Narratives of the Concrete: Review of Homeless Souls

Although Homeless Souls by Jake Anderson is bound, with a glossy image on its cover, has pages through which to leaf, and is stamped with a barcode and an ISBN number, it is really much more than a book. Instead of resorting to platitudes or the pity-provoking rhetoric invoked by some ethnographic writers whose subjects are the downtrodden, Anderson allows the friends he makes on the street to speak in their own words. As a result, Homeless Souls functions outside of the bounds of its literal content—it represents an exercise in empowerment, elevating obscured voices without redaction or censorship, and forcing the reader to confront the paradoxical monstrousness and beauty that characterizes life on the street.

Beyond the text itself, Anderson’s book stimulates the eye, the mind, and the social conscience through the inclusion of
portraits in black and white of the men and women who have contributed their thoughts to its pages. These musings unfold throughout, in handwritten drawls and scrawls, occasionally punctuated by drawings in pencil or marker. Some of the passages are reminiscent of messages expressed through “signing”, the mode of communication to which people experiencing homelessness are often confined. In fact, some of the traditional black ink-on-cardboard sheets themselves appear in images interspersed in Homeless Souls, clutched between fingertips with dirty nails. The mixed media nature of Anderson’s work lends it certain dynamism, engaging and potentially recruiting the reader as a future advocate.

The voices from the street that appear in Homeless Soul represent the diversity of the people who penned them. Their stories are wrenching and unabashed and their poignancy is impossible to ignore. The words elicited multiple emotions in this reader, from disgust to empathy to wistfulness. Moreover, I felt angry—mad, as I’ve been mad countless times before, that the situation of homelessness continues to exist. My ire was directed at different sources. Sometimes I hated the invisible barriers that people face when combating poverty; at others, I was angry that the authors were not themselves angry. Indeed, while some of the narratives convey desperation or frustration, others speak of frank happiness and of bonds of community.

In Homeless Souls, Anderson also includes a brief section of his own poetry, which like the rest of the text addresses themes of poverty and marginalization. Admittedly, the verses seemed a bit out of place, preceding the content submitted by the book’s “souls”. While Anderson’s poetry may have more fluidly integrated into the whole work if it were dispersed throughout the text, his voice is strong. Furthermore, the poems’ unadorned and occasionally confrontational style compliments the rest of the book well. In any case, Anderson’s ego does not even come close to dominating the text. Instead, he steps back and hands his newfound friends a pen and a blank sheet. To me, this is the work of a true advocate—the sort of sharing of authorship that is too rare in the often overzealous and underinformed projects that allies sometimes embark upon when working with the homeless.

Jake Anderson will donate all (100%) of the proceeds from the sale of his book to organizations supporting the homeless, among them the Homeless Empowerment Project and the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Photographs from Homeless Souls will be on display at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, 77 Buckingham St., Hartford, CT, throughout April. To order by mail, send $18.00 US per book + 6% tax (CT only) + $5 US postage ($8 for 3 or more books). Make checks payable to Antrim House and mail to Antrim House, 21 Goodrich Rd., Simsbury, CT 06070. Or order via www.AntrimHouseBooks.com.

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