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Among the most impoverished persons in the United States are the homeless—individuals and families without established residences. Throughout American history, the homeless have caused alarm among more affluent citizens because of middle-class reluctance to allocate town resources: to care for the itinerant poor, who do not have a stake in the community, and because of the popular perceptions that the homeless are disorderly, have problems with substance abuse, and display little respect for authority. Perceptions of the homeless, often developed to fit a political or ideological position, include the view that the homeless are crafty, conscious manipulators of the system who have more assets then they let on, as well as the view that they are vulnerable persons who are poor because of individual weakness. These perceptions are at best half-truths, popularized by the affluent classes either to separate themselves from the itinerant poor or to push for political reform.
In the most basic sense, the homeless are those who must seek out shelter on a day-to-day basis; however, there are many categories of homelessness. Some homeless persons find temporary shelter with relations and acquaintances or at private shelters such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Salvation Army. Others, however, rely primarily on makeshift shelters—made of materials like cardboard—or find temporary shelter in automobiles, under bridges, in abandoned buildings, or wherever they happen to be for the night. In some cases, such as in the winter, they seek out jails for shelter, demonstrating the ability of some homeless persons to adapt to their situation, using whatever means necessary to survive. The demographic characteristics of the homeless do not it a single stereotype. Although single men comprise the largest segment, homelessness affects diverse portions of the populace, including single women, families, teenagers—”street youth”—and children. Moreover, accurate demographic counts of the homeless are difficult to compile, because many homeless persons, especially street youth, do not rely on homeless shelters and are thus hard to account for.
In general, the homeless are a very vulnerable group. Medical records show that homeless persons are more likely to have serious health problems—ranging from diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV to mental illness—and are more likely to die prematurely than the general public. Part of the reason for this is that the homeless have less access to health care: those who do have health insurance coverage, such as through Medicaid, still face difficulties, such as paying for the inevitable costs of prescriptions and visits to the doctor, and many homeless persons lack even the means or self-awareness to seek medical help in the first place.
Life on the street or moving from shelter to shelter is hard—a fact that medical data illustrate. For example, homeless persons tend to age faster; forty- to fifty-year-old homeless persons can develop health conditions common to much older people, partly because homeless individuals often do not or cannot perform basic health duties—such as taking prescription drugs regularly, brushing teeth, and controlling diseases like diabetes that require continual maintenance. Mental illness and substance abuse are also commonly, if not always accurately, associated with the homeless. Recent medical data suggest that schizophrenia is not as widespread as stereotypes assert: schizophrenia rates among the U.S. homeless are about 10 to 13 percent. Alcoholism is, however, clearly a widespread problem among the homeless. Data on hard-drug usage—crack cocaine and marijuana—among the homeless are sparse, although some studies place the rate of drug use at 30 percent.
Middle-class Americans have often sought to distance themselves from the homeless. In colonial America, towns cared for their own poor but sent away (“warned out”) most itinerant poor. In the nineteenth century, reform-minded social workers established settlement houses, and the government set up poor-houses for the itinerant poor. Homeless and orphaned children often found lodging in orphanages or aid societies, such as Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society in New York. Similar practices continued throughout the twentieth century and up to the present. In modern cities such as Los Angeles and New York (and also in smaller industrial cities), rampant homelessness is a significant problem. According to leftist urban historian Mike Davis, the police and affluent citizens of Los Angeles are engaged in an explicit battle to marginalize the homeless. Davis pointed out the existence of law codes that outlaw temporary residences—such as cardboard shelters—in order to prevent visible homelessness in the city’s public areas. Likewise, Davis points out that the city’s purposeful commissioning of uncomfortable park benches and lack of public restrooms are part of a plan to oust the homeless from widely used public areas.
Homelessness remains a significant problem despite the economic resurgence of the 1990s and 2000s. In 1991 Congress passed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Appropriations Act, which gave HUD the authority to collect data to assess problems of homelessness more accurately and determine what types of programs would be effective; HUD researched the characteristics of the homeless by age, disability, race, gender, and types of service or shelters requested. The 2001 HUD Appropriations Act updated these requirements and provided HUD with additional funding. Congress required HUD to collect data determining the extent of homelessness in America and develop a new Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to determine the effectiveness of existing relief programs. According to HUD’s Annual Report to Congress from 2007, about 335,000 homeless persons were housed in “emergency shelter or transitional housing” across the nation on a typical day in 2005; the range was from 235,000 and 434,000 people per day. Likewise, the number of unsheltered persons—defined as those who do not “use shelters and are on the streets, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not meant for human habitation”— peaked at 338,781 for a single day in January 2005. HUD’s 2007 report also noted that homelessness occurs primarily in central cities; not surprisingly, there are more homeless shelters in central cities than in rural or suburban areas.
- Atkins, Jacqueline M., ed., Encyclopedia of Social Work, 18th ed., 2 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: NASW, 1987);
- Davis, Mike, City of Quartz (New York: Vintage Books, 1992);
- HUD, The Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (February 2007) (http://www.huduser.org/publications/povsoc/annual_assess.html);
- Hwang, Stephen W., “Homelessness and Health” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 164, No. 2 (January 23, 2001): 229-233;
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Trattner, Walter I., From Poor Law to Welfare State, 6th ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).
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