Homelessness is one of the major problems in the United States. Person experiencing homelessness not only suffers from poor financial conditions, but also suffers from prejudice and discrimination against him. It has been observed that lack of job and severe poverty leads a person to experience homelessness (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). However, the statistics of the people who are homeless shows that the problem of homelessness is more serious and vast spread than it is understood to be. The fact that approximately three million people in the United States experience homelessness during some time or other in their life, shows that homelessness is a major problem experienced by the country today (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). The sad thing is that children and families consist of 38 of the population who experience homelessness (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). This shows that homelessness has vast presence and hence, is a threat to the health of the society. Hence, the aim of this paper is to understand the nature of homelessness by trying to identify the causes and the consequences of homelessness. It is possible for the government to find the solution to the problem of homelessness only when it understands the root cause of the problem. However, the solution is not possible only through the programs run by the government as the cause of homelessness not only lies in the poor financial conditions, but also lies in the psychology and the cultural structure of the society. Hence, if the problem of homelessness is to be removed completely, then immediate steps are needed to be taken to remove the prejudice and discrimination in the society. Prejudice not only creates poisonous attitude towards people belonging to certain group of the society, but also reduces their life chances and opportunities of people, which ultimately leads them to frustration and poverty, and hence, homelessness.
The duration of homelessness and the nature of homelessness make it difficult to form a single definition of homelessness. Hence, the definition of homelessness is formed taking into consideration the conditions related to a person who is homeless. The ‘Housing and Urban Development’ (HUD) defines homelessness as a condition where people have to live in places which “are not fit for human habitation” or, live in shelters or transitional housing programs for homeless people, due to lack of home of their own (Foscarinis, 2008, p.125). However, later on, to include all types of people experiencing homelessness in the programs funded by HEARTH, the definition of homelessness was expanded to include even those people “who doubled-up with others,” due to homelessness (Foscarinis, 2008, p.125). In this way, it was found that homelessness has different dimensions to it and different people try to solve the problem of homelessness in different ways. Hence, to cover all people experiencing homelessness, different definitions were formed.
The other type of homelessness that was identified was the ‘chronic’ homelessness. According to HUD, a person who is experiencing chronic homelessness is defined as “an unaccompanied homeless individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year” or a person who in the past three years has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness (Spence-Almaguer, Petrovich & Page, 2008, p.2). However, this is not all. For a person to be called as experiencing chronic homelessness, he also “must be experiencing a physical or mental disability, including but not limited to ‘severe mental illness, severe and persistent alcohol and/or drug abuse problems, and HIV/AIDS” (Spence-Almaguer, Petrovich & Page, 2008, p.2). This shows that homelessness is experienced in different ways by different people and hence, efforts are being made to include all people who are experiencing different kinds of homelessness, in the programs run by different agencies and government bodies to provide solution to the problem. However, to find a solution to the problem of homelessness, it is important to understand the plight of people who are homeless, without judging them or discriminating against them.
Stereotyping People who are Homeless
Homelessness has become common in America. People who experience homelessness are found living on streets, sleeping in public places and taking shelter in facilities designed for homeless individuals and families (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). The sight of people who are homeless has become so common in the United States that common people have become desensitized to their plight and in fact, express their annoyance towards them (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). The trend of lack of understanding of the plight of people who are homeless is a troubling thing as it hampers the unified effort to solve the problem (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). One of the major reasons for a lack of understanding and sympathy towards people who are homeless is the stereotypical image of homeless people that common people have in their minds (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). Common people fail to see the real dimension of lives of people who are homeless, as they rely on the stereotypical characteristics that are associated with homelessness (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). This leads to lack of sensitivity and responsibility towards the problem of homelessness. However, lack of sensitivity is not displayed by everyone as efforts are being made by many sectors of the society to end the problem of homelessness.
Local and national level movements to end homelessness are underway in the United States (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.1). Homeless assistance system and local plans are being re-designed by hundreds of communities to end the problem of homelessness (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.1). Moreover, not only the corporate and government agencies but also common people like leaders of communities, people who were formerly homeless and people who are currently homeless, and citizens who are concerned about homelessness, have committed to end the problem of homeless and hence, are involved in different projects (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.1). This shows that people have recognized the problem of homelessness and are ready to contribute in whatever way they can, to end it. However, it was identified by the ‘National Alliance to End Homelessness’ that for any plan to end homelessness, what was most important component was the data and statistics of homeless people (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.1). Hence, knowing the statistics of people who are homeless is an important thing.
