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During the mid-1980s, homelessness and other problems associated with severe poverty began to emerge in many U.S. suburban communities. Although describing homeless persons has presented methodological challenges to social scientists, the characteristics and tendencies of the suburban homeless do not appear to be substantially different from those of their urban counterparts.
A 1996 report by the Urban Institute on findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) estimated that one in five homeless individuals was living in suburban areas. Demographically, suburban homeless are similar in age distribution to their urban counterparts.
However, the suburban homeless are more likely to be female (45 percent) and white non-Hispanic (54 percent), compared to the female (29 percent) and white non-Hispanic (37 percent) homeless in the central city. The suburban homeless were found to experience homelessness and incidence of alcohol, drug, and mental health problems on a par with their central city counterparts. The suburban homeless report having been physically or sexually abused before the age of eighteen (33 percent) more than the homeless of the central city (24 percent). Furthermore, the suburban homeless use services geared toward them less than their urban counterparts, with only 50 percent reporting that they had used a soup kitchen and only 18 percent a drop-in center, compared to 68 percent and 30 percent for the urban homeless, respectively. This suggests a lack of availability of these programs outside the central city.
Like their urban counterparts, the suburban homeless utilize overnight shelters for many reasons. In an unpublished 1997 study of one Chicago suburb, Lewis and Nelson found that many of the homeless they interviewed working during the day but could not afford permanent housing. Others came to the overnight shelter only to eat a meal, and then they would work overnight shifts, sleep in their car, or stay with family and friends. Some were looking for work and divided their time between the shelter and the daytime drop-in program. Family problems were common. Mentally ill individuals, unable to afford housing on fixed incomes, were regular shelter users. Others were alcohol or drug addicted. The majority of homeless individuals interviewed had suburban roots. They had grown up, attended school, and had extended family in the immediate community or adjacent suburbs.
Key Features And Implications
Since the 1980s, suburban areas have outpaced most cities in population growth and the creation of new jobs, notably in technology, light industry, and service sectors. As the suburban population has grown, so, too, have retail shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels, which depend upon a low-wage workforce.
Employment opportunities are a relatively new phenomenon in suburbia. The qualities that have traditionally attracted white middle-class families, such as safety, good schools, and quality of life, also appeal to the homeless. As the suburban population has become more heterogeneous, these communities have been confronted with social, economic, and ethnic class tensions that were previously unknown. Homelessness is one problem that has arisen as a result of social and economic changes.
Most suburbs have no history of dealing proactively (relating to acting in anticipation of a problem) with these problems. During the past several decades, gentrification (a process of renewal and rebuilding) has significantly reduced the stock of affordable urban housing, which has contributed to increasing homelessness. Affordable housing for the poor has largely been nonexistent as suburbs developed. Where social service networks exist, they have focused on the needs of the suburban middle class who can pay their own way. Many services are church based and not well positioned to respond to the increasing scope and scale of demand for basic needs such as food and shelter presented by the homeless.
The suburban growth phenomenon of the past fifty years has been seen by many as “white flight” from the perceived ills of the urban environment. The suburbs held the promise of an insulated, bucolic world, often at a geographical and social distance from low-income and minority groups. As political scientist Michael N. Danielson observed in his book The Politics of Exclusion,
most of those moving outward have been seeking social separation from the lower classes as well as better housing and more spacious surroundings. Middle-class families commonly equate personal security, good schools, maintenance of property values, and general desirability of a residential area with the absence of lower-income groups. (Danielson 1976, 6)
The issue of homelessness challenges deep seated beliefs about what suburban residents believe their community is and should be. Danielson noted, “Most suburban jurisdictions are small and relatively homogeneous populations, which makes it easier to secure consensus on exclusionary policies than is commonly the case in larger and more heterogeneous cities” (Danielson 1976, 4).
As more homeless, lower-income, and minority groups seek employment and housing in the suburbs, suburban residents, who once almost uniformly favored exclusion, have split into two camps: those who believe the community has a social responsibility to respond to residents in need and those who believe the community should be insulated from such people and their problems.
