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The homeless population in the United States and other developed nations shows a diverse range of characteristics. Although certain groups are clearly at greater risk for homelessness, all types of people can be found among the homeless population. This entry reviews the broad characteristics of homeless people in the United States, where most of the recent relevant research has been done. It considers the different pathways that lead to homelessness and reviews the life course someone follows after becoming homeless.
To the casual observer, it would appear that defining homelessness would be an easy task. However, this is not the case. Different definitions are used by advocates for the homeless, policymakers, and researchers. Complicating the definition are the duration of homelessness required (should a person homeless for one night be included?), the specific quality of housing (should a person living in grossly substandard housing be included?), and crowding (should someone temporarily doubled up with family or friends be included?). Most researchers have settled these issues by studying the “literally homeless,” that is, people staying in shelters for the homeless, on the streets, or in other similar settings (e.g., in abandoned buildings, in makeshift structures, or in parks). There are many other persons who are precariously housed or at imminent risk for becoming homeless. Researchers may include such persons, but will define them as a group separate from the literally homeless. Many researchers and advocates now talk about homelessness in the context of a continuum of housing that runs from the stably housed to the literally homeless, with many persons falling between these two extremes.
The Three Major Homeless Groups
Before proceeding with any research-oriented description of the homeless, it is important to distinguish three key subgroups in the overall homeless population: homeless families, homeless adolescents, and homeless single adults. These three subgroups are generally distinct on many dimensions, including their patterns of homelessness. In most cities in the United States (as well as in other developed nations), homeless families rarely include children of age ten or over and children under age twelve are very rarely found homeless on their own. Largely distinct service systems and research literatures have developed for each of these three subgroups, and recent research has documented many of the ways they differ from each other.
Homeless families typically include a single young mother with young children (often under age five). These families end up homeless for a variety of reasons, including extreme poverty, loss of benefits, eviction, domestic violence, or their own personal problems (e.g., substance abuse). Homeless families often include multiple siblings. Unlike single homeless adults and, to some extent, homeless adolescents, homeless families are rarely found on the streets. Rather, they tend to be found in homeless shelters, often ones specially designed for families. Many can also be found temporarily doubled up with friends or family or in domestic violence shelters (these families are sometimes referred to as the “precariously housed”). Few traditional families made up of couples with their children are found among the homeless. African-Americans and some other ethnic minorities (e.g., Native Americans) are found disproportionately.
Homeless adolescents differ from homeless adults by definition because they are under age eighteen, and from homeless children in families because they are homeless on their own. Although studies on homeless youth often include young people as old as twenty-four, the legal, policy, and intervention issues are quite different for adolescents under age eighteen who are homeless on their own than for those eighteen or older. A variety of terms have been used to describe homeless adolescents, including runaways, who have left home without parental permission, throwaways, who have been forced to leave home by their parents, and street youth, who are found on the streets. These are not mutually exclusive groups. The definition of homelessness for adolescents is necessarily different from that for homeless adults and families because minors away from home without parental permission are typically breaking the law and so must be returned to their parents except under special circumstances (e.g., when there is clear evidence that they are being abused at home). Once adolescents turn eighteen, their legal status changes dramatically. Though most homeless adolescents have spent little or no time on the streets, much of the existing research has focused on “street youth” who can be found in certain large cities (especially on the East and West Coasts). Most research has found roughly equal numbers of girls and boys among homeless adolescents, though boys are much more common among studies of street youth.
Homeless single adults are mostly male (70-80 percent), and most have a history of alcohol and/or drug abuse and/or dependence (60-80 percent). Though the mentally ill are clearly overrepresented, only about 20 to 40 percent of the overall population of homeless single adults are severely mentally ill. Severe depression is probably the most common diagnosis (20-25 percent of the overall population), with schizophrenia less common (5-15 percent) but very noticeable to the casual observer. Most homeless single adults are between eighteen and fifty (usually over 80 percent), with people over sixty quite rare (less than 5 percent). As with homeless families, African-Americans and some other ethnic groups are found in disproportionate numbers among the population of homeless single adults. In American cities with large general populations of African-Americans, this ethnic group often constitutes a majority of the homeless population (including families, adolescents, and single adults). Most of the existing research on homelessness has been done on single adults.
Some Other Characteristics Of Homeless People
While many women and adolescents from middle-class backgrounds who are fleeing difficult environments become homeless, in all subgroups homeless people usually come from poor backgrounds and thus share many characteristics with the larger population of poor people. Violence in the homes and communities of origin of homeless people has been well documented. This is perhaps especially true for homeless women (whether single or with their children) and homeless adolescents. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, most homeless people (including single adults) are in regular contact with members of their families (though this contact obviously may not always be positive). Substance abuse (of alcohol and/or drugs) is common in both the families of origin and among the homeless people themselves. While it is easy to see how a history of substance abuse would put someone at risk for becoming homeless, it has also been suggested that, once homeless, some persons may self-medicate to temporarily escape the hardships of being in a homeless state. This appears to be true for single homeless men, but many studies have found lower rates of substance abuse among homeless mothers and homeless adolescents. For homeless mothers, these lower rates could be either a result of the time and effort they need to care for their children or the consequence of underreporting due to the fears of having children removed by authorities (substance abuse and child abuse or neglect are often associated in the eyes of child protection workers). For homeless teens, the lower rates could be due either to having less access to alcohol and drugs or to being young and not having yet developed entrenched patterns of substance abuse. Many believe criminal behavior to be very common among the homeless. However, even among homeless young adults, only about one-quarter to one-third have a serious criminal history (felony conviction). It is also important to note that many homeless people get arrested for victimless crimes due to their homeless lifestyle (e.g., through panhandling, public drunkenness, or squatting in abandoned buildings).
