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Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.

Maria Strati
Homeless Women in the USA: A comparative review essay of the book “Tell them who I
am: The Lives of Homeless Women” and the PhD dissertation “Homeless Mothers as
Parent Leaders”
Generally speaking homelessness has many dimensions, such as, the reasons why
someone becomes homeless, the process of becoming homeless and how homeless people deal
with everyday hardships and uncertainty. In general, homelessness is a worth investigating social
issue for the following two reasons, firstly society should move away from some stereotypes
regarding homeless people and adapt a more tolerant behavior towards them, and secondly the
state stakeholders should adjust housing and welfare policies according to the needs of middlelow class.
Homelessness has become a social concern in the USA society since 1980s, a period
where homeless people became more visible due to the economic downturn which led to a high
unemployment rate and non-affordable housing. Many people lost their jobs, as a result they did
not have sufficient resources to provide themselves with a place to live. In addition, many people
who had an employment were not paid well so they could not afford housing. Moreover, the lack
of efficient financial and housing governmental policies made the problem even worse. One of
the most vulnerable groups regarding homelessness in the USA is women (Enarson 1999).
Specifically, the book Tell them who I am: The Lives of Homeless Women, written by
Elliot Liebow, and the PhD dissertation Homeless Mothers as Parent Leaders, written by
Dorothy Ann Milligan, deal with the issue of homeless women. The authors highlight the
struggles of the women to survive in the inhuman contexts of homelessness and shelter life, as
well as how they are attempting to escape from homelessness, get a job and basically have a


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

normal life. On the one hand, Liebow studied the phenomenon of homeless women through
participant observation by being engaged in the everyday life of the homeless shelters “The
Refuge”, “Bridge House” and “New Beginning”. Liebow became eager to study the homeless
women after beginning offering his voluntary services in “The Refuge”. The immersion of
Liebow in the daily life of women and shelter staff combined with his background in social
sciences motivated him to started jotting down notes spontaneously about the life in the shelter.
After a while, he asked permission from the direction to start taking notes officially. On the other
hand, Milligan studied the phenomenon of homeless women, by conducting in depth interviews
from former homeless women who have been clients of “First Place”, a social service institution
that equips former homeless mothers with the necessary employment, social, parental and
psychological skills. “First Place” also operates as a school which provides education to the
children of former homeless mothers. Milligan has been homeless for a short period in her life so
she was aware of the hardships of homelessness. Her main goal was to give a voice to former
homeless women. In addition Milligan (2011:2) states that the way media illustrates
homelessness influences the attitude of the general public towards homeless people. Liebow
examined the topic of homeless women as a whole, whereas Milligan has been focused only on
the role of homeless women as parents.
Firstly, the methodologies will be presented. Secondly, the similarities of those studies in
methodological approach and the way the two authors present their findings will be analyzed.
Then, the differences between those studies in methodological approach will be analyzed.
Finally, the general conclusions will be presented.


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

As it has been mentioned in the introduction, Liebow studied the phenomenon of
homeless women through participants’ observation by participating actively in the everyday life
of the homeless shelters “The Refuge”, “Bridge House” and “New Beginning” and also by
developing a communication with the women who were using the services of the above shelters.
However, Liebow (1993:326) acknowledged that he did not take into account the institutional
perspective of shelter provider. In the appendixes A and B of his book, he provides information
about the lives of the women after the end of his study and the lives of the women before
becoming homeless. On the other hand, Milligan studied the particular phenomenon by
conducting in dept interviews from former homeless mothers. She gives information about the
life of women before becoming homeless in the Chapter IV of her dissertation. The interview
guide is presented in the Appendix B of her dissertation.
Both of the authors, kept the certain level of anonymity in order not to expose further
information about the women who participated in their studies. In both studies are analyzed the
main factors that lead to homelessness, such as economic difficulties, unemployment, family
problems, health problems, drugs and alcohol, psychological and social circumstances, ethnicity
and the luck of appropriate housing policies.
Similarities between the two studies:
In both studies the authors were the only persons who gathered and analyzed the data
which means that they did not involved any other researcher in the processes of acquiring and
analyzing data. It is remarkable that both of them acknowledged their biases and prejudices.
Liebow (1993:vii), acknowledges the fact that being a man with a house could be a barrier to
comprehend fully the situation of homeless women. Milligan (2011) even though she had