Historical Assumptions Of Urbanism
The growth of cities during the nineteenth century brought the plight of the homeless and desperately poor into focus. The demand for temporary and seasonal unskilled labor attracted the transient homeless to the cities. Local communities struggled with the choice between providing a monetary stipend to the homeless and maintaining them in poorhouses.
Instead, they created shantytowns on the cities’ peripheries. As cities became more populated and annexed new areas, they incorporated these shantytowns and their homeless inhabitants. Bricks and mortar replaced the makeshift dwellings that characterized the shantytowns, and skid row districts were born.
During much of the nineteenth century, skid row and its denizens became an accepted part of the urban environment, seen as a necessary, although unpleasant, reality of the geographic and social structure of U.S. cities. Several researchers have studied the inhabitants and conditions of postwar skid row areas across the United States. Sociologist Peter Rossi analyzed these studies and concluded that
all presented the same picture of three dire conditions: extreme poverty, arising out of low earnings and low benefit levels; disability through advanced age, alcoholism, and physical or mental illness; and disaffiliation—absent or tenuous ties to family and kin and few or no friends. (Rossi 1989, 31).
Since the late 1960s, a steady process of urban renewal and gentrification has all but eliminated skid row districts in most cities. This process has displaced the former and would-be residents of skid row into less hospitable surroundings. No longer contained in a geographically and socially segregated district of the city, they have had an unwelcome reception as they have been assimilated into the mainstream of urban life. Sociologists David Snow and Leon Anderson observed:
The differences between the homelessness of the skid-row era and that of the 1980s extended beyond demographics. Most significantly, it included a shift in the public perception of the problem of homelessness. Urban renewal and the gentrification of skid rows around the country had destroyed the urban niche in which many of the homeless of the previous period had existed. As a result, the homeless of the 1980s were more visible and faced more frequent contact with domiciled citizens than had their earlier counterparts. (Snow and Anderson 1993, 17)
In his book The Homeless, sociologist Christopher Jencks asserted that political restrictions on the creation of flophouses have contributed to the spread of homelessness among single adults. Jencks wrote,
Had cities been able to mothball skid rows during the affluent 1960s and 1970s the way that the Navy moth-balled old battleships, entrepreneurs could perhaps have created new cubicle hotels when the demand revived in the 1980s. But once skid row was gone, it was hard to find any other area that viewed the very poor as a commercial asset rather than a liability. (Jencks 1994, 74).
This urban history provides the foundation for our current theories of homelessness, but it does not help us understand homelessness as it is manifested in most suburban areas. Suburban areas do not possess a history of planned geographic containment, political control, and social intervention with the poor and deviant, as do older urban areas. Suburbia has had from its beginning vast tracts of prime space that attracted affluent migrants from the city center. The destruction of skid row and gentrification of other marginal areas have reduced the supply of cheap urban housing. This change is viewed as a major reason for the recent emergence of homelessness as a problem in older cities. The suburbs by design never allowed the creation of these marginal areas of cheap housing to begin with, and thus we must look to other factors to understand suburban homelessness.
The Changing Context Of Suburbanization
During the 1990s, a body of literature described the phenomenon of postsuburban development, which rendered obsolete the concepts of urban hub and suburban rim. Books such as journalist Joel Garreau’s 1991 Edge City: Life on the New Frontier and historian Jon C. Teaford’s Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge City chronicled the evolution of suburbia into what are now considered urban villages, technoburbs, or edge cities, a grouping of suburban municipalities unified and coordinated through the expanding role of county government and commercial expansion. Teaford writes,
The metropolitan world had been transformed, and formally suburban areas were now centers of commerce and industry, as well as residence and recreation. In fact, the edge had an economic life of its own, which challenged that of the older cities and in some cases seemed to supersede it. (Teaford 1997, 2)
With big government viewed as the antithesis of the suburban ideal, suburbanites lean toward volunteerism to address civic needs, governmental intimacy in the delivery of city services, and a sense of parochialism in their interests, opinions, and views. Teaford writes,
Traditional American city government had evolved in the nineteenth century to foster urbanization and to provide public services and facilities necessary to enhance the development of a great metropolis. Post-suburban government, in contrast, evolved as a mechanism to maintain a suburban way of life and the creation of a big tax base. (Teaford 1997, 8)
Many new information-age industries are based in the suburbs. Most major cities have experienced the development of these “high-tech corridors” beyond their municipal boundaries. Increasing numbers of long-established corporations have abandoned their older city addresses and relocated to the suburbs seeking the promise of greener pastures, lower taxes, and a better workforce. The majority of the corporate workforce now lives in these suburban locations. This transformation has resulted in suburbs that are no longer simply bedroom communities.
