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Can scholars help the 800,000 Americans living on the streets?


Trees provide some shelter at a typical, frequently used short-term camp, where anthropologist Larry Zimmerman found an old blanket and a small duffle near bottles of alcohol and fast-food bags. (Courtesy Jessica Welch)

Beneath overpasses, under graffiti-covered walls, and amid piles of trash, America's homeless get by as best they can. They build cardboard and plastic shelters, insulate abandoned cars, sleep on discarded mattresses, and store their belongings in garbage bags. They live in a shadow country made of castoffs.

Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana (IUPUI), and Jessica Welch, one of his former students, are applying archaeological thinking to the study of this subculture in Indianapolis. Their work is revealing the rules, realities, and patterns of an ignored world, and may help improve programs that aid the homeless.


Recent IUPUI graduate Jessica Welch examines a hearth at an abandoned camp. One of the cans is unusual in that someone opened it with a can opener-most are found mangled or unopened. Small pieces of scrap metal likely supported the cans over a fire. (Courtesy Larry Zimmerman)

Zimmerman first became interested in the material culture of homelessness as head of archaeology at the Minnesota Historical Society. On an excavation at the mansion of 19th-century railroad magnate James J. Hill, Zimmerman carefully observed the trash that had accumulated above garden deposits he had come to study. "There was a fair amount of time depth to the homeless materials we were finding on site," he says. "We began to see evidence of different time periods, a range of things that indicated a long-term presence."

There were pieces of clothing, sleeping bags, and cooking materials on the surface, and excavation revealed four layers left by homeless people since the 1940s. Zimmerman did not pursue the idea further until he began teaching at IUPUI and mentioned his interest during a class discussion, striking a chord with Welch. She had personal insight on the subject.


This organized settlement is both camp and cache. There are mattresses and blankets, with cardboard dividers. The inhabitants left a range of personal items, confident they would remain undisturbed-though respect for caches is not universal. (Courtesy Larry Zimmerman)

In the early 1990s, Welch moved from Indiana to California, where she struggled with drugs and alcohol. She was kicked out of shelters and eventually found herself living in abandoned houses. After 10 months of wandering aimlessly around Long Beach, Welch reached rock bottom when a crackhead kicked her out of the house in which she had been squatting. Determined to turn her life around, she returned home, began working at a grocery, and started taking classes at IUPUI. She also volunteered at Horizon House, a program that helps some of the 3,000 homeless people in Indianapolis find permanent housing. The collaboration with Zimmerman--an archaeological survey of homeless sites for her senior project--forced her to confront the time she spent on the streets. "I understand that I'm a success story," she says. "So now I can try to educate people."

Zimmerman and Welch plan to continue their research by engaging a new set of students to help explore more sites and speak with the homeless to understand the meaning and significance of their cultural habits.

"My aim is to make the lives of homeless people more understandable," says Welch. "Some of these folks are true survivalists and show amazing ingenuity. These aren't just throwaway people."

Nicole Albertson is a former ARCHAEOLOGY intern and a freelance writer based in New York.