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

experienced homelessness for a period of her life she states that the fact she is a white middleclass woman gave her more opportunities to escape from homelessness in comparison with some
of the women/mothers she interviewed. Specifically, Milligan (2011:6) claims that “While my
homeless journey was difficult, I did not experience social barriers such as race, class, or
language. My situation was not easy, but I had opportunities and privileges that some of the
mothers I spoke with did not enjoy”. Some of the women/mothers who have been interviewed
by Milligan, they had to face the barriers of different race, ethnicity, color and language while
they were struggling to survive in homelessness and also when they were trying to escape from
Another important similarity is that both of the authors engaged the participants of their
studies in the process of final material editing. Liebow (1993:xvii), asked from some of the
women and the director of the shelter to make comments on the manuscript to ensure the
accuracy of the research. Milligan (2011:64), after transcribing the interview in a word document
she sent by post to all the women/mothers she interviewed an audio file and a document with the
transcription of the interview. Precisely, Milligan in a cover letter asked the women/mothers to
review the document and make the necessary changes in order to ensure the accuracy of her
research results. However, Milligan states (2011:64) the following “Most of mothers did not
return their transcripts. Of the ones that did return the transcript, corrections were limited to
spelling changes of proper, street, or school names”. On the other hand, Liebow (1993) had to
face some negative reactions, for instance, one of the women after reading a draft of the
manuscript she became very angry and told to the researcher that she did not want her story to be
included in the book. Liebow claims (1993:xvii) that he did not understand the reasons why she
got angry with him. In general, involving participants and interviewees in the process of data


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

collection and analysis allow the researchers to acquire more valid data and illustrate thoroughly
the social context of the participants and interviewees, two elements that may lead to more
credible conclusions (Forsey 2010).
Both of the authors established a continuous contact and a good communication with the
directors of the shelters. The directors of the shelters, firstly they provided researchers with the
necessary permissions to conduct their research projects and also they were assisting them with
other administrative details during their projects. In the case of Milligan, two of the directors of
the “First Place” shelter contacted the women/mothers who were about to be interviewed.
Despite the valuable assistance of the directors, the researchers faced some structural problems
given the sensitivity of the subject they were addressing. One of their major concerns, which has
already been mentioned, is the fact that they were not able to comprehend fully the “world” and
the social context of homeless women. One of the most basic requirements of their studies is
that they had to make the women to feel comfortable to talk about their homelessness. In the case
of Liebow (1993), occasionally, some women had good and bad days or weeks, however, during
their “bad” days those women revealed useful “uncensored” information (Liebow 1993, p. xiv).
In the case of Milligan, some women started crying during the interview, a factor that made the
interview process hard for both researcher and informant (Milligan 2011, p.99). In spite of the
problems that both of the authors faced some women were more than willing to share their
Liebow and Milligan present in details the basic causes of homelessness and also the
approach of social services, state authorities and the whole society towards homeless women.
Generally speaking, economic downturn leads to an increase of unemployment rate and a
decrease of the wages; consequently, people cannot afford housing. In addition, another major


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

cause that leads to poverty and thus to homelessness is the lack of proper housing and welfare
policies. Family problems, especially domestic violence, physical and verbal abuse lead women
to homelessness in their try to escape from an abusive husband or parents. Psychological, mental
and health problems, as well as disability, alcohol and drugs are other important causes of
homelessness. In both studies, are illustrated the role of social class, precisely most of the
women came from low-middle class background, and other barriers related to color, ethnicity
and language. Furthermore, both studies affirm that society regards those women as inferiors.
Generally, society perceives homeless people as incompetent, useless, lazy and ignorant. In
many cases homeless people are humiliated by their fellow citizens. The harassment of homeless
people by the rest of the society has an impact on their self-esteem and makes them feel that they
do not belong in the society anymore, a dynamic that makes difficult their attempts to escape
from homelessness.
Differences between the two studies:
The main difference between the two studies is that Liebow’s study is written in a
narrative tone whereas Milligan’s study has the format of a PhD dissertation. Another important
difference is that Milligan had to face the barrier of time constraint in data collection and
analysis in order to conduct her research and finalize her PhD thesis within a certain deadline.
Due to the strict deadlines she had to deal with and other barriers, such as transportation of the
women/mothers in the premises of “First Place”, Milligan interviewed a small number of
women/mothers. Moreover, the director of “First Place” urged Milligan to interview
women/mothers only once due to the sensitivity of the topic. As a result, due to the limited
number of the women/mothers who participated in Milligan’s study, as well as other obstacles


