The Doctor Is In

Book Review

Soft Science
Surviving on the Streets: How to Go DOWN Without Going OUT
by Ace Backwords,
published by Loompanics Unlimited
195 pages, $14.95
Review by Wes Browning
Orriginally published in Real Change November 28, 2002


Port Townsend-based Loompanics Unlimited claims to offer "the very finest in controversial and unusual books." What they've offered here are the insights into the homeless condition of a bitter burned-out ex-druggie, ex-hippie, ex-alcoholic who has just lately seen the light (a Hindu light) and who, after having long been led astray by Liberals, or by what he thought were Liberals, now wants to be a major thorn in the side of White Liberals everywhere.

I might as well talk about that thorn first. There are three ideas put forth by Ace Backwords that he believes should puncture those White Liberals.

  1. Mr. Backwords insists AIDS has nothing to do with HIV.
  2. He says that most violence toward street people comes from Blacks.
  3. He attributes the rise in homelessness of the last thirty years almost entirely to immigration.

Oh, what controversy. I suppose that as the White Liberal in this author/reviewer relationship, I am obligated to respond to these great challenges to my world-view. OK, here goes.

  1. Gee, could be. How should I know? I'm a math doctor, not an M.D. But I know from prudence. That is to say, I know that the danger of assuming Mr. Backwords' view and having it turn out to be wrong is major, whereas the dangers involved in believing that HIV leads to AIDS and being wrong amounts to squat. I also note that most of the medical profession disagrees with Ace. (And Ace isn't an M.D. either, so there.)
  2. Even though I am a White Liberal, I am acutely aware of Black-on-Black violence, a problem that may predate the Civil War and which has deeply concerned Black Liberals also, for example W.E.B. DuBois. I believe that higher rates of violence among Blacks can be explained largely by the perception among some Blacks that the criminal justice system does not serve them, causing them to seek justice outside of the legal system. I also believe that when White people make an issue out of Black-on-Black violence it is usually an attempt to make more of Black-on-White violence than there is. In my own homeless experience, I encountered mostly other Whites, and it was mostly Whites who threatened me. Mostly housed Whites, to be precise.
  3. Immigration is certainly a factor in U.S. levels of homelessness, but Mr. Backwords overstates the problem. The majority of immigrants have sponsors and homes (albeit crowded homes) waiting for them, and a large number of unsponsored immigrants are well-paid professionals who have no significant impact on the low-income housing market. You wouldn't learn that from reading this book.

Of course, as a White Liberal I care about homelessness as a global problem, a human problem. That is, I care as much for displaced international refugees, economic as well as political, as I do for Ace Backwords and other voluntarily displaced New Jerseyans lost in San Francisco, looking for the ghost of Jerry Garcia.

Which brings me to the side of Survival on the Streets that I enjoyed the most. I was entertained by Mr. Backwords' anecdotes of his personal experiences on the streets. I enjoyed his tips for finding good sites to crash outdoors. I also enjoyed his advice on scoring food and cash.

There are also a number of personal stories of colorful street people Ace Backwords has known. Most of these ring true and are well told.

I do have to complain, though, about a tendency of Mr. Backwords to categorize and objectify his subjects. This is especially seen in a chapter on the types of street people, in which no less than 22 types are laid out and analyzed in glib generalities mostly directed at their impact on people having concerns in line with the historic concerns of one Ace Backwords.

Sadly, Type 22 turns out to be all those homeless people who didn't become homeless because of a drug or alcohol problem or criminal history or sexual abuse or because they romanticized the streets. In other words, 'round about most of them.

Presumably Mr. Backwords has the least to say about the majority of homeless because he knows very few of the majority, because they avoid him and his drugged-out reality in droves.

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