourgois and Schonberg say that “early childhood socialization processes tend to generate many of the most durable dimensions of habitus” (43). As such, childhood is gone into great depth in this ethnography to create a foundation upon the lives of these individuals take shape.

Bourgois and Schonberg further describe the social system in which the homeless of San Francisco are helplessly entwined in. For example, law enforcement is described by Schonberg and Bourgois as “the dominant institutional regulator of poverty and drug use”; it results in chronic “fear of arrest and eviction,” and “the destablization of the daily lives of the homeless” which causes “immediate negative health outcomes” (111). Bourgois and Schonberg highlight the very cold nature of social institutions like Caltrans and public law enforcement in quickly and efficiently discarding of, what is for a homeless individual, their entire home (i.e. blankets, cardboard, etc). Caltrans is only one example of the many faults of a society that has failed to not only understand, but to address the causes of homelessness.

The public welfare system and the medical system are also exposed as faulty through the experiences of these heroin addicts. It becomes apparent that “public welfare entitlements [are] difficult to access” and that this system is itself highly racialized as Bourgois and Schonberg found that “whites negotiated the complicated, and sometimes humiliating, bureaucratic hoops more frequently than did African-Americans” (171). Moreover, the situations of homeless African-Americans differs from that of whites in numerous ways; society tends to be more sympathetic towards homeless whites. Indeed, the white homeless panhandled and solicited money much more often than their African-American counterparts. While African-Americans justified their decision to make“licks” over panhandling as a matter of pride (would rather steal than beg), it also seems that society has turned its back to blacks in offering this type of aid. Therefore, in order to survive, African-Americans must turn to burglary, theft, and excessive violence as a means of survival (which further continues the cycle of racialization and stereotypes). One of these homeless black addicts poignantly stated “it’s beg, borrow, and steal” (174); on the streets, survival to the next “fix” is priority and “aggression is the most assertive means of asserting rights” (68). Indeed, it becomes apparent that panhandling and theft are more effect means of survival than the public welfare system which often means hours of waiting in lines and messy paperwork.

Furthermore, in a society that values employment and stability, the homeless are another liminal in-between group (think of Turner’s “Betwixt and Between”). Bourgois and Schonberg reveal that while many of these homeless individuals do not hold steady employment (in fact most do not), most get up every morning and perform some type of “job” that will ultimately bring home money for drugs (whether that be theft, panhandling, or odd jobs). Many members of the homeless community in this ethnography have been imprisoned multiple times, and “many of them referred to the prison system as one of their primary, long term “legal” employers” (177). The prison system is presented as almost a joke, a system that scoops people up off the streets only to dump them back on them in little or no time. “Crazy Carl,” who Bourgois and Schonberg present as “a dual-diagnosis addict whose medical problems were being handled punitively in the criminal justice system rather than by public health services,” is an example of one homeless individual in and out of the prison system (218). There were several instances of individual’s having their sentences drastically reduced because of overcrowding in prisons or the pleas of family members. It was particularly interesting to hear the case of Sonny whose was given a particularly harsh sentence because (according to him), the judge was a friend of the lady he had robbed. It is instances such as this that present the prison system as prejudiced and highly inefficient and ineffective. As we come to see by the end of this ethnography, many central social institutions (social security, public welfare, health care, legal system) are shown to be highly bureaucratic, overly complicated, and unsympathetic to the plight of the homeless and more generally to the greater public (think of Nickie as a single mother).

In addition, it is interesting to see how hospitalization effects the homeless. While the homeless are often treated with disrespect (ex: when treating an abscess many of the doctors in this ethnography were hesitant and even unwilling to administer a local anesthetic), they become visible healthier simply from having a warm place to stay and regular meals. Many of these homeless individuals were able to stay away from drinking alcohol during their stays in the hospital, revealing that their reliance on liquor and drugs may not necessarily be the self-destructive behavior that society associates with the homeless and their addictions, but rather, alcohol and drugs may simply be a way to cope with a less than ideal lifestyle and the perpetual hopeless cycle of living on the streets. Yet, there were instances in the ethnography where individuals who were not yet completely homeless became homeless as their drug addiction increased. This could perhaps be explained by the strong sense of community and moral economy of sharing (moral economy of sharing is the openness and willingness to share drugs or blankets or even food when another is dope-sick, or when like Petey, seriously ill). Indeed, the Edgewater homeless have formed “a community of addicted bodies that is held together by a moral economy of sharing” and this system of sharing “enables their [the homeless] survival” (6).

Bourgois and Schonberg’s ethnography “of indigent poverty, social exclusion, and drug use” is meant “to clarify the relationships between large-scale power forces and intimate ways of behaving in order to explain why the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, has emerged as a pressure cooker for producing destitute addicts embroiled in every day violence” (5). The lives of Carter, Sonny, Petey, Tina, Hank, Nickie, and the others within this ethnography are only a microscopic view into what is a growing problem. The lives of these homeless addicts are tragic. Yet, in spite of their situation they manage to laugh and to love. Despite the income inequality, destitution, and low quality of life, these homeless are no different intellectually or emotionally from the better off members of society, and herein lies the greatest tragedy of all.

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