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

that emerged during the interview process, her results cannot be generalized for the whole
Liebow did not have to deal with the barrier of time constraint in data collection and
analysis since he was conducting his research in his leisure time. As it has previously been
mentioned, Liebow studied the subject of homeless women ethnographically through participant
observation. Liebow (1993:vii) asserts that in participant observation “Researcher is the
research instrument” so his primary goal was to participate as much as possible in the everyday
life of the population he was studying, the homeless women. Before taking the decision to
conduct a research on homeless women, he was just offering his voluntary service once a week
in the kitchen of a shelter for homeless people in the county of Washington. Due to the fact he
was enjoying being surrounded by the people of the shelter later he became a volunteer at “The
Refuge”, a shelter for homeless women (Liebow 1993, p. viii). He had been astonished by the
great efforts of the women to deal with homelessness and acquire basic things which are
considered for granted for the rest of the society. The courage of the women, their sense of
humor, as well as their company urged him to go to the shelters for homeless women more often,
four and sometimes five days per week (Liebow 1993, p. ix). Given his former training, he
started spontaneously taking down notes and then he got the necessary permission from the
direction to conduct a research (Liebow 1993, p. ix). Specifically, Liebow started his study in the
winter of 1984-85 and finished it in the winter of 1987-88. Meanwhile, in 1986 opened the night
shelters for homeless women “Bridge House” and “New Beginning” so when “The Refuge” was
closed he was going to the other two shelters. Liebow (1993:x) asserts that despite the fact he
continued offering his voluntary service in “The Refuge” he made the relevant distinction
between his role as a volunteer and his role as a researcher.


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati
Liebow (1993:320) conducted his study based on the following three principles “Some
do, some don’t”, “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies” and “Change it into eggs”. The first
principal, “Some do, some don’t”, states that even under identical contexts each individual
behaves differently. The above principal illustrates the fact that sometimes “exceptions might not
be exceptions at all” (Liebow 1993, p. 320) consequently; researchers avoid the danger of
making non-credible conclusions and perceive non- existent patterns. The second principle, “Ask
me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies, states that people under study provide more precise answers
to non-research and readymade questions in other words, the questions should be raised naturally
from spontaneous conversations (Liebow 1993, p. 321). In addition, if the same population is
studied for a long period then the probability of “lying” decreases. However, Liebow (1993:321)
acknowledges the fact that the above principal could be slightly problematic when there is a time

The final principal, “Change it into eggs”, states that researcher should avoid

regarding irrelevant complexities of the topic that s/he is studying and try to interpret it as simply
as possible based on real-life terms (Liebow 1993, p. 322). The last principal may facilitate the
writing, analysis and problem solving procedures.
Milligan (2011:5) conducted in-depth interviews based on “biographical and narrative
inquiry methods” to collect as many detailed stories as possible. According to Milligan
(2011:56), the above methodology gives a voice to marginalized groups to share their stories and
express their concerns. The consistency of the study is ensured by focusing on a certain targetgroup, the former homeless mothers. Firstly, all mothers have experienced homelessness and
other hardships that challenged their ability to be good mothers and advocate for their children.
Secondly, all of the women/mothers came from the Seattle area and have used the services of
“First Place” at least once. Thirdly, all of the women/mothers have children who got a school


