Seeing Homelessness Differently

A former housing organizer and recipient of the Geography Alumni, Faculty, and Friends Graduate Fellowship, Eric Goldfischer says academia can be an enormous resource for housing movements
Portrait of Eric Goldfischer
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

When thinking about homeless people, the first image that comes to many people’s minds is someone on the street with ragged clothing, a shopping cart, and a cardboard sign. 

However, this perception of the homeless is inaccurate. 

“Images tend to show people as individual subjects who need some sort of help,” says Eric Goldfischer, a geography PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. “People have [this] perception, because that’s who’s most visible.” 

Goldfischer studies the visualization of homelessness—how the public sees and thinks about the homeless. According to him, many people view the homeless in a way that is oversimplified and incomplete.

For example, homeless individuals living on the street are not necessarily representative of the greater homeless population. In reality, homelessness affects a broader, but less visible population, including people who are couchsurfing, staying with relatives, or moving from place to place within short time periods. 

According to Goldfischer, policymakers, the media, and the general public forget about these populations. Often, people living in these kinds of situations aren’t even considered homeless. 

For Goldfischer, these misconceptions have vast consequences, especially when it comes to city planning.   

“The visual images that have come to be associated with homelessness have had a really huge impact on housing policy and homelessness policy,” Goldfischer says. 

Combining Academica and Activism

Goldfischer started his career as a housing organizer in New York City. Before coming to the U of M, Goldfischer was a part of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, working with residents in the South Bronx to advocate for affordable housing. 

As an organizer, Goldfischer excelled at bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. He has taken the same approach in academia. 

Last March, Goldfischer helped organized “Power at the Margins: Mobilizing Across Housing Injustice,” a conference that brought scholars and activists together to discuss housing issues.

Goldfischer partnered with Teresa Gowan, a U of M faculty member in sociology, to host the interdisciplinary conference, which featured over 70 housing activists and scholars from across the country.  

“We kind of put everyone in the same room and said, ‘Let's talk about [housing],’” Goldfischer says. “It brought out some really interesting things that go beyond what I do in my research or what any individual person does.” 

This collaboration is essential to Goldfischer’s work, which he describes as the “intersection between scholarship and activism.”

“Academia can be an enormous resource for housing movements,” Goldfischer says. “ I want to be in a position where I can be a resource to these groups I care about and the work they’re doing”

According to Goldfischer, activists and academics must work together to address housing issues. He believes both groups have a lot to learn from one another.  

“Housing justice and geography have so much to say to one another,” Goldfischer says. “I’m here because I think I can help open some doors for people.”

Changing Cityscapes, Changing Perceptions

During his time at the U, Goldfischer has partnered with Picture the Homeless, a New York-based activist group advocating for the homeless. He is working with the group to complete his PhD dissertation, which is focused on the “relationship between homelessness and visuality in New York City.”

Goldfischer is interested in how changing cityscapes, which place more emphasis on ecological spaces, are affecting policy aimed at the homeless. In particular, Goldfischer is analyzing the ways New York City’s High Line, an elevated park built on a former railroad track, prevents homeless people from occupying its space. 

Historically, cities have considered homeless people to be unhealthy, bad for local businesses, and dangerous to the public. In the 1990s, many cities like NYC, adopted a “broken windows policy,” using police forces to targeted homeless individuals and force them out of public spaces. According to city leaders, these measures were a way to keep the city safe. 

Although these tactics are largely obsolete, and often illegal, today, Goldfischer explained that most cities remain hostile to the homeless. 
“Homeless people are still routinely dispersed from public space,” Goldfischer says.

In developing new parks and green spaces, many cities work to “disappear” homeless people by planning spaces that deter them. 

“There's this subtle shift where people aren’t necessarily targeted as much for being visibly homeless, instead what's happening is urban planning is planning for their absence,” Goldfischer says. “[Cities are] making spaces that are not useful or available or welcoming for homeless folks in the first place.” 

The High Line, for example, created park seats that are titled upward which prevents people from sitting or sleeping in a comfortable position. In essence, developers created a space where homeless people wouldn’t want to go. 

According to Goldfischer, these efforts are not long-term solutions. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, which he believes is a lack of affordable housing, creating unwelcoming spaces punishes homeless people and merely shifts the problem to other parts of the city. 

“Homelessness is more commonly understood as an individual failure instead of a systemic policy matter,” Goldfischer says.  

Goldfischer believes cities must rethink their approach to homelessness, and that starts with reevaluating the way we view it. Ideally, Goldfischer hopes the public can align images, perceptions, and policy to fit the reality of homelessness in modern urban spaces.  


This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.

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