Changes In Homelessness Over Time
If we look solely at media coverage of homelessness over the past several decades in the United States, it might appear that homelessness was nearly nonexistent before the 1980s, showed a sharp rise during the 1980s, and then dropped or leveled off in the 1990s. However, it is not clear whether there was a significant rise in homelessness during the 1980s or just a rise in media coverage of the problem (and the associated interest of politicians). Some data suggest that with the booming economy of the 1990s, there may have been a small decline in the rate of homelessness (a five-year prevalence of 3.9 percent in a national sample in 1993-1994 vs. 1.9 percent in 2001). However, even if it has declined, the rate remains very high. With the poorer economic times of the early 2000s, it is possible that homelessness may soon rise again.
Martha Burt and her colleagues (2001) examined changes in the rates of homelessness from 1987 to 1996 and concluded that there is no simple answer to whether these rates have changed. They believe that the number of people homeless and using assistance services (e.g., soup kitchens and shelters) at any one time is highly variable and greatly affected by the season, with greater service use during the winter months. Although the increased number of homeless assistance programs affects her estimates, Burt points out that the availability of assistance programs does not cause need but illuminates a level of need that already exists. Peter Rossi, one of the early pioneers in modern research on homelessness, has often noted that today’s homeless people, who began to appear in the 1980s, differ greatly from the homeless of the 1950s and 1960s (1989). Homeless people in earlier decades were often middle-aged, white male alcoholics living in the skid-row areas of American cities. The new homeless population is more diverse; it has more ethnic minorities (especially African-Americans), more women (including those homeless with their children), and more younger people (including adolescents and young adults). It is less certain whether there have been changes in the characteristics of the homeless population over the past few decades, during which time research on the topic has become common. To assess whether there were, indeed, any such changes, Ouellette and Toro conducted a needs assessment that used the same methods in the early 1990s and early 2000s to obtain representative samples of homeless adults (including those with children) in Wayne County, Michigan (which includes the city of Detroit). Compared to the sample of 249 obtained between 1992 and 1994, the 220 adults in the sample obtained between 2000 and 2002 were older, had more physical health symptoms, reported less social support and fewer significant family and friends, and were more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia (see Ouellette and Toro 2002). Perhaps during the generally good economic times that existed between the collection of these two homeless samples, those most capable of escaping homelessness did so, leaving behind those who were older and who had fewer resources to obtain employment. The erosion of access to health care services and special services for the mentally ill in the past few decades could help explain the findings on physical health and schizophrenia.
Pathways Into Homelessness
To understand the paths people take into homelessness, it is necessary to consider the broader question of what causes homelessness. Although there has been a great deal of speculation on the causes of homelessness by the media, politicians, and researchers, firm scientific data are hard to come by. However, several research methods can shed some light on the causes, even though none can provide definitive proof. The simplest method is to carefully describe large representative samples of the homeless population. This approach fails to support the notion that severe mental illness and the closing of mental hospitals over the last several decades are the main causes of the rise in homelessness that has been observed over the past few decades. With most studies finding that fewer than 40 percent of the overall homeless adult population (and even fewer homeless adolescents and adolescents in homeless families) are severely mentally ill, it is not plausible that mental illness is the major cause, though it could be a partial cause. On the other hand, substance abuse (observed in a clear majority of homeless single adults) could be a major cause. Another method that can help understand the causes of homelessness is to compare samples of homeless people to samples of similar poor, but not homeless, people. Such studies, especially those on homeless single adults and adolescents, often find that substance abuse does, indeed, distinguish homeless people from other comparable groups. Other factors often found to distinguish the homeless population from the poor include higher levels of stress and psychological distress, more experience of domestic and community violence, and disordered backgrounds (e.g., abusive families or foster care).
Yet another way to attempt to understand the causes of homelessness is to compare the prevalence and other features of homelessness around the world. An ongoing study of several of the world’s most developed nations has found some important differences, both in the prevalence of homelessness and in the public’s views of homeless people. In 2,000 telephone surveys of representative samples of citizens in seven different nations, researchers found the highest lifetime rates of (prior self-reported) homelessness in the United States and the United Kingdom, the lowest rate in Germany, and intermediate rates in Belgium, France, Italy, and Canada. The amount of compassion toward the homeless expressed by citizens matched the rates, with people in Germany and some of the other nations in Europe showing the greatest compassion and people in the United States and the United Kingdom showing the least. As researchers in this study collect more data on homelessness, they hope to identify national factors, such as family structures and welfare, housing, and health care systems, that might explain the varying rates of homelessness. One cause commonly mentioned by advocates for the homeless and researchers alike is the lack of low-cost (affordable) housing. While it may well be true that certain persons are more likely to end up homeless (e.g., those with substance abuse problems), it is also true that if there is not enough affordable housing, many poor people will be forced into homelessness. As in a game of musical chairs, because there are not enough housing units (“chairs”) for all the poor people (“players”) at any point in time (“when the music stops”), some people will have to go without. It is often the same people who lose the game (e.g., those with substance abuse problems or mental illness).
