The Way Back Machine—Jim Baumohl, Advocate for Research about Drugs, Alcohol, Poverty, and Homelessness

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in “The Way Back Machine,” a series of interviews with key theorists and practitioners of alcohol and drugs research, treatment, and recovery among women and communities of color during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Through these interviews, Points co-founder and Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis works out some of the theoretical issues she articulated almost ten years ago in “Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards A Research Agenda.”

Most historians of alcohol and drugs know Jim Baumohl for two classic articles that examine alcohol institutions and policy history: “Inebriety, Doctors, and the State” (1987, with Robin Room) and “Building Systems to Manage Inebriates: The Divergent Paths of California and Massachusetts, 1891–1920” (1994, with Sarah Tracy). Few, however, are familiar with his rich body of work on poverty and homelessness—a polymorphous collection of research articles, white papers, and agency reports that basically map the US government’s failure to adequately imagine (much less implement) solutions to those issues in the post-Great Society era.

Currently Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, Baumohl began his career in the most direct of “direct service” jobs, doing street outreach with runaway youth in Berkeley during the early 1970s. With Henry Miller (no, not that Henry Miller!), he authored Down and Out in Berkeley: An Overview of a Study of Street People (1974) while earning an MSW in Berkeley’s Social Welfare program.

He worked as an itinerant researcher, consultant, and tenant organizer while completing his PhD, which culminated in his dissertation “Dashaways and Doctors: The Treatment of Habitual Drunkards in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to Prohibition.” This field-defining monograph reveals the degree to which innovations in alcohol services generally attributed to the vague forces of “medicalization” and “the Progressive era” were intimately tied to the culture and politics of specific states. Baumohl is now at work on a suite of articles that look at California’s management of alcohol and other drugs—and of the people who used them excessively—from statehood in 1850 to the closure of the California State Narcotic Hospital in 1941.

Like many of the folks featured in The Way Back Machine series, Jim Baumohl’s life during the 1970s and ‘80s featured a mix of political, intellectual, and research work. The rapidly shifting policy landscape created a set of conditions that invited creative, big-picture thinking as well as a strange mix of unabashed idealism and self-preserving sarcasm. All of these were on brilliant display when Points Managing Editor Emeritus Trysh Travis sat down with Jim for a two-part interview.

Part I

Trysh Travis: Let’s start with the basics: are you a historian of alcohol and drugs?

Jim Baumohl: I have played one on tv a couple of times. Pressed for a definition, I’d say that I am a self-taught historian of human misery and responses to it. By professional training, I’m a social worker with a background in public health and a doctorate in social welfare from Berkeley. Every historical or sociological question I’ve pursued has been related in one way or another to my practice experience.

I am the last living founder and the first director of Berkeley-Oakland Support Services (now called BOSS) a homelessness agency marking its 50th anniversary this year—which is a sad sort of milestone, I suppose. I worked with homeless people at BOSS under different job titles from 1971–76, served on its board of directors from 1978–1983, and organized single-room occupancy hotel tenants under its cover from 1983–85. To the extent that anyone knows who I am, it’s because of my scholarship on homelessness and my work with local organizations in the Bay Area, Philadelphia and Montreal, and the National Coalition for the Homeless, for which I edited a benefit book in 1996.

My “street practice” brought me into the lives of people with persistent, major mental disorders and/or problems related to heavy drinking and drugging. My colleagues and I worked from the low-demand, harm-reduction perspective now named and widely taken for granted; but even then, this approach wasn’t unusual. I learned this in 1975 when a very generous Berkeley research shop (the Institute for Research in Social Behavior) gave me money to visit agencies in the US and Canada like the one I’d helped found. Typically, these agencies had come to the same set of practices at the same time without being aware of each other—or about historical precedents.

They often emerged from local networks of “alternative services” like youth hostels, free clinics, runaway centers, and so forth, and from progressive congregations in various faith communities. These “alternative services” worked with people neglected or rejected by other agencies and did so by minimizing role distance in the helping relationship and limiting demands for social conformity to those necessary to safety and the survival of the organization. The history of these mostly ragtag organizations has been lost, I’m afraid, but they formed a piece of the bridge between the era of professional paternalism and the consumer rights movements in juvenile justice, mental health, and substance misuse services. I’m not sure how feasible a study of it would be, but this history would make a very interesting doctoral dissertation.

So, I’ve been substance misuse-adjacent, you might say. For example, between 1996 and 2003 I was one of the principals on a large Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study of the consequences of eliminating addiction as an eligible impairment for Social Security disability programs. I co-edited the collection of papers that resulted. But except for an eye-opening student internship at Napa State Hospital, I never worked in mental health or substance misuse treatment per se. My alcohol and drug history scholarship has been something of a hobby along the way.

