Homelessness is one of the social problems that are encountered today. Contrary to what would be thought, the problem is not exclusive to developing countries, it is also found in the developed economies, such as the United States. However, the plight of people who experience homelessness is more important than the country in which the homelessness is experienced, and its impact on their health, both mental and physical, and general social life in terms of the use of drugs, alcohol and substance and their vulnerability to committing crime, not forgetting the negative impact it has on children. It is important that these problems are brought to attention to encourage its alleviation.
Homelessness in America
The United States is ranked among the top three economies in the world, yet a section of its society is experiencing the problem of homelessness. The social problem is not however exclusive to the United States, it is a global problem. While its prevalence and extent is less compared to other countries, it can be thought that economic power’s government should be able to provide affordable housing for its population, or in other words eliminate the problem. Homeless people go through difficulties that should not be gone through in a country with so much wealth and resources.
The society classifies homeless individuals as people who are no longer functional and/or useful members of the economic system, because they do not work or support the system actively (Belcher, J. R., & Deforge, B. R, 2012). Rather than consider the plight of the society’s disadvantaged, the view focuses on who is contributing to the economy and who is not. This view does not seem to be oriented towards the need to resolve the problem.
Homeless individuals experience many difficulties, almost all of which arise from the situation of being homelessness, or the path to homelessness. This paper asses the state of homelessness in the U.S. It looks at the causes of homelessness, and the impact it has on homeless families, especially women and children. It focuses more on the chronic homelessness, which is the category of homelessness it has chosen to identify as the “true” homelessness.
The Definition of Homelessness
The definition of homelessness varies across scholars; it also tends to depend of the context under which it is being defined. For instance, the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 as defining a homeless person as a person who either “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, or lives in a shelter, an institution, or placed designated for, or ordinarily used as a sleeping accommodation for human beings” (as quoted in Hombs, 2011, p. 274 ). The definition seems to imply that homelessness is something that can be experienced by anyone at a point in his or her lifetime; it includes within its scope the section of society that has the ability to afford homes including those who are only temporarily away from the homes they own. As such, it appears to downplay the plight of those facing the real difficulties of homelessness. In their definition of homelessness, some scholars choose to look at it as a manifestation of “a shortage of suitable affordable accommodation in the housing market” (as cited in Ravenhill, 2012, p.7). The inclusion of the word “suitable” appears to detach rooflessness from homelessness. In a “What is Homelessness” research, the findings showed that people with homes “believed that people visibly sleeping on the streets wanted to be there, it was a ‘lifestyle choice’” (Ravenhill, 2012, p.8).
As they are, the definitions fail to take into consideration the plight of the people going through the difficulties that result from “true” homelessness. For that reason, the magnitude of the problem is under-weighed. This can have an impact on the making of policies that are intended to alleviate the problem. This paper considers homelessness as a temporary, extended or perceptibly permanent condition that people find themselves in when they find housing unaffordable, or when they find their current home unstable or unsafe for the children or the caregiver. It focuses on chronic homelessness.
Causes of Homelessness
The causes of homelessness can be explained in two broad ways, both of which are supported by both empirical research and theoretical contributions: one of the explanations can be associated with policy and structural economic conditions such as unemployment, shortage of afforded houses for renting and poverty; the other can be associated with the individual himself/herself in terms of behavior, vulnerability and incapacity. Most of those who offer theoretical explanations to homelessness perceive homelessness as being a result of interaction between personal factors and structural factors that occur when a person goes through a negative or a major life event at a time when they are not able to cope, or they do not have the resources needed to be competitive in the housing market (Sullivan, Burnam, & Koegel, 2000). Inadequacy or inaccessibility of services has also been associated with homelessness (Sosin, 2003).
Experimental studies have shown that there are high rates of disruptive childhood experiences, substance abuse and mental illness among people who are homeless (Sosin, 2003). Susser, Moore, and Link (1993) used a model for the causes of homelessness that incorporated personal risk factors at different points in the course of a person’s life, the most influential of them being the deficiency in social and economic resources, personal characteristics acquired in early life, and poor health. The risk of homelessness increases and accumulates over time, and the increase and accumulation is more pronounced when several risk factors occur at the same time. During middle age and later years, the most influential risk factors substance abuse, victimization, family and social separation, imprisonment, low income and physical and mental health problems. The risk factors common with people of the age of fifty years or older are income decline, support services, social security benefits and enforced unemployment.
