What explains the ongoing existence, across the 20th and 21st centuries — for starters — of houseless and unhoused people? Why do people not have a home to live in? What is the relationship between private property, the police, and houseless people? What is a home? Why is access to affordable housing, not a human right? In a society that claims to be a meritocracy — despite research articles, investigative magazine stories, and books to the contrary, people and families do not have a home or a place to live because it is their fault. The dominant meanings and assumptions about unhoused people are that they are lazy, from non-achieving cultures, or simply unworthy, perhaps for religious reasons.
In 2020, Don Mitchell published Mean Streets: Homelessness, Public Space, and the Limits of Capital, the most extensively researched study of the root causes and meanings of why homelessness continues to exist. Mitchell debunks this false and insidious narrative of lazy homeless people, with often violent consequences.
The problem of homelessness in America underpins the definition of an American city: what it is, who it is for, what it does, and why it matters. And the problem of the American city is epitomized in public space. Mean Streets offers, in a single, sustained argument, a theory of the social and economic logic behind the historical development, evolution, and especially the persistence of homelessness in the contemporary American city. By updating and revisiting thirty years of research and thinking on this subject, Don Mitchell explores the conditions that produce and sustain homelessness and how its persistence relates to the way capital works in the urban built environment. He also addresses the historical and social origins that created the boundary between public and private. Consequently, he unpacks the structure, meaning, and governance of urban public space and its uses.
For a helpful review and introduction to the book, check out Ashley D. Guerrero & Christine L. Jocoy in Urban Geography.