Cathy A. Small


On her book The Man in the Dog Park: Coming Up Close to Homelessness

Cover Interview of January 06, 2021

The wide angle

This book offers intimate, personal stories, but they are connected to a wider trajectory of our country over the last sixty years. My own coming of age in the 1960s occurred in a climate of both protest and optimism. Ushered in by the War on Poverty and a vibrant Civil Rights movement, there was a sense that the racial and economic disparities in our country might finally and truly begin to dissipate.

In the years since then a curiously different reality has emerged. How could it be that despite decades of programs to alleviate poverty the results have been an increase in the disparity between rich and poor?

This is true whether you compare the gap between worker and executive compensation, or the proportion of wealth held by the bottom versus top economic quintiles, or the relative buying power of differing income groups over time. The rich are richer; the poor are poorer; and the middle class is smaller. And these statistics insidiously intersect with gender and race.

In The Economist’s Hour, published in 2019, Binyamin Appelbaum argues that this is because the real target of government programs has been market and corporate growth, rooted in the belief that all Americans will share in the benefits of market profits. But they haven’t. Our stories of homelessness are the casualties of this belief, a heart-wrenching piece of collateral damage from the national path we are on.


Anthropologists are always crossing worlds and, in some sense, entering the world of “people without homes” is a natural extension of my professional path. In the early 1980s, I studied “globalization” through the lens of a village the Kingdom of Tonga (South Pacific), where I lived for three years. My experience there forever upended my own sense of the world, and of the United States. It sparked my belief that a central purpose of anthropology is to show you your own blind spots.

Later in my career, out of the feeling that I no longer could understand or enjoy teaching undergraduate students, I enrolled in my own university as a freshman. I moved out of my home and into an undergraduate dormitory, spending an entire year taking classes that were out of my subject area. (I was only a B student.) It transformed my perspective and my teaching.

But I had no professional intentions of broaching the topic of homelessness. This was not any area of focus or expertise for me, nor an issue I gave much thought. I just met this man—the man in the dog park—and we let each other into our respective lives.

Sometimes, it is this way—that a personal path guides the professional. As a committed and long-term Buddhist meditator, it tugged at me how my initial fear (see question #3) cut off my connection and compassion for this homeless man. As I made an effort to track my own gaze, to notice him, to see his plight, I started to care: Where is he getting hot food on these cold nights? Was he really sleeping outside—where? How did he get a shower? Or medical care? Why was he working temp labor when a real job paid more?

I started asking more. He started talking more. I became progressively drawn into the life that he and others were living. Five years after we first met, I finally asked him the question: Do you want to write a book together? His response: “You’re crazier than I am.” But then we wrote the book anyhow.