If you wanted a hobby, why not just build a ship in a bottle?

If I had that kind of dexterity, I’d have been a carpenter. Wouldn’t it be nice to know when something’s finished?

I refer to this work as a hobby because these days no school of social work hires someone to be a historian. At both McGill, where I taught from 1986–1990, and at Bryn Mawr (1990–2020), I was hired because of my work on homelessness and income maintenance, mental health, and drug policy. Along with general courses on social policy and social theory, that’s mainly what I taught.

I got interested in the history of treatment, broadly understood, when I was awarded an NIH pre-doctoral fellowship at the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley (ARG, 1984–86). A group of historically informed social scientists there—people like Robin Room, Ron Roizen, Richard Speiglman, Denise Herd, Craig Reinarman, and, for a short time, Harry Levine—inspired me to think differently about my unorthodox experience up to that point.

Jim Baumohl 1978
Jim Baumohl in Berkeley in 1978. Picture courtesy of Jim Baumohl.

Between 1975 and 1980, before I landed at ARG, I did a substantial amount of consulting for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and a little for the Office of Youth Development, which was in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [renamed Health and Human Services in 1980—ed.] and administered Title III of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, known as “The Runaway Youth Act.” For NIAAA, I did site visits and sat on the grant review committee of NIAAA’s special projects office. That gave me a good view of the treatment landscape tended by the agency, which was founded only in 1972.

By my time, the treatment branch included a variety of program categories—all artifacts of how the alcohol problem was framed over time and the claims of constituent groups. For example, there were “public inebriate” projects aimed at homeless people in the traditional areas of skid row that were undergoing “urban renewal.” Some of these grantees were old organizations like the Salvation Army that historically served homeless men; they qualified for federal funding by laying a professional veneer over soup and salvation.

Others were thoroughly professional, like the Diagnostic and Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia (DRC). Tom Shipley, Jr., a psychologist at Temple University, did interesting work at DRC on physiological components of treatment like the therapeutic value of opponent process effects. (These explain the “pink cloud” phenomenon.)

Then there was a slew of programs that NIAAA inherited from the defunct Great Society agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). [The OEO was established by the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964; most of its signal programs were transferred to the Community Services Administration in 1975. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 repealed the Economic Opportunity Act, effectively ending its programs—ed.]

Some of these were professionalized and contracted to community mental health centers. Some were little more than glorified Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous groups that included various peoples of color and worked with professional caseworkers to connect clients to other local services. Some had funds for nothing more than a pickup truck, gas for 12th-Step work, and rent for a sober boarding house on the plains of North Dakota, a small town on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or in the southern Central Valley of California.

This rummage of programs—with different target populations and different understandings of “alcoholism,” or “dependence,” or what have you, and correspondingly different program logics—represented the state of the field. As well, the 1976 Rand report on controlled drinking and the movement to license counselors in the field (licensing is inevitably a normative process) were riling the never-good relations between recovering people working in formal programs (“two-hatters”) and the professionals employed there.

A review committee colleague used to say that “the paradigm is up for grabs.” A first-generation AA member in Southern California (he joined the fellowship in 1939) told me in 1984 that with the Rand report it became even more important to keep the professionals from “putting their rat-turd psychology on the disease.” I never did ask him how he really felt.

1972 Berkeley Youth Alternatives Report cover
Cover of Berkeley Youth Alternatives 1972 Annual Report. Image courtesy of Jim Baumohl.

Okay, how does all that tie back to homelessness?

These more traditional programs existed alongside the new (in 1975) emphasis on substance misuse programs for adolescents and young adults, which is where I came in. The Runaway Youth Act created funding for runaway centers nationwide. I started my career working with runaways in the basement of a Baptist church. Some of this work was aboveboard and some of it was illegal harboring of minors by a network of churches whose pastors agreed that kids at odds with their parents shouldn’t just be declared “persons in need of supervision” and turned over to juvenile authorities. When NIAAA went looking for someone to develop their youth program, I was commended to them by a national advocacy group, National Youth Alternatives Project, which was closely connected to the National Network of Runaway Centers.

Once the youth program guidelines were published, there was a land rush for grants. I visited quite a few of the applicant agencies. Many either didn’t know much about kids (or at least how to think about substance use by kids) or didn’t know much about substance use. I read many proposals and spoke with many staff who tried to fit something like weekend teenage beer drinking into a deterministic version of disease theory that bordered on hysterical.

Read Part II of Trysh Travis’s interview with Jim Baumohl. In Part II, they elaborate on the connections between unhoused youth and alcohol/drug use, discuss the 1970s as a “moment of eclecticism” for treatment programs, and try to make sense of some of the common “through lines” in these long histories.

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