Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization and Urban Ecology of Homelessness by Randall Amster


Randall Amster , Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization and Urban Ecology of Homelessness , New York : LFB Scholarly Publishing , 2008 . ISBN 9781593322977 ( paper ).

Randall Amster's Lost in Space is a savvy look into local and global processes of neoliberalization, particularly as it transforms what it means to be a citizen. Amster documents a local instance in Tempe, Arizona of downtown redevelopment, privatization, and homeless removal, but this instance is a microcosm of a larger struggle over public space, rights, and citizenship. In this era of privatization in downtown spaces, rights of the “public” to use space are being supplanted by rights of the “owners” to exclude based on business interests. Often these exclusionary practices revolve around removing aesthetically displeasing bodies to promote a tourist-friendly consumer zone.

For urban scholars, this may sound like a re-run of a familiar plot, but let me explain why you should pick up this book. Amster is neither the first scholar to point to the deeper roots and implications of privatization, nor the first to look at homelessness as a “bellwether of urban justice” (Mitchell 2003). But he tackles the issue, particularly the “how” and “why” questions, with intense fervor and thoroughness, allowing his activism to intertwine with the research. The book begins with three densely packed chapters that serve as an extensive review of literature about “why” exclusion happens. As for “how”, Amster thoroughly documents Tempe's exclusionary agenda through a case study of the implementation of an anti-sidewalk sitting ordinance (see chapter 5). In this case study, Amster utilizes standard data sources like ordinances and media discourse, but what he adds to the discussion are the personalities driving the ordinances and other practices. He benefits from being a first-hand witness to the exclusionary ordinance put in place in Tempe. He is also able to document personal communication between business leaders and himself as they rhetorically “duke it out” over who should have access to space. Getting to read the raw, uncensored words of these city “leaders” is a thrill because it reveals a piece of the story that is powerful but often very difficult to capture.

Another reason to pick up this book is Amster's use of an ecological framework to connect a local phenomenon to larger global trends and processes. In his final chapter, Amster emphasizes the role of scale in analyzing the processes of globalization, localization, resistance, and stifling of resistance. For instance, privatization is being pushed in localities, but it is also a trend on the global scale. On the flip side, effective resistance movements often are grounded in local issues that they also fight on the global scale. To highlight the global nature of Tempe's homeless/public space battles, Amster briefly gestures to similar instances in seven major countries or regions in the world, demonstrating some contextual differences but also the startling similarities in approaches to homelessness, development, and public space. Tempe, Arizona is much like many other cities in the USA which are increasingly focused on being centers of consumption, as Harvey (1993) notes.

Over the course of the book, Amster explores “the patterns of interconnection among five particular spheres: 1) the lived experiences of homeless people, 2) the impetus of development and gentrification, 3) the material and ideological erosion of public space, 4) the enactment of anti-homeless ordinances and regulations, and 5) emerging forces of resistance to these trends” (209). Amster utilizes an ecological framework to spin this narrative of spatial control and homeless resistance. The ecological framework is meant to draw together the common threads across individual experiences, and cities across the world, and to bring out the reflexive relationships between criminalization of homelessness, globalization, and homeless resistance across multiple scales.

Chapter 1 lays out a framework of homeless people as active agents in their lives, rather than problem, pathology or victim—all labels used by conservatives and liberals alike. Amster states early on that homelessness is both a social and spatial problem. The purpose is to “describe and document how processes of geographic regulation and homeless criminatlization are interlocking and mutually-reinforcing facets of a larger frame of social and spatial control often loosely grouped under the emerging rubric of globalization” (2). Homelessness is often painted in terms of choice—did this person choose to live this way? If the answer is no, they deserve help. If yes, they don’t. This issue of choice is a fickle one if we get into an argument over “truth”. If someone has had limited options and no good chances to get off the street, but they maintain that they “choose” this lifestyle, who are we to say that they don’t? But many scholars and advocates for the homeless argue that they deserve help because they didn't “choose” to be there, thus they are victims deserving of help. Amster draws a hard line on this, arguing that even if they’ve chosen (within a limited scope of options) to live on the street, they should have the right to live that way. His assertion flies in the face of most social science research, which begins with the assumption that homeless people want to and should be integrated into mainstream society.

Amster faithfully and systematically lays out the common arguments against homeless people and exposes their roots, such as disease, decay, the “broken windows” theory, criminality, bad for business, need protection from themselves, etc. He also cites their implications, for example, the broken windows theory has provided a foundation for community policing programs to take aggressive approaches to sweeping the streets “clean” of any “broken windows”, including people perceived to be flawed.

Having dispensed with the notion that homeless people are the problem, Amster begins the second chapter by laying out the “real” problem—intolerance, control, exclusion, surveillance of public (increasingly privatized) spaces and expulsion of those who do not fit the globalized, gentrified corporate image of these public–private spaces. Public space is not an open space for all—it is a site of contestation where conflicting beliefs over citizenship and rights play out. Amster exposes these contestations through his use of public statements and media coverage to paint a picture of the divided “public” fighting over “their” spaces. His use of these sources is an effective way to break down the monolith of public space. This chapter pulls in the urban ecology framework to build and layer the complex intersections between spatial practices, ideological leanings away from democracy, and the health of the environment and the people living in the community. Amster tackles at length the issue of anti-homeless laws and criminalization of the everyday activities of those living on the street. He exposes the undemocratic nature of these laws in a similar vein to Don Mitchell's work, with both scholars arguing that constitutionality is not the appropriate measure of these laws, but rather their furthering or decaying of democracy (Mitchell 2003).