The transition from having a home to the situation of homelessness in one’s later life is usually marked by the demise of a parent, household disagreements or breakdown of marriage, widowhood, loss of a job or source of income, loss of accommodation that was provided for as one of the benefits of a lost job, the onset of severe mental illness or eviction because of rent arrears. (Crane & Warnes, 2001b).However, research into the causes of homelessness among older people has not been very rigorous. There are many people who experience changes that are identified as causes of homelessness in their later lives but they never become homeless, in spite of the vulnerabilities. The question that arises from this is that of why some of the people who have owned houses, or have been housed for years, loose homes for the first time when they enter into old age. Which traits, events and states are implicated, and why isn’t social welfare and support able to take care of the problem? The risk factors that are identified repeatedly such as disturbed childhoods are the most probable part of the reason for the entry into homelessness in old age than in early adulthood.
About the interactions between individual and structural factors, theoretical explanations conceive that most of the entries into homelessness can be sourced from welfare policy or structural factors, with personal behavior and problems and with inadequacy in the delivery of welfare and health services. In the structural factor, the operational form “policy gap” which is an entitlement that is made available in a state of interest but not in others. It may refer to a service that is lacking or a subsidized benefit, the restriction on the resources made available for the provision of the service or entitlement or to a restriction or condition upon entitlement.
Crane & Warnes (2002) has shown that failings service delivery were part of the pathway to homelessness. The failings have been termed “service deficiency” which is defined as the failure to deliver a service or benefit to an entitled client and in contact with the agency providing it. The most obvious problem with the delivery of service occurs when the person who is entitled to a service has requested for it but the responsible agency fails to deliver it, when the service is intended to support accommodation, such as a housing benefit.
Another causal concept is that in many cases, predisposing factors like a person’s mental or a shortage in housing and antecedent causes such as bereavement or withdrawal of social security benefits can account for homelessness. Very few events are known to be the only cause of homelessness, besides armed conflicts and natural calamities. A susceptible person is destabilized by such triggers as redundancy or widowhood. In combination with the person’s poverty, mental illness, poor life skill or addiction problems, the person, looses his or her home, lacks the support, resources or skills to safeguard themselves against negative events, leading to consequences that pile into homelessness.
Categories of Homelessness
There are three general categories of homelessness: cyclical homelessness, chronic homelessness and situational homelessness.
Cyclical homelessness occurs when one periodically acquires and looses a home. This type of homelessness is common with people who suffer from such minor mental illnesses as depression or people who are addicted to drugs and substance.
Situational homelessness happens when uncontrollable circumstances force a person into homelessness. Some of the uncontrollable circumstances include the loss of one’s source of income; the loss of the demise of the person depended on and mass displacement due to natural calamities.
A person is said to be experiencing chronic homelessness when the person has been on the streets for a very long period of time and they do not have or cannot access the resources that would help modify the situation. Chronic homelessness is defined by the federal government as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either a) been continuously homeless for a year or more or b) has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years”(United States, 2008, p. 65). Chronically homeless people are likely to experience problems of both clinical and social nature.
Some of the clinical problems experienced by homeless people include substance abuse, psychiatric disability and co-morbidities. In fact, disabilities that arise from substance use and psychiatric disorders is higher among people who are chronically homeless than it is among people who experience either cyclical or situational homelessness (Kertesz et al., 2005). Over sixty percent of chronically homeless people have been found to have experienced lifetime mental health problems, and more than eighty percent have been found to have experienced drug and/or alcohol problems (Kertesz et al., 2005). People who use services that are intended for chronically homeless people tend to exhibit higher rates of medical co-morbidities (“Collaborative Initiative to End Chronic Homelessness (CICH),” 2006). This shows that such medical conditions result from chronic homelessness.