The importance of data of homeless people for success of the projects prompted the agencies to collect the data of population experiencing homelessness. The ‘Homeless Research Institute’ at the ‘National Alliance to End Homelessness’ found that in January 2005, approximately 744,313 people experienced homelessness (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.2). However, it was revealed that the actual number of people who experienced homelessness during 2005 was two to three times more than the number given, as research only focused on people who were homeless at the time of the research, and hence, missed those people who were homeless during other times of the year (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.2). Hence, in reality, the actual number of people who experienced homeless during 2005 was 2.5 million to 3.2 million (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.2). Another data collected by Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS), which was released by HUD, revealed that during three months in the winter and spring, 74,000 people utilized shelter due to their homelessness (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.2). One of the reasons for not getting a right data of population who is homeless is that most people are homeless for a short period as they move in and out of homelessness from time to time (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.4). Hence, those people who have homes for a short period of time are missed by the studies conducted to collect the data of people who are homeless (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.5). However, Burt and colleagues, from the annual data from the past, estimated that the number of people who experience homelessness per year is 2.3 to 3.5 million (Cunningham & Henry, 2008, p.5). Sadly, the studies also found that homelessness is experienced not only by single or isolated people, but is also experienced by families with children.
The grimmest reality of the problem of homelessness in America is that even the families with children experience homelessness. It has been found that the number of families with children, who experience homelessness, is growing every year (Duffield, 2001, p.205). According to a study by Shinn & Weitzman (1996), 40 of people who become homeless constitute of families with children (Duffield, 2001, p.205). According to study by ‘Better Homes Fund’ (1999), approximately 85 of families experiencing homelessness are headed by single mothers (Duffield, 2001, p.205). The same study also revealed that “the average homeless family comprises a young woman with two children” (Duffield, 2001, p.205). According to other study of homelessness in 26 American cities, conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (1999), 37 percent of population who is homeless, consists of families with children (Duffield, 2001, p.205). The study also revealed that in the urban population, who is homeless, 13 are single women, 43 are single men and 7 are unaccompanied youth (Duffield, 2001, p.205). However, it has also been found that people from African American ethnic background are most affected by homelessness as they consist of 50 of the population experiencing homelessness while the number of people from Caucasian and Hispanic ethnic background experiencing homelessness is 31 and 13 respectively (Duffield, 2001, p.205). This shows that homelessness is not just the result of poor financial condition but is also a result of cultural and ethnic background. This shows that if the problem of homelessness is to be removed completely, then understanding the root cause of homelessness is very important. The sad thing is that there are not one, but many causes of homelessness and unfortunately, most of them lie in the social and cultural aspect of the society.
It is understood that solution to a problem is possible only when one knows the cause of the problem (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). However, it has been found that there are not one but numerous factors that cause homelessness (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). Moreover, the fact that these causes interplay with each other, makes it more difficult and complex to identify the nature of causes (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). Also, the prevalence of link between homelessness and several other social problems like addictions, HIV/AIDS, deinstitutionalization of people suffering from mental illness and development of crack cocaine etc., made it difficult to understand the real cause of the problem of homelessness (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). This was because it was difficult to identify if the social problems that co-existed with homelessness were the cause, or the consequence, of the problem of homelessness (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). Sadly, even today it is not clear if the social problems linked with homelessness are the cause, or the consequence, of homelessness (McNamara, 2008, p. xi). Still, there are many factors that can be identified as the cause of homelessness.
One of the major factors for person experiencing homelessness is his poor financial condition. Because of lack of affordable housing, many people live on the streets (Andersen, M. & Howard, 2011, p.192). People who suffer from financial problems have “no choice but to live on streets” (Andersen, M. & Howard, 2011, p.192). Moreover, the increase in poverty is also adding to the increase in homelessness (Andersen, M. & Howard, 2011, p.192). It was found that homelessness increased when people lost their jobs and source of income during the recession in 2008 (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). The recession led to increase in the number of people who availed all the facilities like food lines, soup kitchens, church beds and shelter, which were designed for homeless people (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). According to Cohen and Burt (1990), severe poverty and lack of adequate housing plays a major role in making people homeless (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). However, poverty is not the only factor that leads to homelessness. There are many other factors, which are related to social, domestic and personal life, that lead to homelessness.
