Precis on Elliot Liebow’s Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women

Posted on May 22, 2012 by


Liebow, Elliot (1993)  Tell Them Who I Am:  The Lives of Homeless Women.  Penguin Books 328 pages + (339 total) by Brian J. Delas Armas

Elliot Liebow’s Tell Them Who I Am is a seven-chapter book about participant observation research conducted with single homeless women in four emergency shelters in a small city outside of Washington DC during the winter of 1984-1985, all of 1986, much of 1987, and the winter of 1987-88 (Liebow 1993: p.xvii).   Liebow proposes that his data illustrates the “dynamics of shelter life” (p. 1).  Taking and representing the perspectives of participants, his theoretical orientation suggests a belief in structural violence; he concludes that the free market, left to its own devices, have and will fail to provide “minimally decent jobs” and “affordable housing” (p.233)

The book is officially organized into two parts:  1) Problems in Living and 2) Making It.  Part one is dedicated to outlining living conditions:  a)  the physical and social environment of shelters, b)  the difficulties of finding employment and the experience of working while homeless, c)  relationships the women had with their parents, significant others, and children, and, finally, d)  the tensions between the homeless and the individuals employed and/or volunteering for services.  Part two is dedicated to outlining how the women cope with their day-to-day lives through friends, security guards, and religion.  He finds that what sets the women that he studies apart is that, “they are engaged in a titanic struggle to remain human in an unremittingly dehumanizing environment” (p.222)

In each of the cases, he offers his participants’ life histories and trajectories as illustrative anecdotes to generalized statements.  He spoke English as did the participants, and is perceived to be a well-respected member of the society in which they had been marginalized, which was exemplified by the existence of a book he wrote being available to those at the shelter and even read by a handful (p.x).  His method is dependent upon participant observation and conversations reproduced on computer notes typed after a day of observations (p. 323). He used quotation marks to indicate quotes if he was certain that a “reconstruction was so close to the original” (p.322).  Occasionally, he was able to take down what people said at the time they said it (p.322).  His usual working day was from 2:00 PM till 10:00 PM, when the shelter lights went out (p. x).  Initially beginning as a volunteer after a long career, he appeared to enjoy camaraderie with a few of the participants, occasionally offering resources such as money and a car (pp. x-xi).

Liebow’s work appears to adequately support his main conclusion that the free market will fail to provide “minimally decent jobs” that would lead to the acquisition of “affordable housing.”  He notes the number of hidden, practical difficulties in landing a job.  The lack of a telephone discourages women from looking for any work beyond a “walk-in-off-the-street job (p.52).  Living in a shelter itself can significantly hamper women’s chances of landing a job (p.53).  A client named Kim had worked at a doctors’ office for weeks and was fired after the doctor told her that she would not have hired her had he known she’d lived in a shelter (p.54). Liebow further supported his statements by exploring the complications of a given topic; in this case, maintaining a decent job. He brings up the case of Beryl who wakes up at 5:30 in the morning, lines up to wash, gets clothing, prepares for an hour with hair, nails, and makeup to make remarkable appearance (p.56)  Liebow further explores other difficulties and the varied strategies in maintaining a job:  keeping up a second one, working a low-paying job and waiting for housing to come through, being too old, or too sick (p.71)  The many complications of landing and maintaining a job pull the reader into the worlds of attempting to make it.

In my opinion, Liebow’s work as applied to Anthropology succeeds in both showing the effectiveness of the life history method, and the ethics employed to approach working with a population marginalized by polite society.  The life history method illustrated how women who would be considered “mentally ill” or being without family could actually have multiple dimensions to their lives.  For example, a woman named Grace had lived in a townhouse and had parents, a husband, children and siblings, maintaining regular contact with each of these parts of her family (p.84) Additionally, perhaps due to his experience as a retired Anthropologist, his social positioning as a middle-class male Liebow’s research ethics appeared to be very consistent:  he let his participants know of his intent to research and in the introduction briefly talked about cases he’d wanted to include, but out of respect, left out of the book, running on the philosophy of “some do, some don’t.” (p.xvii)