In addition to clinical problems, chronically homeless people experience social problems. Among the chronically homeless people who are most likely to be affected are veterans, single women, and racial and ethnic minorities. According to the client statistics of people who enroll in programs set up to serve people experiencing chronic homelessness, three quarters of the homeless people are men (“Collaborative Initiative to End Chronic Homelessness (CICH),” 2006). Although less than men in number, single women go through a lot of distressing life events in comparison to other chronically homeless people. Most of the homeless single women are single parents. Women who have been homeless for a period exceeding a year are highly likely to have custody of their children taken away from them, as a result of which social welfare and other forms of support that are usually offered to families with children may cease to be available to them. It has been found that, majorly because of their being separated from their children, homeless adult women experience rape, incarceration and physical assault (Zlotnick, Tam, & Bradley, 2006). Compared to other sections of society, there is a higher representation of racial and ethnic minorities among chronically homeless individuals as well as among those who use services designed for homeless people (Burt et al., 2001).
Homeless Families and Children
Family homelessness has continued to be a common occurrence in the United States of America. From the start of the 80s, shelters intended for homeless single adults began to be occupied by families, some of them with young children. Since then, families with children continued to become a significant part of the homeless population. Urban Institute extrapolates that around 1.8 percent of the families in the United States spend at least a homeless night in on yearly period (2000).
Several factors have been revealed to place families at the risk of homelessness. Among the factors are ethnicity, resources and young children and pregnancy.
Poverty is a major cause of homelessness and given that people of ethnic minorities are generally poorer than other sections of society, it is more likely for them to be homeless in higher numbers than ethnic groups. In particular, homelessness among African Americans is higher on average than it is among other ethnic groups (Rog et al, 2007). However, there is a variation in the minority representation across American cities.
Another reason why families may find themselves in the predicament of homelessness is the unavailability of resources to them. The incomes of homeless mothers are substantial below the level considered by the federal government as the country’s poverty level (Rog et al, 2007). Even though the incomes of homeless families are usually higher than those of single adults because of the availability of such benefits as social welfare, the incomes are never enough to afford housing.
Women play the role of the head of the family in most homeless families; most of the children in these homeless families are young, most of them being too young for school. In fact, most of the homeless families have children less than six years of age in them. Some of these children are born in homeless families, point to pregnancy as another risk factor for homelessness.
Problems Faced by Homeless Families
Members of families experiencing homelessness face the problem of being separated from each other whenever they look for shelter. There are limited overnight shelters in the United States. Besides the inadequacy, most of them are specific as to who they accommodate. Some shelters accept only children, others accept only women, others only men, others only women and children; and those that accept whole families have restrictions on the size of the family. Chances of finding a shelter that will accept the entire family are rare. Even if one succeeds, the chance of that lack recurring is rarer. For that reason, families find themselves having to be separated from each other. Either the parent, in most cases the mother, may sometimes allow parent-child separation because of the concern about the child, or the child welfare system, relatives or shelter staff forces the separation of the child from the rest of the family (Cowal et al., 2002). Separated families find it difficult to reunify.
Poverty is also a problem faced by homeless families. Like most poor families, homeless families have low levels of academic attainment, or none at all, partly as a consequence of which they have little work experience. For that reason, opportunities in the labor market are hardly available to them. Homeless people therefore live in poverty, meaning that besides the lack of shelters, they are not able to afford other necessities of life.
There are also evidences of childhood abuse and partner violence in homeless families. Just like poor women, homeless women, who themselves are also actually poor, have experienced high rates of violence from both the community and the family itself. Children also face abuse in these families. The children may not be taken care of as necessary. In cases where their parents have psychiatric problems, or problems to do with drug, substance and alcohol addiction, the children in the homeless families may face violence as a result from the effects of such problems. Some children are force into begging.
Homeless families and mothers several health problems and challenges, some of which may be associated with the homelessness itself. The others may have been the cause of the homelessness and hence carried over into homelessness. Homeless mothers for example experience more acute chronic and acute health problems than general female population under forty-five years (Kerker, 2012).
Homeless people also go through the problem of mental health and even engage in substance abuse. The extent and prevalence of the problems depend on how the definition assigned to them as well as how they are measured. It is apparent that the problems are significantly different for single homeless adults. Among those found to be the risk factors are heavy use of heroin or alcohol. Depression is also a common problem among single mothers (Rog et al., 2007).
Homelessness is a major social problem. It is a problem present in the developed countries like the United States. It can results from the problems of policy and structural economic conditions, or it can be source from the behavior, vulnerability or incapacity of the individual. Whatever the causes, the effects of homelessness on the individual or a homeless family and in particular children can be distressing and harmful to their wellbeing, especially to those experiencing chronic homelessness. It is recommendable that measures be taken to rectify the problem.
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