Homelessness in America - Entry for January 23, 2008

Homelessness is a social problem that needs to be fixed -- not only to help the homeless individuals and families involved, but to reduce the strain they pose to our cities and charity providers. Although there are several reasons why people become homeless and stay that way, it is up to society to take action and reduce the numbers of homeless people in America and enable people to get rehabilitated so that they do not become homeless again. Currently, a large part of the homeless problem is that people are not aware that there is a homeless problem and so do nothing to help or stop homelessness. They assume that homeless people are homeless because they do not care about getting a job and solving their problems, and many times, this is not the case. Without society being aware of the homeless problem, they will not be able to influence those in politics and in local governments to enact change.

What is Homelessness?
Most people think that homeless people are bums and panhandlers. Wikipedia defines homelessness as a situation in which a person does not have a long term place of ongoing residence, usually in cities or suburbs. Homeless people are demeaned in the media, ridiculed, and often the victims of hate crimes. But the truth of the matter is that homeless people aren’t just bums and panhandlers that sit on park benches or city streets, wear filthy clothing, or living in boxes, they are also people forced to live in their cars, with family members, in tents and makeshift camps, and in shelters.[1] In the United States, it is estimated that 41% of the homeless are single men, 40% are families, 14% are single women, and 5% are youth.

Why Do People Become Homeless?
People become homeless for several reasons. In Helping America’s homeless: Emergency shelter or affordable housing?, most authorities on the subject of homelessness say that poverty is the proximate cause of homelessness, the second are that wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living. Other problems are the lack of health care and supportive services (mental health/substance abuse); inadequate shelter systems (lack of beds and permanent addresses); prison release and homelessness; veterans and homelessness; youth homelessness; and violence (spousal abuse, physical and sexual abuse at home).

Twenty-two percent of homeless people have mental problems that have not been diagnosed. They should be in institutions, and in fact, many were but were subsequently released because of lack of psychiatric facilities and beds.

Why Do People Stay Homeless?
The reasons people stay homeless are very similar to the reason why they become homeless: when they look for help, it is not there. There are estimated to be 3.5 million homeless people in the United States. With that quantity of people looking for help, most cities do not have enough resources to house the homeless people they have. For those who cannot find shelter and their needs are unmet, they are often criminalized for not finding a place to sleep or sleeping on city streets or public land. In many cities, homelessness is actually a crime.[2]

According to Homeless.org, when homeless people try to find jobs, they have a hard time because they do not have phone numbers and other contact information. Sometimes their work history is lacking, and they might not have references. The children of homeless people often have a hard time staying in school because they do not have a stable living environment, they are hungry, they get sick because they do not get the proper medical treatment, and some children cannot get into school at all because they do not meet residency requirements.

How Can We Fix the Homeless Problem?
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions but there are preventative measures. A solution would be to raise the national minimum wage and regional minimum wages to help the poor who are on the verge of becoming homeless afford housing. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there is not a single jurisdiction in the country where a person working full-time earning the prevailing minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom rental apartment. If people cannot support themselves, even with the lowest jobs, then they will not be able to rise out of or prevent homelessness. Another solution is to provide private donor, federal or state subsidized low-income housing, or at least provide a tax incentive for developers to include at least 25% low-income housing in their projects. Most shelters cannot meet the needs of the homeless people, so there has to be a way to allow other public lands to be used to house the homeless on a temporary basis and within a certain time period. But most cities do not want to be the one that allows homeless people to live where they want. In those cities, they can open public halls and fair grounds for the night, with adequate restroom facilities.

In Pasadena, the Pasadena Police Department and the LA Department of Health have partnered to form the Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation Team. The program created three teams of mental health and law enforcement officials to provide compassionate assistance to persons in need of mental health assessment and services.

Cities around the country have started realizing that you have to understand why someone is homeless before you can change it. Individually, do not ignore what your eyes can see. Homeless people are not invisible. Volunteer to serve them food. Pass out blankets. Change will start when we are aware of the problem and push for action.


Burt, Martha R., Laudan Y. Aron, and Edgar Lee. “Helping America’s homeless: Emergency shelter or affordable housing?” Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. 2001

Guzicki, Melissa, Manuel Manrique, Carolyn J. Tompsett, Paul A. Toro, and Jigna Zatakia. "Homelessness in the United States: Assessing Changes in Prevalence and Public Opinion, 1993-2001" American Journal of Community Psychology: Springer Netherlands, March 2006, p.47-61.
Homeless.org. http://www.homeless.org/


Homelessness – Causes and Facts,” Chicago Coalition For The Homeless: Chicago, 2006

Hubbird, John. “What Homeless Problem,” Dignity Virtual Village: http://www.outofthedoorways.org/articles/eugene.html, 2002.

Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA: A Report on Hate Crimes And Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness, 2005.” National Coalition for the Homeless: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/civilrights/index.html

A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities” National Coalition for the Homeless: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/civilrights/index.html

[1] According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors the homeless population is diverse: 20% work; 22% are mentally disabled; 11% are veterans; and 34% are drug or alcohol dependent. (Homeless.org)
[2] The National Coalition for the Homeless’ report, “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” they cite that this trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.


  1. Something to think about: the landscape of homelessness is changing. A lot more families, children, young adults are trying to live among "street people" in order to survive the demands society creates that overwhelm and override the ability to have shelter. Food and water are readily available but the ability to pursue anything beyond that becomes swallowed up by the hoops a person must jump through by trying to stay connected to "the system." Eventually hope becomes lost in the face of people in charge who place impractical requirements on the coin in the bottom of the proverbial skinny vase. As a single, homeless mom with children, knowing how I got where I am has nothing to do with dependency issues or mental illness, it is difficult to get past the judgmental restrictions placed on any path to a resource. The common problem all single moms face of having to be in two places at once becomes an impossible challenge when bus fare, extremely long transit times for short geographical distances from one place to another, shortened business hours at government offices, an inability to maintain important documents, and lack of compassion from family, friends and officials are added to the mix. Just some things to keep in mind.


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