Despite Amster's focus on institutional practices, he never loses sight of the impact on individuals trying to live within these exclusionary spaces. This book walks a tightrope between focusing on individuals’ lives and on the policies that shape their allowable practices. Many scholars try to achieve this balance but fall prey to one or the other. It is a testament to the power of Amster's ecological framework that he effectively maintains this balance.

Chapter 5 is a case study that relies heavily on local artifacts to articulate one local instance of the broader concepts he introduces in chapters 1–4. He pulls from media coverage, city council minutes, and various other government documents to craft a case study of a specific city ordinance, its roots in the community and the USA, debates about the ordinance, and concrete impacts on the space of the community. He also articulates the role of new technologies of surveillance in policing space and citizens, a topic recently addressed by Mitchell and Heynen (2009) as well.

As the spaces of consumption increase, the spaces of non-consumption decrease. Consumers are privileged over “public”. These spaces of consumption are also treated—legally and otherwise—as private property with rights of exclusion (see Blomley 2004, 2009; Mitchell and Staeheli 2006). Along with the emphasis on consumption comes emphasis on aesthetics—to get the “right” kind of people shopping here, we have to get rid of the “wrong” kind of people. Amster cites examples of customers and even employees being removed from the space by security guards because their appearance was too grungy and indicative of homelessness. In chapter 2, he states, “the parameters of a society are defined through practices and relationships, and as the vignettes described here indicate, there is an inherently exclusionary power dynamic at work in many ostensibly public places that in reality have become private property” (65). Private security and surveillance aid in the privatization by facilitating more effective levels of exclusion.

This book resonates with me particularly because I am also an activist scholar working on issues of space and homelessness. Amster reports a similar experience to mine here in Champaign-Urbana: “when the homeless embrace the values of agency and community and organize themselves accordingly, such moments are inherently resistant and subversive—a fact apparently not lost on authorities and officials” (36). Chapter 6 is dedicated entirely to examining homeless resistance and attempts to create new forms of social and material relationships. The homeless community I have been working with for the past year has been doing that same thing, and similar threats have been issued from the city government. Amster and I agree 100% that homeless mobilization is necessary to change the socio-spatial relationships in which we exist. Amster's spatialization of the “homeless problem” is, in my opinion, at the forefront of work on homelessness. It completely reframes the debate from “what services to provide and what illnesses do they have” to “how is homelessness imbricated in issues of land use, zoning, power, control, and property”. He turns a critical lens on traditional “helping” efforts by cities and organizations, looking at them through the lens of people trying to exist in spaces that are not controlled by the city and the “helping” organizations and not subject to excessive restrictions. This approach to homelessness that the people experiencing it deserve (and should demand) the right to use space in ways that help them live is one that I have used in my work in Champaign-Urbana with a self-organized homeless, “self-housing” community.

Methodologically, Amster embraces many forms of knowing, including “experiential immersion”, or the idea that to know something, we must not only examine, analyze, and think about it, but we must also endeavor to experience it. He uses parts of symbolic interactionism but ultimately describes his work as engaging an anarchist methodology that seeks theories and knowledge employed for liberatory purposes. I appreciate the natural flow between research and activism in this study. Amster does not try to separate his activist practices from his research practices, but instead allows them to cross over, influence, and enhance each other. He also rejects dualisms, embracing instead the idea of symbiosis and ecological interweaving—the basis for the ecological perspective in which the research is framed. Anarchist methodology is necessary to overcome the ought--is problem—the idea that because something is, it necessarily should be that way. Anarchist thought “provides a framework for manifesting new visions” (140). Finally, the ecological perspective is a good way to bridge different scales and geographies to understand the interconnected nature of homelessness, space, environment, and power from the scale of the individual to global processes.

This book is valuable but not without its flaws. I applaud Amster's continuing project on this case (see Amster 2004), but I also can't wait to read something new from him. I don't want to downplay the importance of sticking with an activist project because it's very important and something that academics don't always do very well, but I want to hear new thoughts from him. I do acknowledge, though, that he evolves the ecological framework in this latest volume, which adds significantly to the concepts advanced in this book.

This volume also borders on romanticism of street life as Amster highlights many of the positive and self-affirming statements made by people living on the street and does not discuss the negative parts of this life. However, this book has to be viewed as a response to a larger body of literature that portrays only the negative parts, which leads to the characterizations of homeless as pathological or victim. His approach also acknowledges that individuals have a right to represent themselves in the way they wish, not the way the researcher wishes. However, without access to interview protocols, there is no way of knowing if these positive representations are truly self-representations or if questions focused only on positive aspects. In my experiences of working with people on the street, people will move between feelings of “it's all good; I chose this and it's awesome” to “this is absolute shit; no one in their right mind would live like this, I’m just here because I have to be; I can't wait to get up and out”. I understand Amster's portrayal as a response but also believe that it could show more of the nuance and contradiction inherent in anyone's feelings about their life.

Finally, the strength of this book is also its weakness. It contains so much information and is so thorough that it can be used like a map or guide, but because it is so comprehensive, it would be very difficult for a layperson or undergraduate or otherwise unfamiliar person to pick up and digest what's in it. But I don't care; it's an encyclopedia and a much-needed one! This book is so densely written and covers such a breadth of knowledge that it can be mined again and again for new insights and aspects. I see it as a resource guide for anyone doing work—activist or research—on the spatial issues of control and power, as exemplified through issues of homelessness. Amster himself admits that three of the chapters in this book consist of an exhaustive literature review on homelessness and public space. I would love to see this text evolve into a public education project. The text itself is overwhelming but contains so many valuable insights that could be made accessible to communities through different forms of dissemination.