It has been found that social, physical and domestic conditions of a person have a potential to cause homelessness. For example, people who experience domestic violence leave their homes, and when they fail to find a job, they become homeless (Andersen, M. & Howard, 2011, p.193). According to Cohen and Burt (1990), the problem of mental illness, and addiction to drugs and alcohol, prevent people from becoming self-sufficient and becoming capable of finding an affording home for themselves (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). The physical condition of mental illness and drug addiction are considered major risk factors for homelessness as it does not allow people to handle the responsibility of job. This makes it impossible for them to find a source of income and hence, makes homelessness a permanent experience (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). Also, according to a study by ‘National Coalition for the Homeless’ (2010), the movement to get mental patients out of institutional settings has left many people suffering from mental health without access to the mental health resources (Andersen, M. & Howard, 2011, p.192). Many of people suffering from mental illness, who are released from mental institutions, are not accepted by their families and hence, experience homelessness (Andersen, M. & Howard, 2011, p.192). Hence, deinstitutionalization of people who are mentally ill is also a major cause of homelessness. Homelessness not only affects the people on personal level but also affects the society as a whole. The fact that even families with children are major part of the population experiencing homelessness shows that homelessness can create many other social problems which can lead to decline in the health and safety of the society. Hence, the consequences of homelessness are severe and vary in nature.
Consequences of Homelessness
Homelessness not only affects the social condition of a person but also affects the physical and mental health of a person. People who experience homelessness have no permanent place to sleep or no permanent shelter. This makes them to find different places for shelter, which might not be healthy for their bodies. Families and individuals experiencing homelessness use automobiles or hidden encampments as shelter for sleeping (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). However, the individuals who get badly affected by homelessness are children. Children whose families do not have home of their own, are not able to attend the schools regularly (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). They travel with their families to places which provide them with temporary shelter and in doing so, miss the classes in school (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). This leads to failure in studies and development of low self-esteem (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). Sadly, the problem does not end with bad educational performance, as it gives rise to other problems that have severe implications on the society as a whole
It has been found that children from families suffering from homelessness drop out of the school due to their failure to perform in school (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). Even children from families who experience homelessness for short period of time display the problem of drop out as the school transfers make it difficult for them to concentrate on their studies and school performance (Kornblum, 2012, p.280). According to the U.S. Department of Education (1999), a report generated in year 1997 revealed that experience of homelessness prevented 45 of children from attending the school on a regular basis (Duffield, 2001, p.207). It has been found that for children from homeless families, even getting enrolled in school becomes a problem many times. Children from homeless families are often prevented from getting enrollment in schools due to lack of residency, lack of guardianship, delays in transfer of school records, lack of transportation and lack of immunization records (Duffield, 2001, p.207). A study by ‘Homes for the Homeless’ (1999) revealed that 4 to 6 months of education is lost with every move that children coming from homeless families have to experience due to their homelessness (Duffield, 2001, p.207). This shows that due to their mobility and frequent change of schools, children from homeless families are at high risk of falling behind in school (Duffield, 2001, p.207). These barriers not only affect the education of a child but also affect the mental health of a child. It has been found that the unstable life and bitter experiences cause great amount of trauma to children from families experiencing homelessness (Duffield, 2001, p.208). This means that the problem of homelessness not only affects the personal lives of children experiencing homelessness but also affects their chances of achieving stable conditions and a ‘home’ for themselves in their adulthood. Study by Burt et al. (1999) revealed that most of the adults who experience homelessness reported being homeless in their childhood as 21 reported experiencing homelessness, 27 reported living in foster care, and negative conditions forced 22 to leave their homes (Duffield, 2001, p.208). This shows that experience of homelessness in childhood not only deprives children from having a healthy childhood but also reduces their chances of having an opportunity to create a healthy, stable and secure life for themselves in their adulthood (Duffield, 2001, p.208). Hence, lack of stable life and lack of opportunities in society, makes it difficult for people experiencing homelessness to change their lives.
The discussion above shows that due to lack of opportunities and resources, people experiencing homelessness suffer from personal and social drawbacks. Sadly, experience of homelessness also affects the life chances of children coming from homeless families due to the unstable conditions and lack of different sets of rules in school for their conditions. These conditions creates a vicious cycle which traps the families and children experiencing homelessness, and prevents them from getting out of it and creating a stable, healthy and respectable life for themselves. Hence, it is extremely important for people in the society to understand the plight and the real problem of people experiencing homelessness. Change in people’s attitude towards people experiencing homelessness is important as only a strong and a genuine effort can help in bringing out the people from vicious cycle and clutches of homelessness.
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