The causes of homelessness stem from many economic and societal sources such as poverty caused by poor paying jobs (under-employment), unemployment, a shortage of inexpensive housing and the lack of public and privately funded services for persons who experience domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness. These are among the main factors that play a role in chronic homelessness, a condition that is, only in rare cases, a choice for persons that must live outside the security and comfort of a home environment. Many, too many, average citizens do not bother to understand the underlying reasons or the harsh consequences of chronic homelessness. The homeless are often portrayed as lazy, uneducated, are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, unskilled, mentally unstable or a combination of these stereotypical rationales. Perhaps it is easier to rely on popular misconceptions rather than try to understand the issue because appreciating the realities of chronic homelessness might motivate that average person to do something about it which takes expending thought, effort and possibly money; much easier just to misunderstand. This paper will consider the chronic homelessness issue including why and what type of people become homeless.
Thanks in large part to recent public perception campaigns by government and private agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and National Coalition for the Homeless respectively, long-standing stereotypes of the chronically homeless are slowly evaporating. Imagery of imaginatively clothed white-bearded old leather-faced men sitting slumped against an alley wall holding a bottle wrapped discretely in a brown paper sack have morphed into a more realistic vision such as a family living out of their car or a single mom and her kids living in a shelter. An estimated half a million children that, “at any one time,” are homeless in the U.S. and their parent represent the “fastest growing segment of the homeless population” (Gray, 2009). It is a fallacy that the majority of homeless persons actually choose that horrendous way of life after having become used to it. Studies illustrate that ninety-four percent of persons without a home definitely would not decide to live in this way one more day if they had an option. Another common misconception regarding the chronically homeless is that they made bad life choices therefore are responsible for their own bad fortune. In addition to the sizeable proportion of kids that are homeless, many other people are victims of their circumstances too. A number of military veterans suffer from physical and mental disabilities resulting from their service and cannot sustain a ‘normal’ existence. Others in the ranks of the chronically homeless were abused as children or were themselves raised in homelessness. Still others are victims of alcohol and drug addiction which destroyed their family and working life. Some have become unemployable for a variety of causes or can only find menial jobs upon being laid-off from a previously high paying job. (“Facts and Myths”, 2007).
Approximately one-fifth to one-quarter of homeless women is in this demeaning and dangerous situation because they are escaping violence in the home. “22 percent (of women) said they had left their last place of residence because of domestic violence.” (“Domestic Violence,” 2007) Unsurprisingly, this is not true for men as only a very small percentage mention family violence as the chief cause for their homeless condition. Unemployment is males most frequently answered response and for women, the second ranked reason. Other than spousal abuse and to minor extent unemployment, the differences between the causes for homelessness are statistically similar for women and men. A comparable sector of both genders said alcohol and drug abuse, disabilities or extended illnesses and reaching the limits of government assistance contributed to their homelessness to the same extent. Recent analysis and public awareness efforts have helped supplant accepted gender misconceptions concerning the causes for chronic homelessness. One of the most common was that a larger percentage of men were homeless as a consequence of drug and/or alcohol abuse. “The two genders become homeless for essentially the same reasons and to a similar extent outside of the extra cross women must bear, domestic violence” (“Women and Men” 2001).
Health matters, both psychological and physical, often negatively influence a chronically homeless person’s ability to re-enter society. Health care avenues for homeless persons are inherently inadequate. People who don’t have a residence usually don’t have bank accounts either and fewer still carry credit cards. They must carry cash while negotiating their way through an inhospitable environment where violent crime is the norm. The realities of financial isolation is not only socially shameful for the person living ‘on the streets,’ but the powerlessness that they experience when they cannot do something as normal as opening a simple checking account acts as both a psychological and physical barrier to getting a job in addition to feeling they have any type of normalcy about their lives. Chronically homeless persons have numerous, complex needs, especially if they have slept outside for an extended period during their homeless ordeal.
Readjusting back into mainstream society following time served in prison or the armed forces proves more difficult for some than it does for others. A seemingly unnoticed sector is newly released prisoners that become chronically homeless due to fewer job opportunities than the general population enjoys consequently many have inordinate problems integrating back to societal norms. A simple solution to this imbalance would be to permit ex-prisoners to earn nearly any type license and be allowed the same employment discrimination rights as others with a few obvious occupational exceptions. Ex-prisoners have ‘paid their debt to society’ but the restrictions placed on them ultimately are harmful to them and ultimately to society at-large because they can never become part it again. An ex-felon has little choice but to return to their crime when they can’t find employment and/or obtain a license for virtually any career including even a hair stylist. The number of and extent to which the troubles homeless persons suffer only multiply over time. It is economically beneficial for politicians and the public to resolve the issue. “Helping to take someone off the streets and place them back into mainstream society allows them to contribute to the economy rather than continuing to rely on public assistance” (Wallace & Quilgars, 2005). Though there are agencies that offer inventive helpful services and have vastly enhanced the lives of the chronically homeless, the problem goes beyond what resources the government and private sector combined are currently directing towards it and this inequity is increasing along with the chronically homeless population.
The resolution of the general public, and by extension politicians, to eradicate chronic homelessness determines how many men, women and children, the most innocent victims of this circumstance, will continue to endure this humiliating and wretched condition. Enacting laws alone will not diminish the chronically homeless population. Sufficient resources should be allocated to manufacture morel affordable housing units by building or improving shared efforts between homelessness agencies in the private and public sectors. If these agencies can effectively stop or slow the instances of chronic homelessness prior to persons become this way as well as adjust to the range of challenges facing those presently without a stable home, the objective of abolishing chronic homelessness will be nearer to becoming a reality.
“Domestic Violence and Homelessness” NCH Fact Sheet #7 National Coalition for the Homeless. (August 2007). November 26, 2010 < http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/domestic.pdf>
“Employment and Homelessness” NCH Fact Sheet #4 National Coalition for the Homeless. (August 2007). November 26, 2010
“Facts and Myths about the Homeless.” A Place to Call Home. (2007). November 26, 2010
Gray, Steven “Report Says 1 in 50 U.S. Kids Is Homeless” Time Magazine (March 2009). November 26, 2010
Wallace A. & Quilgars, D. Homelessness and Financial Exclusion: A Literature Review. London: Friends Provident/London Housing Foundation, (2005). November 26, 2010