, Research Paper
Homelessness, condition of people who lack regular legal access to housing.
Homelessness has been recognized as a significant social problem in the United
States since the early 1980s, when an increase in the number of homeless people
was caused by a weak economy and cuts in federal aid for housing and income
assistance. Other periods of increased homelessness also have occurred many times
in history, including during the colonial era. Most other industrialized societies also
have experienced increases in homeless populations in recent decades.
The number of homeless people in the United States has been an arguable
issue for a while. Advocates for the homeless claim that there are several million
homeless people; however, recent studies suggest that the homeless number from
600,000 to 700,000. Exact numbers are impossible to collect because researchers
define homelessness in different ways and because the homeless are transitory. The
number of people predicted to become homeless in any given year is estimated to be
three to five times the number of people who are homeless at any given moment.
The US Census Bureau attempted to count homeless people in the 1990 census.
However, most people consider this attempt as a failure.
The homeless population is largely made up of adult men, but the number of
women, children, and youth has steadily increased. This group now comprises more
than 40 percent of the total homeless population. Most homeless people are also
extremely poor and separated from their families and other social networks. About
one-third of the adult homeless are chronically mentally ill, and about half are
alcoholic or abuse drugs. During the 1950s, most homeless people were older, white,
alcoholic men associated with the rundown sections of cities known as skid rows.
Today’s homeless, however, are mostly non-white; relatively young, with an average
age in the middle 30s; and include a large number of women and children. About
one-third of homeless men are veterans.
In addition to the homeless population, even larger numbers are considered
“marginally housed”; they are in danger of becoming homeless because of poverty or
unavailable housing. About half the nation’s poor households spend 70 percent or
more of their monthly income on housing, which puts them at risk of becoming
homeless if faced with an economic problem. Because the number of people living in
poverty numbers some 37 million, the marginally housed would amount to nearly 20
million people, creating the potential for a vast increase in the size of the homeless
population. Those who are housed only because they have been able to stay with
family or friends are known as the hidden homeless.
Many reasons have tried to explain the dramatic increase in the number of
homeless people in the 1980s and 1990s. The total poverty rate tended to increase
throughout this period, and this was especially true in the inner city areas where
most homeless people live. At the same time, the supply of low-income housing
declined in some cities. Waiting lists for public housing are often many years long
and increases in welfare payments have not kept pace with inflation. Among other
factors implicated in the trend are changes in the treatment of the chronically
mentally ill, drug use, the inability of some families to support dependent adult
members, and an increasing rate of violence against women.