Books to Help Us Understand Homelessness

By Linda Wiegenfeld
Linda Wiegenfeld
Linda Wiegenfeld
Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at
February 13, 2017 Updated: February 13, 2017

Homelessness is a complex issue, affecting more people than we’d like to think.

A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2015 said that more than 500,000 people—a quarter of them children—were homeless in the United States, with little access to affordable housing across much of the nation. 

Because understanding and compassion are the first steps to finding a solution for this problem, the books and stories below can help, by better educating readers of all ages about the reality of homelessness


‘Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor’ by Dr. James J. O’Connell

Dr. James J. O’Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, has written a book with a riveting collection of stories chronicling his care for Boston’s homeless since 1985. If you read only one book on homelessness, make it this one.

Dr. O’Connell sees his job as something like that of a country doctor who knows how to listen and who may need to make “home” visits to places outside the hospital, even if they include shelters, soup kitchens, and correctional facilities.

(BHCHP Press)
(BHCHP Press)

In the book, Dr. O’Connell, who usually sees the end state of disease since most of his patients do not have preventative care, talks about the reality of homelessness and mental illness while recounting these people’s daily struggle for dignity.

He gives background information about his patients so the reader can better relate to them. We see why many homeless are afraid to shower; why soaking their feet (which are oftem covered with blisters and infections) before any other treatment allows doctors to talk to and build trust with the homeless; and how Dr. O’Connell and his associates help patients die with respect. 

The book leaves you sad but awestruck at the small miracles Dr. O’Connell performs each day.

Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States’ by Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche shares experiences from her 14-day journey through homeless shelters around the country while she was the Green Party candidate for vice president in the 2004 campaign. Through investigative journalism, she shows that each individual has a unique story to tell. Many of the problems covered continue today.

Poverty: Opposing Viewpoints’ by Karen Balkin

(Greenhaven Press)
(Greenhaven Press)

Devoted to the idea that people should make informed decisions based on diverse and contradictory opinions, this book by Karen Balkin (part of the Opposing Viewpoints series written by various authors) has a section devoted to the urban poor and homelessness.

Homeless Narratives & Pretreatment Pathways: From Words to Housing’ by Jay S. Levy

Whether you’re a worker in the field or a citizen wanting to better understand the complexities of homelessness, you will find that Jay S. Levy’s book (part of the New Horizons in Therapy series) will deepen your knowledge. The author spent years working with people who lived on the streets, and his book includes stories of how the chronically homeless found help.

Homeless in America: Portraits of an American Legacy’ by Jodi De Luca

Jodi De Luca’s work includes personal interviews and photographs of homeless people.


Stories at Habitat for Humanity

Millard and Linda Fuller started Habitat for Humanity as a means to build homes for low-income families. The homes were sold without profit, and the buyers paid no interest, but were required to help build their houses—what Mr. Fuller called sweat equity—to help instill pride in their ownership. Included on the website ( are inspirational stories of success.

Children’s Books

Homelessness is not a common subject for children’s books, yet it’s important for children to become aware of problems in our communities so that they might grow into compassionate adults. 

‘Fly Away Home’ by Eve Bunting

Eve Bunting’s story was written before increased security at airports. A homeless father and son go out of their way to stay inconspicuous in an airport where they are living. The boy gains hope of finding a house when a bird trapped in the airport finally escapes through an open sliding door.

A Shelter in Our Car’ by Monica Gunning

(Children's Book Press)
(Children’s Book Press)

In this moving book by Monica Gunning, a little girl named Zettie and her mother come to America after her father dies in Jamaica. Zettie and Mama live in the city in the backseat of their car. To survive, the pair must wash in the bathroom at the park and keep moving their car. In the meantime, loving Mama goes to school and tries to earn money. At the end, Mama finds a job.

The Lady in the Box’ by Ann McGovern

One winter, two children see a homeless woman living in a box over a warm air vent. The children give her food and clothes and, with their mother, work in a soup kitchen where the same homeless woman goes.

(Turtle Books)
(Turtle Books)

At the end of the book, author Ann McGovern gives some facts about helping the homeless.

‘Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen’ by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan

This book, about a boy spending the day with his Uncle Willie working in a soup kitchen,  deals with homelessness at a level that children can understand. As an added bonus, the introduction to the book includes an age appropriate guide to soup kitchens.

Linda Wiegenfeld, a retired teacher, welcomes readers’ comments. Her email is

Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at