Suburban Responses To Homelessness
Societal responses to homelessness have mirrored, in many ways, the effects of the last thirty years of deinstitutionalization. As political sociologist Dan A. Lewis and his coauthors (1991) noted in Worlds of the Mentally Ill: How Deinstitutionalization Works in the City, society has moved away from large institutions and bureaucracies toward more inclusionary, streamlined, community-based measures for taking care of needy citizens. The price paid for this policy of deinstitutionalization is a growing public presence for groups who were previously hidden from society’s view.
To some people, the emergence of homelessness in suburban communities represents a decline in social organization and control. Many community residents attribute the presence of the homeless to a weakening of the moral and political order in their communities. They feel threatened by the “incivility” they observe in the behavior of some of the homeless, which threatens their notion of community integrity and social control. Therefore, in examining the problem of suburban homelessness, it is helpful to view it from a social control perspective, in which a negative perception of the homeless is more than a response to a particular interaction or observed event. Rather, it is a consequence of the erosion of middle-class values, as suburban residents perceive them. Thus, the problem of suburban homelessness can be viewed in much the same terms as criminologist James Q. Wilson explains the perception of urban decline in general, namely, as the erosion of civility within the local community.
The concern for “community” refers to one’s desire for the observance of standards of right and seemly conduct in the public places in which one lives and moves, those standards to be consistent with, and supportive of, the values and lifestyles of the particular individual. Around one’s home, the places one shops, and the corridors through which one walks there is for each of us a public space wherein our sense of security, self-esteem, and propriety is either reassured or jeopardized by people and events we encounter. (Wilson 1975, 24)
In their book Fear of Crime: Incivility and the Production of a Social Problem, Dan A. Lewis and political scientist Greta Salem find that communities with a high degree of social control have assurance that (1) residents adhere to a shared set of expectations about appropriate behavior; (2) private property is kept up in accordance with commonly held standards; (3) public areas are adequately maintained; and (4) access is regulated so as to control the incursion of population groups, private enterprises, and public institutions that are perceived to threaten the integrity of the neighborhood.
The first two items reflect the moral order of the community. In neighborhoods where the majority of residents share common backgrounds, where there is minimal population movement, and where there is a high level of informal social interaction, commonly held norms are more likely to be held and enforced. The last two items reflect the political order of the community. To secure city services and control access to the community, local residents must have the capacity to influence municipal service bureaucracies and both the public and private decision-making agencies that play a role in determining the direction of neighborhood change. (Lewis and Salem 1986, 79)
Suburban residents confronted by emerging social problems such as homelessness are forced to take sides. One side views the suburban community as a fortress of middle-class affluence, in which it was inconceivable that the homeless could be residents. Members of that side argue that the homeless are outsiders for whom the community bears no responsibility and that providing assistance only encourages the homeless to remain in the community and attracts others from the outside seeking help. The opposing side contends that where the homeless came from does not matter. This side argues that, for whatever reason, the homeless are in their midst and thereby deserve the community’s charity and assistance. Helping is the moral and responsible thing to do.
Addressing The Problem
As a result of the rapid social and economic changes that have occurred in recent years, many suburbs are now faced with the problem of how best to assimilate the growing class of working poor and marginalized who are now in their midst.
Whereas the poor were concentrated and segregated in distinct neighborhoods in the older city, enabling them and their caretakers to influence electoral politics, the suburban poor have lacked a similar base of political representation. Poverty in the older city has long been the venue of patronage systems, city councils, and city planners. However, poverty has largely been irrelevant to suburban politics. In the suburbs, the historic low incidence of poverty and other related social problems has understandably warranted little attention from government in the past. Whereas the older cities accepted responsibility for the problem of homelessness, suburban governments continue to rely on the efforts of the private sector, opting for control by overseeing the problem rather than delivering direct services.
