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As the number of homeless people has risen, homelessness has become a central feature of life in America. Broadly, homelessness is viewed as either the result of individual choices and/or a poor work ethic, or as a symptom of, or response to more complex social problems. Although homelessness is more visible to researchers and policy makers in the twenty-first century than in decades prior, it remains methodologically challenging to count and track homeless people. Nonetheless, statistics show that the homeless population is largely male; that women under 30 years old are a growing proportion of the homeless population; and that while homelessness is a largely urban problem, rural homelessness is rising. Homelessness is mainly attributed to poverty and the absence of affordable housing and contributes to a range of social, emotional and health related problems; yet, many cities and states have mobilized laws to deal with the problems homelessness causes for public space use rather than the problems that homelessness causes for those who are homeless. Consequently, researchers argue that in addition to programs that aim to provide temporary and transitional shelter to homeless people, there needs to be an increase in accessible permanent housing and in federal housing resources.
Keywords Criminalization of Poverty; Culture of Poverty; Culture of Resistance; Deinstitutionalization; Homelessness; Individualization of Poverty; Structural Inequality
As the number of homeless people has risen over the past decade, homelessness has become a central feature of life in America. Broadly, homelessness is viewed as either the result of individual choices and/or a poor work ethic, or as a symptom of, or response to more complex social problems. Although homelessness is more visible to researchers and policy makers now than twenty years ago, it remains methodologically challenging to count and track homeless people. Nonetheless, statistics show that the homeless population is largely male; that women under 30 years old are a growing proportion of the homeless population; and that while homelessness is a largely urban problem, rural homelessness is rising. Homelessness is mainly attributed to poverty and the absence of affordable housing and contributes to a range of social, emotional and health related problems; yet many cities and states have mobilized laws to deal with the problems homelessness causes for public space use rather than the problems that homelessness causes for those who are homeless. Consequently, researchers argue that in addition to programs that aim to provide temporary and transitional shelter to homeless people, there needs to be an increase in accessible permanent housing and in federal housing resources.
What is Homelessness?
The image of homelessness has changed since the Great Depression, when many homeless people were elderly and white. Today a growing number of women and families, including young children, are homeless because of insufficient housing and resources (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988). As the number of homeless people has continued to rise over the past decade, homelessness has become a central feature of life in America.
Homelessness tends to be associated with images of people who sleep in the streets, parks, subways, and sidewalks; who lack shelter of any kind, and are transient throughout the year, moving from place to place. The homeless are sometimes considered as undeserving of support; they are frequently stigmatized as being mentally ill, out of control, and are viewed by some as personally responsible for their situation (Phelan, Link, Moore & Stueve, 1997).
Homelessness began to emerge as a US national public policy and global issue in the 1980s, as a consequence of widening income disparities in the developed world, and in the developing world, growing urbanization and natural disasters (Daiski, 2007). In the US, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as:
- Lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
- Having a primary nighttime residence that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including, for instance, welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill); an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (cars, underpasses, sidewalks) (Ward, 2006).
This definition emerged in part as a consequence of the research conducted by Dennis Culhane (1997), a pioneer in homelessness research.
In the 1980s, when he was a graduate student, Culhane conducted research for his dissertation by living for 7 weeks in a shelter in Philadelphia. He tracked people coming in and out of the shelter system and found that a majority (about 80%) of the people were homeless for a relatively short period. These people are categorized as transitionally homeless. About 10% came in for about three weeks then left, maybe returning later (this episodic homeless group is often young and abuses drugs). The remaining 10% were those who were chronically homeless (and were typically older, mentally ill, disabled). Subsequent research has shown that this group uses more than half the resources in the homelessness service delivery system, such as shelters, emergency care, mental health services and the criminal justice system (Culhane & Hornburg, 1997). As a consequence of this work, the national picture of homelessness has become clearer. Researchers know more about the numbers of people who are homeless, their service utilization histories, and the costs of providing shelter, services, and housing.
Yet, while today's homeless people are more visible to researchers and policy makers than ever before, they are still difficult to track. Thus, the actual number of homeless in the United States is difficult to quantify. Because so many homeless people move from city to city or state-to-state, lack identification, and live in hidden cities, it is hard for researchers to measure the actual extent of people who are homeless. Nonetheless, in 2012 "Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress" published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated there were over 630,000 homeless people in the United States; of these, over 99,000 people (fewer than 16 percent) were chronically homeless.
Who Are the Homeless?
Homeless people are the poorest and most disadvantaged in society. Homelessness tends to be concentrated in urban areas, especially in cities where social safety nets are weak. For instance, the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress (DHUD, 2012) reported that one out of five homeless people live in New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and Las Vegas.
The homeless population is overwhelmingly male. African American males are overwhelmingly represented among the homeless population and are more likely than white males to become homeless. Among women who are homeless, the majority is under the age of thirty, and a large proportion of this group has children under the age of five. The Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress (DHUD, 2012) reported that over 230,000 (approximately 38 percent) of those counted as homeless were in families.
Children more likely to be in poverty and therefore more likely to be homeless; moreover, being a foster child raises the risk of becoming homeless, especially at the point when foster children make the transition from foster care to adult life. The age distribution of the homeless varies and in some cities is much younger than in others.
There is a notable trend of homelessness in rural areas. Homeless people in rural areas — more likely to be white, female, married and with children — are less likely to have shelter access and more likely to live in a car or share accommodation with family or friends, and more likely to be homeless as a consequence of or as a response to domestic violence (NCH, 2008b).
Perceptions of Homelessness
Explaining homelessness is a central focus of public policy research, especially since, at times, political and media representations of homelessness highlight personal characteristics and failings (such as choice, work aversion, alcoholism) as its cause. For instance, some people assume that all people have equal opportunity to provide for themselves through hard work and self-determination, and that those who fail to work hard are responsible for not making it in society (Thio, 1992). Indeed, some early research on homelessness (Lewis, 1961) suggested that there is a "culture of poverty" that encourages individuals to think about the present rather than the future; to fail to delay gratification; and to accept the life of poverty and homelessness.
However, one study (Lee, Jones and Lewis, 1990) tested these assumptions and examined how people explained homelessness. The researchers surveyed over 400 households in Nashville, Tennessee and found that, while there was evidence of homelessness attributed to personal characteristics, a majority of those surveyed attributed homelessness to forces that are outside of the control of the individual; most commonly, to structural barriers that impede individuals from either...