At the beginning of the homelessness epidemic in the 1980s, Josephine Ensign was a young, white, Southern, Christian wife, mother, and nurse running a new medical clinic for the homeless in the heart of the South. Through her work and intense relationships with patients and co-workers, her worldview was shattered, and after losing her job, family, and house, she became homeless herself. She reconstructed her life with altered views on homelessness--and on the health care system. In Catching Homelessness, Ensign reflects on how this work has changed her and how her work has changed through the experience of being homeless--providing a piercing look at the homelessness industry, nursing, and our country's health care safety net.
The first 150 pages or so are fascinating. Ms. Ensign opens this clinic with a grant, and runs it as the sole clinician. She is also the wife of a Christian who is pursuing seminary school, so she also has these expectations put upon to her to be a ‘good southern Christian woman.’ Reading about her patients, as well as her own awakening to what she wants in her life (spoiler alert: it isn’t to be with her husband) brings up so many great questions to pursue further. At one point the church becomes even more involved, reprimanding her for her counseling style with women who become pregnant out of marriage and people who have AIDS.
Ms. Ensign does end up without quality housing, but I find it odd that she doesn’t talk about that much. She lives in a storage facility on a camp her parents own, and apparently also lives in her car, but most of that is mentioned in passing. It feels almost like she ran out of steam, or felt that she didn’t want to reveal too much about that time in her life, yet the book was supposedly meant to be the insight of someone who has both served the homeless and experienced homeless herself. It just feels that the connections are missing. Especially because at one point she is working three jobs and then miraculously can just decide to turn one of those jobs into full-time work so she can have health insurance. And then … she moves to Seattle. We don’t learn why, or how that happens, or even when. It just feels so disjointed for the last 50 pages or so, and that bums me out. As this is Ms. Ensign’s first book, I think part of the blame lies with her editor.
Homelessness is such a huge issue in cities right now, and there are so many competing ideas about the root causes and the ways to support the individuals experiencing it, so I had such high hopes that this would be discussed deeply in this book. But it just wasn’t. And this seems like a huge missed opportunity.
Ms. Ensign now teaches at the University in my town, and is instructing students in the school of public health. In fact, this book was chosen as the one that incoming master’s students will be reading this fall. Unfortunately, there is an odd two- or three-page stretch of what I view as anti-feminist judgment of sex work (and the unironic use of the words “politically correct” as though that is a bad thing, which pisses me off) and those who provide non-judgmental health care to sex workers, so I’m saddened that young folks will be reading this book and being exposed to that thinking.
It is possible my opinion will change after book club this week, and if so, I’ll come back and amend this review, but for now, I just can’t recommend this book.