As a result, typical political dialogue in the suburbs occurs among community elites, who consist of officials, community residents, religious leaders, and service providers, through a politically appointed coalition or task force. Appointees to coalitions who judge the homeless problem often have strongly differing philosophical views of the problem, which can frustrate local initiative.
A central issue may be the perception of people that providing services for the homeless in their community unfairly burdens them because they take on the homeless problems of neighboring suburban municipalities. Because of the amorphous (shapeless) geographic and political nature of the suburbs, problems such as homelessness cross many boundaries. Suburban municipalities typically share no history of working collaboratively on such issues.
County governments that serve these affluent suburban areas have not developed the leadership, expertise, or capacity to provide the type of services needed by the homeless. Suburban communities may lack the political will to appropriate funds and counter community opposition.
In the absence of government initiative, the challenge of ministering to the homeless in suburban communities is likely to be met by faith-based organizations, which have little experience in providing social services on a substantially different scale than what has been given to the suburban middle class. The needs of the homeless will be met by the volunteer efforts of local churches, who view this type of work as being consistent with their Judeo-Christian social mission philosophy. Churches enter this new territory of service with the expectation that they will develop expertise in the operation of overnight shelters, feeding programs, and provisions for the homeless.
Professional human service providers, lacking additional funds with which to provide these homeless services, take on roles of coordination and consultation that support church efforts and new agencies created to help the homeless. Seeking to establish some degree of social control over the homeless, local government may provide limited funds for professional human service providers to monitor the guests of church-based shelter operations, provide referral resources, intervene when behavior is inappropriate, and resolve personal crises. Establishing professional human service providers as benevolent agents of social control can create a tension with the philosophy of unconditional love and acceptance that is the foundation of the churches’ mission of service to the homeless.
Suburban residents often perceive the presence of services for the homeless as the reason for increasing numbers and problems associated with the homeless in their community. Professional human service providers in this role run the risk of displacement, given that they can be held unrealistically accountable for the problems created by the homeless. Displacement occurs when the social problem that needs to be solved—in this case, homelessness—is replaced in the minds of the problem solvers and community members with the services that were developed as a partial response to the original problem. When this occurs, community pressure can develop to curtail services or severely restrict the scope and scale of services offered and which homeless individuals are eligible to receive them.
The fear of the homeless is a real issue among some residents of suburbia. For the most part, that fear is not based on personal experience but rather on what the homeless represent: the poor, the unclean, the deviant. The homeless are a constant reminder of what each of us might become, of a hometown that is rapidly changing, and of the potential for decline and social disorder.
Current urban theories of homelessness are not useful in understanding homelessness as it is manifested in most suburban areas. Suburban areas do not possess a history of planned geographic containment, political control, or social intervention with the poor and deviant, as do our older urban areas. Suburbia had from its beginning vast tracts of prime space that attracted affluent migrants from the city center. Poverty, where it existed, was scattered, occurring within a rural context very different from that of the inner city.
The destruction of skid row and the gentrification of other marginal areas resulted in the loss of cheap housing in cities. This is seen as a major reason for the emergence of homelessness as a problem in the older city. The suburbs by design never allowed the creation of these marginal areas of cheap housing.
Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has affected homelessness equally in the city and the suburb. This policy shift from inpatient to outpatient care has resulted in the release of thousands of patients from long-term hospitalization but also has resulted in people who once would have been sent to a mental hospital now being treated in the community. Indeed, as Christopher Jencks has noted, “The history of deinstitutionalization is the story of America’s collective search for other places to send these disturbed and disturbing people” (Jencks 1994, 25).
As a result of the rapid social and economic changes that have occurred in recent years, suburbs are now faced with the problem of assimilating this growing class of working poor and marginalized. This problem will require creative thinking on the part of suburban leaders as they attempt to guide their communities from a past of exclusivity toward a future of diversity and inclusivity.
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