In 2002 Tennessee-born author Richard Schweid found himself checking in to a rundown motel outside of Detroit. Brought there by his research for his 2004 book on transportation in contemporary Cuba, Schweid had no idea that he was about to stumble upon an entire community that exists across the United States hidden in plain sight: homeless families.
Schweid’s discovery, which came in the form of a few young children he noticed waiting for a school bus outside of the motel every morning, led to 12 years of research across many cities, including Boston. The culminating product? Schweid’s most recent book “Invisible Nation: Homeless Families in America.”
I recently chatted with Schweid to learn more about his findings and his journey from writing about topics such as the history of the octopus and hot peppers in Louisiana to examining the somber plight of the many homeless families who exist all around us, unseen.
Tell me about your experience of writing “Invisible Nation.” How did researching topics that interest you and writing about them become your “thing”?
I grew up in a small independent bookstore in Nashville,Tennessee, in a very verbal household. I’ve been reading all of my life. I was a journalism major at Boston University, but I dropped out after my sophomore year and just bummed around a bit… but I’ve always written. It’s what I’m good at so I stick to it!
When something interests me, it really grabs my attention to the point where the only thing I can do is write a book about it, so I do. I’ve found that doing what I do is a great way to go to places where I otherwise would have no business being and learn about things that interest me. Writing a book is a great excuse to ask questions that you’d normally get kicked out of town for asking.
What led you to the topic of family homelessness, a subject that couldn’t be more different from the focus of your past books?
Well, as for my trajectory towards “Invisible Nation”… I was staying in a motel in detroit in 2002 researching a different topic when I noticed these kids that were there every day. I learned they were homeless and were being housed in the motel by the government as were many other families throughout the United States, and it just shocked me. I had never really thought about a family unit being homeless before. I had the classic naive reaction to it, which was, “oh, people just must not know about this, so if I spread the word things will change.” But, of course, that’s just not the case. People tend to keep these things in their peripheral vision, so they’re not inclined to do much about it.
Of course, after discovering all this, I knew I had to research and write a book about it, and the more I learned the more shocked I became. Over 2.5 million kids a year now experience homelessness… that’s just a staggering number. It seemed so obvious to me that this just shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s a tremendous burden on these families, especially the children, but also on us, the rest of society, in a financial sense.
Can you elaborate a little on the differences between homeless individuals and homeless families in terms of their needs and how society does and doesn’t meet them?
When most people think of the word “homeless,” they think of the chronically homeless individuals they see on the street. They might even think of alcoholics or drug addicts or mentally ill people, especially since Reagan defunded and emptied out the mental institutions in the ‘80s. Then the debate pops up, you know, “if we help them, will this money go to food or just to alcohol,” and all that. But homeless families are entirely different: they are just trying to survive. Because homeless individuals are what people see out and about in the cities, that’s where a lot of the funds go, because it’s in a city’s best interest to get them off the streets, because, well, primarily, it’s the right thing to do but realistically because they decrease property values.
Also, a lot of funds rightfully go to veterans because a disproportionate amount of them suffer from mental issues that make re-assimilation difficult. But these families… they really are invisible; they hide out of shame and fear that their children will be taken from them, most often on the outskirts of cities rather than the middle, so they are often overlooked. In my opinion everyone deserves shelter, medical care, education… Housing is a fundamental right, which is why I took on this project—to open people’s eyes more.
What challenges and limitations did you encounter while writing this book? Did you find it was easy to find families who were willing to be observed and interviewed?
Doing what I do, I’ve found that people want to talk about their lives, tell their stories and be listened to. They want their stories to be written about. I think of myself as serving as a microphone or loudspeaker for voices that might otherwise be unheard. So, yes, most were glad to contribute and appreciative that I even cared to ask.
As for challenges and limitations… well, as you can imagine, the book hasn’t sold all that well. It was impossible to sell in advance because people just don’t want to read something so sad and depressing. Many people get very defensive about topics like this because they feel accused.
I had to fund my own research and the travel it entailed, which is why it took 12 years to write because I had to work in between… It’s limited in time and depth. If I had had the resources to create this book the way I wanted to, I would have picked a few of the families I talked to and followed them for years as they navigated their respective situations.
Do you retain relationships with these people? Where are they now?
I’ve kept in touch with a few of the families through email… A few have managed to get out of homelessness, but I do not know what has happened to most that I talked to.
In your book you mention that Boston and New York are the only states with right-to-shelter laws. Did you notice a difference between the management of the homeless populations in these cities in comparison to the others you visited?
My feelings regarding the right-to-shelter laws are pretty ambivalent. It’s a good thing that that legislation exists because it means that somewhere the right conversations are taking place, but more often than not, the way these laws are implemented undoes the good. It’s almost as if politicians do the bare minimum necessary to appear to be helping the situation… There are systems in place to help people find housing, but the restrictions on eligibility for these systems are just too much.
When I was doing my research, something like 30 percent of people in Boston who applied were denied housing. I’m sure this number has changed but I doubt by much. The strategies in Boston were nothing amazing, but they were at least better than in cities where the problem is just ignored.
So, no, I didn’t notice much of a difference from city to city, but country to country is a different story. People only hear about new data from today, but homelessness has existed since colonial times. It’s something public bodies have always had to deal with. Somewhere along the way, in the United States, a divide has grown between people like me who feel that everyone should take care of everyone, and those who feel like their lives have been tough enough already—why should they and their family have to sacrifice and spend good money on someone else?
I live in Barcelona, and I can’t tell you how different it is in Europe. People just wouldn’t let their neighbors live the way they do in the United States. There’s such an inherent drive to help each other. I’ve found that most of the world is this way. I don’t know what makes the United States different. Poverty is a hard and stressful thing to deal with, and I understand that, but the indignation some people here develop the moment it is brought up is ridiculous.
What do you think the implications of the recent election will be for homeless families?
It’s definitely important to keep in mind that I wrote this book under Obama. Everything is changing now. It is without a doubt going to get harder for these families over the next four years, especially with so many people in positions of power now who are opposed to things like the National Housing Trust Fund, people who are proponents of the idea that the government has no business interfering with people’s livelihood.
In terms of this ideology, I’m not sure who it leaves with the responsibility of helping these families. Maybe it’s on themselves or their neighbors, I don’t know. Fortunately, the pendulum will swing back, as it does, but in the meantime, these families will have a real hard go of it.