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Crossing the Border

Michael Rowe
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA
0520218833 (pb)


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This book argues that responses to homelessness are about where we locate social boundaries and suggests that such 'boundary encounters' raise questions about what we mean by citizenship and justice. The author is a sociologist and director of an outreach project in New Haven Connecticut, which is part of an 'national research demonstration to test the effectiveness of "systems of integration" strategies for work with mentally ill homeless persons' in 1994 (ix). The book is based on research with 15 outreach workers and 50 homeless people (the health status and demographic characteristics of those interviewed are given in the preface). Chapter 2 draws a collective portrait of the homeless people interviewed and observed, while Chapter 3 discusses the outreach work including its ethos and principles. In the introduction to the book, Rowe identifies outreach workers as 'rescuers' of the homeless who are defined as such mainly in relation to the sites in which they encounter the outreach workers i.e. emergency shelters, soup kitchens and the streets. These sites are represented as border areas dividing one world from another. These are physical borders, but also social and psychological borders 'in the sense that [they are] staked out by experiences and perceptions' (p. 1). The crossing of these borders is seen as a movement of identity as well as place.

The author acknowledges the instability of the border and these separate worlds with individuals moving back and forth between them. He is interested in how the structure of ideas that guide society break down at the borders as society protects itself from knowing the traumas of this group at the margins. The border crossings of homeless people take place 'at what might be called the moral and psychological border of society itself' (p. 156). Rowe goes on to suggest that 'We mentally place homeless people at our symbolic border and see them as living apart from us perhaps because of our uncomfortable feeling of closeness to them' (p. 156). The offer of services and resources, he suggests, protects outreach workers from the 'terror that may come from their exposure to the alien culture of homelessness'.

The outreach worker reverses the 'usual protocol of office-bound work by going out to enlist individuals who are not seeking their help' (p. 157). However, this may be too easy a dichotomy. What about the position of the probation officer and other social welfare workers whose clients cannot be seen as straightforwardly willing or unwilling clients? Similar questions may be asked about the status of the workers. While not denying the deprivation and problems associated with homelessness, this analysis does not account for potential other meanings and the possibility of a range of identifications on the part of the workers. The encounter is discussed largely in relation to the delivery of services which although part of the relationship may not account for the many other dynamics that might characterize the relationship between worker and 'homeless person'. Chapter 4 considers the price of help for the homeless individuals and the potential identity transition into 'mainstream society'. Chapter 5 investigates the opposing goals of individual care and people processing that marked the workers' everyday work. Rowe makes the useful distinction between full citizenship and clienthood, and suggests that borders are created and used 'as starting and stopping points for thought' (p. 156). The idea of the outreach team as a mediating force between homeless and social service institutions is repeatedly put forward in this book. Important questions are raised with regard to how far rescue efforts should go and the social contribution that is expected from the rescued in exchange, but are not critically addressed. I think the idea of 'rescue' also needs more critical attention than it receives here. This book serves as a reminder that 'there are limits of what caring and programs can do for others' (p. 162).

Breda Gray
The National University of Ireland

Copyright Sociological Research Online,