Homeless, just the sound of word is often enough to make us shudder. We walk past the mentally ill living on the streets of New York or San Francisco. Sometimes we reach into our wallets and drop a dollar or two into someone’s cup. Other times we just look up and keep walking, pretending not to notice what’s right in front of our eyes. There is no precise definition of a “homeless person.” Does it mean sleeping on a friend’s couch? Living with family members? Depending on the good will of another? If it does, then most children would qualify as “homeless.” Does it mean “not owning property?” People who live in homeless shelters and welfare hotels have roofs over their head, and are usually considered to be “homeless,” but how about people living in illegal sublets, or people on month to month leases? In the United States, if you don’t own your own property, you can never be quite sure that someone won’t put you out in the streets. Even if you do, however, you can still be evicted from your house if you don’t pay your property taxes. Insecurity, like Calvinist original sin, is part of capitalism. The people who rule over us wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Homeless,” directed by McCarthyite blacklist victim Lee Grant, is not only one of the great moments of American television. It’s one of the best movies of the 1980s. Don’t look for it on any of the “ten best lists” put out by film critics. Homeless is a brutally realistic glimpse into the life of the working class we rarely, if ever, see at the movies, let alone on television. All Lee Grant – who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1986 – has to do is get out of the way, and let the Darwinian reality of American capitalism speak for itself. I first saw Homeless on television in 1989, and it chilled me to the bone. I put it out of my mind as soon as I could, but I never quite forgot about it. I looked for it occasionally in the 1990s, but I don’t think it ever came out on VHS or DVD. Finally, when I noticed that Amazon put it up on their streaming service a few years ago, I decided to rent it. I saw it again last night after 27 years. It’s lost none of its power.
Mike Cooper (a young Jeff Daniels) and Zan Cooper (Christine Lahti) are a working-class couple in their early 30s. They have two children, ten-year-old David and his younger sister Tina. Mike, who worked in a steel mill through his 20s – it closed down during the now forgotten deindustrialization of the Midwest during the Reagan years – is a live-in superintendent in a Pittsburgh apartment building. Mike is studying at a trade school, hoping to get his electrician’s license. Zan works in a donut shop. Both hope to work their way into the middle-class before the end of the year. Sadly, it never happens. After a contentious visit to Mike’s older brother Eddie, they come home to find that they’ve been burned out of house and home. I suppose that Lee Grant spent most of her budget on the fire that engulfs Mike and Zan’s building – we never learn the cause but can’t help wondering if it had anything to do with Mike’s inexperience as an electrician – but she gets her money’s worth. The flames that quite literally explode out of the windows while the anguished Cooper family look on have a malevolence that’s hard to express unless you’ve seen the film. The fire almost seems to be the devil himself himself taunting the young, and now homeless family.
“Watch me now. I will show you the cold, heartless inferno that is American capitalism. I will destroy the hopes and dreams of both your innocent children. I will persecute you onto death.”
The devil, whether its the mythological fallen angel of the Christian tradition or the heartless, Darwinian logic of American capitalism, cannot succeed in destroying you without your cooperation. Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, is the beginning of the Cooper family’s downfall. Zan wisely insists that they take up Eddie on his offer to put them up at his house while they get back on their feet, but Mike, who already owes his older brother $1200 dollars, won’t hear of it, and insists on staying at a motel. Soon, their money runs out and they end up at Eddie’s anyway. Enter Eddie’s pride. Zan, who very wisely signed up for food stamps, foolishly uses them a the local market, where it soon gets back back to Eddie that is brother and sister in law are “welfare bums.”
Mike, his pride wounded, but not quite enough to stand up for his wife against his contemptuous older brother, grabs his family and drags them out the door, and they spend the next few weeks living in their car. When they’ve finally had enough — ever try living in a car with two kids? – Mike drives to the steel mill where he had worked for twelve years, and lets out a primal scream of despair. “I’m a worker,” he shouts at the grim industrial ruin. “I’m not a welfare bum. I’m a worker.” The next deadly sin, we now understand, is not Mike’s or Eddie’s but society’s. To be more specific, it’s the false consciousness of the white, middle-American “working” class for you can’t but help interpret Mike’s passionate declaration that he’s a “worker not a welfare bum” as a subconscious cry of despair that he’s white and not black. Mike is not a racist, and Zan, as we later see, is certainly not a racist, but their petty-bourgeois, individualist solution to the deindustrialization of the American Midwest in the 1980s – Mike decided to retrain as an electrician but made no attempts to organize collectively with his fellow laid off steelworkers – has put them in a hell they do not entirely understand.