Pathways Out Of Homelessness
The patterns of housing and homelessness among the full range of homeless people are enormously diverse. Many homeless people are homeless only for very short periods of time. Large national telephone surveys that question people on their lifetime experiences with homelessness suggest that most homeless episodes are brief. Such surveys, though they tend to exclude the currently homeless and those so poor that they cannot afford a telephone, include the full range of people who have had experience with homelessness (whereas studies of the currently homeless may include only the neediest of cases, those who show up in homeless shelters or on the streets.). Studies by Bruce Link and his group (1994) and Paul Toro and his colleagues (1997; 1999) found lifetime rates of “literal homelessness” of 6 to 8 percent among adults in the United States. Among those who have been homeless, about 40 percent report a total lifetime history of homelessness of less than a month, with about 50 percent reporting between a month and a year and only about 10 percent reporting that they had been homeless for over a year. Studies of currently homeless families and adolescents also tend to find relatively short episodes of homelessness, with many studies finding half or more of their samples homeless for a month or less (in their current episode). Of the three subgroups, homeless single adults tend to show the most extensive histories of prior homelessness and the longest episodes of homelessness. For example, in our recent studies involving large representative samples of homeless adults in Detroit and Buffalo (937 people across three separate samples), we found lifetime histories (since age sixteen) of homelessness of over a year among about 40 percent of the sample (about 80 percent had been homeless for over a month). A number of recent longitudinal studies followed large representative samples of homeless people over time. This allowed a determination not only of how long people were homeless in the past, but also of how much homelessness they were likely to experience in the future. Whether these longitudinal studies involve single adults, adolescents, or families, one common finding is that homeless people improve in many ways over time, including the time they were homeless. For example, in two different longitudinal studies of homeless adults who were followed for eighteen months or more, our research group found that about a third of the sample appeared to have escaped homelessness, showing no more homelessness once their current episode ended. At the other end of the continuum was about another third who were “chronically homeless,” that is, they were homeless for a majority of the follow-up period. The final third typically showed an episodic pattern, and often experienced one or more additional episodes of homelessness during the follow-up period (although they were not homeless a majority of the time). These same longitudinal studies of homeless adults also found improvements in reported stress levels and symptoms of psychological and physical illness.
Longitudinal studies of homeless families, such as that by Beth Shinn and her colleagues (1998), typically show that most families obtain permanent housing relatively quickly and remain in the housing for at least five years. Longitudinal studies of homeless adolescents, such as that of Toro and Goldstein (2000), typically find that most adolescents return fairly quickly to their family of origin. Nearly all (93 percent) of the initially homeless adolescents in our sample from metropolitan Detroit were no longer homeless at a 4.5-year follow-up, with many living with their parents (33 percent), others living on their own (34 percent), and still others living with friends or relatives (21 percent). At the follow-up, the initially homeless adolescents also reported significantly less conflict with their family and fewer stressful events.
The general improvements observed among homeless samples could be a result of the fact that when they were initially found, they were in a particularly difficult period of their lives and were therefore observed rebounding to a previously better level of functioning. This is, perhaps, good news, given that very large numbers of people can expect to be homeless at some point in their lives (6-8 percent of all American adults, or between 16 and 22 million people, based on the large national telephone surveys reviewed above). A variety of intervention programs have been attempted with the various subgroups of currently homeless people. One increasingly common approach, called “intensive case management,” has been used effectively with the homeless mentally ill by Gary Morse and his colleagues in St. Louis (1992), with homeless street youth by Ana Mari Cauce and her colleagues in Seattle (1994), and with the full range of homeless adults (including those with their children) by Toro and his research group (1997). A related approach, called “supportive housing,” makes a full range of services readily available to homeless people at the same time that housing is provided. While such intensive programs may be necessary for many multiproblem homeless people, simpler interventions can be effective for others. For example, Beth Shinn and her colleagues (1998) found that one of the best predictors of prolonged stays in permanent housing among formerly homeless families in New York City was the provision of housing subsidies to these families. Many advocates for the homeless have called for increases in the very small numbers of federal and other housing subsidies available in the United States. A variety of approaches for preventing homelessness from occurring in the first place have recently been proposed. Crisis intervention to avert eviction among low-income people could be effective. Given that violence and family conflict are common among the families of homeless adolescents, ready access to family-oriented services, including dispute resolution, could work for this subgroup. And, obviously, strategies that create more low-income housing or reduce the cost of existing housing (e.g., through housing subsidies), especially in large urban areas, could reduce the rate of homelessness.
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