Picks and Pans Review: Songs from the Alley

UPDATED 07/10/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/10/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Kathleen Hirsch

No one asks to be homeless, but it happens. In New York, Los Angeles and other cities nationwide, homelessness seems to be a social epidemic. It is what Hirsch, a Boston-based journalist, calls being "lost in America." She knows.

For two years she worked at Boston's Pine Street Inn shelter, doing everything from washing dishes to attending staff meetings to escorting homeless women to welfare offices. She also came to know Boston's bus depots, heating grates and other warm refuges. "I experienced," she says, "a loss of orientation and saw what it was to be anonymous, unconnected and unable to escape from the feelings of vulnerability and hopelessness."

Songs transforms Hirsch's feelings into a provocative, 410-page collage. As main characters, it focuses on two women under 30—Wendy and Amanda—and painstakingly reconstructs their lives from birth through their vagrant lives, backing up their tales of sexual abuse, alcoholism and poverty with comments from family, friends and social workers. (In 1987 Amanda moved into a subsidized rooming house; Wendy, after undergoing a miscarriage in an alley, was hospitalized and then returned to the Pine Street Inn.)

Into these stories Hirsch incorporates a history of American charity, from church-sponsored programs to modern social welfare bureaucracies, where even dedicated workers often are overwhelmed by their jobs' frustrations. Says one: "It requires a lot of discipline to be satisfied that you're providing a safe place where people can relax." Describing the thoughts of a young Pine Street staffer as he sorts the homeless women's mail, Hirsch writes, "There are never any personal letters. It's as if all the women have ceased to exist except as patients and clients of the state.... Never a postcard or a handwritten note."

Compassionate and memorable, this is a powerful study of the agencies, individuals and emotions involved in the lives of the indigent; it is also a sad, telling ballad of human insensitivity and of a baffling problem in modern urban life. (Ticknor & Fields, $22.95)

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