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati
education within the framework of “First Place”. Finally, the study was based only on
women/mothers whose participation did not influence their healing process. The researcher
chose the “First Place” for practical reasons since it was almost the only institution that gave her
access to formerly homeless women/mothers (Milligan 2011, p.57).
Milligan (2011:60), before proceeding to the interview process she conducted a pilot
study with two of the women/mothers. The pilot interview permitted her to make the necessary
changes in some interview questions and also eliminate some others. In addition, the pilot
interview gave to the researcher the necessary feedback concerning the time constraints of each
woman/mother; consequently, she adjusted the interview process accordingly. The basic axis of
the interview questions were focused on how did the women/mothers become homeless and
experience homelessness, how did the women/mothers respond to their child/children’s
education experience, how did the women/mothers manage to escape from homelessness, the life
of the women/mothers today, how do the women/mothers regard the future and what the policy
makers and educators should take into consideration.
Regarding the interview process, Milligan (2011:62) points that it is very important to
make the informant feel comfortable in order to gather as much information as possible which
consists a vital element of the research process. Some of the main challenges she had to face
were the fact that many women/mothers were not punctual, (they were not on time), and also the
language problem since some of the women/mothers were not native English speakers. As it has
been mentioned before, the limited number of the women who participated in the research and
other structural obstacles did not allow the researcher to extract general conclusions.


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

In conclusion we may infer that homelessness is a major problem for the society in the
USA due to financial circumstances that lead to unemployment and poverty, as well as the luck
of appropriate welfare policies. The homelessness affects mainly the low-medium class,
however, ethnicity, color and language barrier are another important factors that should be taken
into consideration. Other important factors are psychological and social problems, and also drugs
and alcohol addiction. Homelessness has an impact in the life of people who have been homeless
for a certain period of their life. One of Liebow’s (1993:314) main concerns is that the number of
homeless people is increasing while society’s supportive attitude towards them is decreasing,
even though homeless people co-exist with the rest of the society. As it has already been pointed,
women face a great risk to become homeless. On the one hand, Liebow (1993:313) claims that in
1991 single women consisted almost the 12% of the homeless population. On the other hand,
Milligan asserts (2011:2) that the “typical homeless family consists of a single mother with two to
three children. The studies of Liebow and Milligan illustrate the struggles of homeless women to
deal with homelessness and their continual efforts to escape from homelessness and have a
normal life. Moreover, they pointed the negative approach and the stereotypes of the society
towards homeless women which lead to make the state of those women even worse.
The sensitive nature of the topic created some research obstacles. As it has been
mentioned before, Liebow and Milligan were not able to comprehend fully the situation of
homeless women because they came from different socio-economic backgrounds. In the case of
Milligan’s study, the major problems were the time constraint and the limited number of
women/mothers who participated in her research. The fact that both of the researchers
established a good communication with the direction of the shelters and engaged the participants


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

in the data analysis procedure contributed to get more credible results. In the case of Liebow, the
lack of time constraints, his engagement in the shelter life and the construction of good relations
and friendships with the women in the shelters allowed him to gather a great amount of data.
Moreover, Liebow (1993:x) claims that many women were enjoying his company. The
participant observation studies require immersion of the researcher in the social context of the
people s/he is studying (Liebow 1993, p.vii). Milligan’s study was based on interviews which
have been conducted in the premises of First Place. One of her goals was to make women/mother
to feel comfortable while they were about to start narrating their stories, so, before the
appointment she prepared the room accordingly (Milligan 2011, p.61). Moreover, she showed
her appreciation to the women/mothers for devoting their time to her by thanking them at the end
of the interview and also by offering to them a $25 gift card from a local grocery store. The
selection of the women/mothers and the pilot study she did before starting her research provided
her with the necessary feedback concerning the questions and the way she should approach the
topic. To sum up, both of the studies confirm that homelessness is a topic that should be studied
from many different perspectives such as gender, color, ethnicity and class.


Final Assignment: Comparative Review Essay.
Maria Strati

List of References
1. Enarson, Elaine. 1999. “Women and Housing Issues in Two U.S. Disasters: Hurricane Andrew
and the Red River Valley Flood. “International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.
2. Forsey, G. Martin.2010."Ethnography as participant listening."Ethnography. 11 (4):558 – 572.
3. Liebow, Elliot. 1993. Tell them who I am: The Lives of Homeless Women. New York, NY: The
Free Press.
4. Milligan, A. Dorothy. 2011. “Homeless Mothers as Parents Leaders”. PhD dissertation,
Department of Management and Leadership, Antioch University, Seattle, WA.