Steve Sundberg is the author of the reality based novel Street Logic, the highly acclaimed and riveting portrayal of people facing the daily trauma and cruel circumstances of homelessness.
Street Logic has been praised as “The most closely observed, emotionally charged account of American homelessness I know” by Harvard University Professor of Social Policy Christopher Jencks and is based upon Sundberg’s experiences both as a shelter counselor and as an outreach worker to the men and women who lived and died under the bridges, in the alleys, along the waterfront, in the parks, graveyards and on the streets of the City of Boston during the author’s nine years of service to them.
Spare Change News corresponded with Sundberg over the course of several months in a series of email exchanges and spoke with him at length as he completed final revisions to Street Logic in preparation for the recent publication of the second edition of this uniquely captivating book.
Our interview evolved over time beyond a traditional question and answer activity into a series of communications with the author that encompassed topics ranging from his unrelenting frustrations as an outreach worker with few acceptable options to offer to his final determination to “do something” to bring attention to what he called “the terribleness of street life” and to what he initially feared might be the “almost futility” of ever solving the problem of homelessness.
Sundberg eventually decided to write a book in the expectation that people reading compelling stories about real homeless people would gain sufficient insight to look beyond the limited and superficial perspective presented by simply walking or driving by a street person or even by spending time in what he called a “ride along” with street workers in an outreach van. It was also his hope that realistic portrayals of individuals struggling to survive under adverse conditions would inspire his book’s readers to “do something” meaningful as well.
When we asked why he decided to write the book as fiction instead of as a memoir, Sundberg replied, “Fiction can tell the truth as well as the truth and sometimes even more powerfully” and that fiction allowed him to “open up” about the raw truth of homelessness while simultaneously protecting the identities of the real homeless people who inspired his characters.
Sundberg explained that using a fiction format also gave him the opportunity to make the topic of homelessness more readable and entertaining by allowing him to introduce a protagonist and alter ego named Axel Hazzard.
In sharp contrast to the struggling and suffering homeless characters in Street Logic, Axel is a charming and youthful professional who lives an adventurous and sometimes romantic personal life among friends and co-workers while also serving, like Sundberg, as a street outreach worker.
As Sundberg relaxed and reminisced, the heavy emotional toll that outreach work had taken on the author became apparent in his responses and he eventually disclosed that the creation of Axel, a protagonist “who could handle it,” had also served as a literary device that enabled him to maintain sufficient psychological distance from his own memories of real people and events on the streets and helped to assure that he would be able to complete the book.
Sundberg revealed that “there was great trauma in nearly every single story” that he told and confirmed that the reality of homelessness is “overwhelming.” He affirmed that his book is “a tough story about people living far below what ought to be the bottom” in life and that we need to assure that “experts in cases of extreme trauma” will become involved in possible solutions.
In writing Street Logic, the author divulged that he wanted to show the reality of homelessness to readers without coming right out and saying “This makes me angry!”
With respect to readers of his book, however, he commented “In the end, I mostly wanted to show people what was going on and let them make their own judgments.”
Sundberg agreed that there seems to be some remnant of our country’s Puritan morality ethic still at work with respect to society’s judgments about homelessness and in its decisions regarding who is worthy of help and who is not and he observed that this tendency still seems to be applied “especially in those cases of addiction and mental health issues that keep people on the street.”
Sundberg’s primary goal in writing Street Logic was to alert people to the “hard core cases,” that is, to those often physically and/ or psychiatrically disabled individuals, some of whom are addicted to various substances, many of whom are our nation’s veterans, who have been living outdoors in extreme weather conditions and who often do not want to “go in,” as the author put it, to a shelter or even to a hospital when they need treatment and might be at risk of death.
Sundberg commented “There are many out there who are not looking for major changes, who are managing somehow, and with a little help seem to continue to manage. Not well, but they do.”
He continued, “Then there are the worst case scenarios, and as a street outreach worker, these people become the focus – it’s that population of highly vulnerable ones… who often simply can’t make a decision, and are in grave danger. I wanted Street Logic to show that.”
While there are programs available to help those who are “ready, willing and able,” Sundberg clarified, “Street Logic, as I see it, is about the people who are unready and unwilling, unable.”
In discussing the importance of what he called the “can’t” issue, Sundberg bemoaned the reality that “As it is now, it almost takes an act of Congress to get someone the help they need, when they fall into that category of most vulnerable” and he raised the long and hotly debated question with respect to individual freedom, “When does society intervene?”
While there are legal maneuvers in place wherein a person may be committed to a psychiatric facility against their will, these conflict with the spirit and intent of hard earned freedoms like those specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act, especially if the committed individual does not have a psychiatric disability.
Sundberg supports “Housing First” initiatives across the country wherein homeless individuals are not required to be or remain clean and sober in order to have access to safe housing, but he also expressed a wish that there were another option available as well wherein highly vulnerable, homeless individuals could be “picked up and cared for” in a rural and healing environment.
Recent research conducted by Jim O’Connell, MD, revealed that homeless people are at a 4-5 times greater risk of death than housed people. O’Connell is a physician who treats homeless people and with whom Sundberg often collaborated on the medical outreach van in Boston.
While Sundberg acknowledged society’s long ambivalence with respect to what to do about homelessness, he wishes there were a “Mercy Law” in place that would provide a legal means wherein outreach workers seeking to help highly vulnerable individuals could “bring them in” and he spoke with longing about his vision for an option he called “the farm” which would offer health care, nutritious meals, fresh air, outdoor activities and an opportunity to do useful work.
Sundberg characterized homelessness as “the last hidden dirty laundry in the United States” and expressed confidence that “The more we know about an injustice, it gets into the psyche of a community and people will do something about it.” He agreed that Street Logic would be a valuable resource for instructional use in classes and study groups focusing on homelessness.
When we asked Sundberg for a final comment about Street Logic, he replied “I hope as many people as possible will read this book and that someone who is in a position of influence, ideally from Boston, a Matt Damon or Ben Affleck kind of guy, would see this as a worthy project to promote, so the message gets out there. A movie, even, that would raise awareness, and ultimately resources, to help with solutions for our own citizens who are in the greatest need.”
Ironically, after reading Street Logic, set in the historic City of Boston, our nation’s birthplace and home to our nation’s ideals about social justice and freedom, that is exactly what we thought.