Elizabeth Carpenter-Song, “Families on the Edge: Experiences of Homelessness and Care in Rural New England” (MIT Press, 2023)

An intimate account of rural New England families living on the edge of homelessness, as well as the practices and policies of care that fail them. Families on the Edge: Experiences of Homelessness and Care in Rural New England (MIT Press, 2023) is an ethnographic portrait of families in rural and small-town New England who are often undercut by the very systems that are set up to help them. 

In this book, author and medical anthropologist Elizabeth Carpenter-Song draws on a decade of ethnographic research to chart the struggles of a cohort of families she met in a Vermont family shelter in 2009, as they contend with housing insecurity, mental illness, and substance use. Few other works have attempted to take such a long-term view of how vulnerability to homelessness unfolds over time or to engage so fully with existing scholarship in the fields of anthropology and health services. Research on homelessness in the United States has been overwhelmingly conducted in urban settings, so much less is known about its trajectory in rural areas and small towns. Carpenter-Song’s book identifies how specific aspects of rural New England—including scarce affordable housing stock, extremely limited transportation, and cultural expectations of self-reliance—come together to thwart opportunities for families despite their continual striving to “make it” in this environment. Carpenter-Song shines a light on the many high-stakes consequences that occur when systems of care fail and offers a way forward for clinicians, health researchers, and policymakers seeking practical solutions.

Stephen Pimpare is a Senior Fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

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