DESC staff picks

Two books, Skid Road, on the frontier of health and homelessness in an American city, by Josephine Ensign and Decolonizing Wealth, indigenous wisdom to heal divides and restore balance, by Edgar Villanueva.

On this page you’ll find books our staff members recommend about homelessness, housing, mental health, substance use disorder, inequity and other issues that inform the DESC mission. These books are not published by DESC. DESC is not responsible for the content referenced by these links. The links are provided as a service for visitors to DESC’s website, and our providing a link to a book does not imply agency endorsement or agreement with the content.

An SPL link means the book may also be found in the Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) catalog, or search the catalogs of the King County Library System or Sno-Isle Libraries.

Foundations of homelessness

  • Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in an American City,” Josephine Ensign. Examines the “historical roots of poverty and homelessness, the worthy and unworthy poor, and the role of charity health care and public policy in the United States,” through the history of Seattle, and its responses to those experiencing poverty, mental illness, homelessness and other marginalization. SPL
  • Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems and Changing Lives,” Deborah Padgett, Benjamin Henwood and Sam Tsemberis. The first book to tell the story of the Housing First approach.
  • In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and what to do about it,” Marybeth Shinn and Jill Khadduri. “How to end the U.S. homelessness crisis by bringing together the best scholarship on the subject and sharing solutions that both local communities and national policy-makers can apply now.”
  • Housing First: The Pathways Model to End Homelessness for People with Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders,” Sam Tsemberis. Evidence shows that the Housing First model works, keeps people working toward recovery, and is also cost-effective.
  • The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein. Describes “how the American government systematically imposed residential segregation.” SPL
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond. Pulitzer-prize-winning reporting that follows eight Milwaukee families as each struggles to stay housed. SPL
  • The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. “Groundbreaking analysis showing that greater economic equality—not greater wealth—is the mark of the most successful societies, and offering new ways to achieve it.” SPL
  • Homelessness is a Housing Problem, How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns,” Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern.  The book “explores U.S. cities’ diverse experiences with housing precarity and offers policy solutions for unique regional contexts.” SPL

Mental health and substance use disorder

  • High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society,Carl Hart. A memoir about how the author grew up “in one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods and, determined to make a difference as an adult, tirelessly applies his scientific training to help save real lives.” SPL
  • The Trauma of Everyday Life,” Mark Epstein. “Trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people; it is the bedrock of our psychology.”
  • Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,Johann Hari. The inspiration for the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
  • American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System,” E. Fuller Torrey.  Concludes that changes to the mental illness treatment system in the 1960s (“deinstitutionalization”) led not to better outcomes, “as was the aim—but to underfunded programs, neglect, and higher rates of community violence.” SPL
  • The Three Christs of Ypsilanti,” Milton Rokeach. A case study of three men living with schizophrenia, and the “ethical dilemmas of mid-20th century institutionalized care.” What happens when more than one person claims the same identity? SPL
  • The Collected Schizophrenias,” Esmé Weijun Wang. A collection of essays that “dispel misconceptions and provide insight into a long-misunderstood condition.” SPL
  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family,” Robert Kolker. “The heartrending story of a midcentury American family with 12 children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia, that became science’s great hope in the quest to understand the disease.” SPL


  • Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor,” Gary Smith. He reports on his work among the “poor, abandoned, overlooked and forgotten members of our society with whom he shared his life” on the streets of Portland, Oregon, for 10 years.
  • Souls in the Hands of a Tender God,” Craig Rennebohm. “A compassionate chronicle of a Protestant pastor who for decades has ministered to some of Seattle’s most vulnerable people—the homeless.”