The Cooper family’s next stop is a homeless shelter and a welfare hotel. Zan, not surprisingly copes better than Michael. She quickly becomes good friends with Prue, a black single mother on the run from her physically abusive ex-husband. Mike, who’s quickly becoming delusional, resents the friendship. “We’re not on welfare,” he insists, reluctant to see his wife become friends with a black woman. “Yes we are,” Zan reminds him, demonstrating that she, unlike her husband, is beginning to work her way out of the kind of petty-bourgeois, individualist false consciousness that keeps the white American working-class from rebelling. Prue, who’s been on the list for public housing for over a year, has survival skills Mike and Zan don’t, showing them how to get around the restrictions against cooking in their rooms, pulling Zan away from the television and making her go outside. But Prue is only a single mother, powerless against the forces conspiring for the Cooper family’s destruction. Zan has put David and Tina into a local public school, a public institution that should have been a place of refuge, but of course, it’s anything but. The Vice Principal goes out of his way to humiliate David and Tina, segregating them int a separate area of the lunch room with Prue’s kids and the rest of the “welfare hotel rats.”
If descending into the underclass has a bad effect on two adults in their 30s, it has a decisively bad effect on two children. Indeed, the most agonizing part of Homeless is watching all of David’s boyish enthusiasm destroyed. He and his littler sister have lost their innocence a decade before they should have. Their childhood has been prematurely and brutally murdered by the logic of downward mobility. Soon David turns to panhandling, then petty crime, putting their status at the hotel – where all the residents live under the close watch of a pair of unethical, predatory security guards – in danger. Then Mike decides to abandon his family and go south. That’s about it. Mike fails. His excuse, that he’s lost his part time job and that employment opportunities are better in Florida, rings hollow. When Zan pleads with him not to go, and he insists on leaving them anyway, we can’t help but agree with his older brother that he’s a loser, or David, who chases after his father’s car, throwing rocks and yelling “you’re a liar.” Mike has failed as a man. Because his pride has made him unable to face his wife and two children, he decides to abandon them to their fate.
That fate quickly reveals itself to be the two hotel security guards, both of whom have decided that Zan, now without the protection of her husband and made even more vulnerable by her son’s foolish decision to become a drug runner, can be raped without any consequences. Of course she can, something she knows all too well. If she stays in the hotel and refuses to sleep with either of the guards, they’ll call children’s services and have both her kids taken away. If she leaves the hotel, she not only risks losing all contact with her husband, who’s promised to call her every week at a pay phone in the lobby – there was no e-mail or Facebook in 1989 – but has to drag both her kids into the streets, to wash up at the train station, to ride city buses all night in the rain, to sleep in a vacant, abandoned house on the outskirts of town.
If the last half hour of Homeless scarred me emotionally at the age of 24 when I first saw it on TV, it scarred me even more last night at age 51, when I streamed it off of Amazon. Back in 1989, under the kinder gentler capitalism of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, I suppose it might have been possible for a homeless woman and her two kids to wash up in a public restroom, or ride the buses all night without being shooed away by security. The two police officers who surprise them in Eddie’s house, where they break in to spend the night, might have let them go without arresting them. In 2016, under the neoliberal capitalism of Barack Obama, Zan’s journey into the heart of Pittsburgh’s urban darkness now seems almost Utopian. It almost feels as if Lee Grant didn’t go quite deep enough. I’ve seen the homeless try to wash up in Penn Station in New York. Most of them get ten or twenty seconds. These days, with the kind of shock and awe techniques the typical big city police department uses, Zan would get pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and processed through central booking before the kids are sent to foster homes. Their reunion with Mike, who fails to find a real job in the south as completely as he failed in Pittsburgh, would never happen.
Yet Grant, who lost the the prime years of her acting career to the House Un-American Activities Committee because she refused to be coerced into testifying against her husband, in the end doesn’t pull any punches. Mike returns to find his wife and two small children living in a squat. Zan, whether out of forgiveness or because of the sheer terror of living alone on the streets, takes him back. “The system just wants people like us to disappear,” Mike says to Zan, who agrees then adds “but we’re not going to go away.” Whether or not they ever get off the streets is left to our imagination. We suspect they won’t since Mike, whether Grant realizes it or not, hasn’t changed. He also gets what he’s always wanted. When he hears a group of fellow homeless men outside their squat yelling at one another, he grabs a heavy copper pipe – which of course these days would have long been stripped out of any abandoned building — savagely beats one, and sends the rest of them fleeing in terror. “Get away from my house,” Mike screams, finally getting what he wanted. He’s a real man now, the king of his castle, the king of nothing.