The National Coalition for the Homeless estimate that on any given night in the United States of America, there are seven hundred thousand people on the streets and without shelter (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2010).
This structural transformation in the American economy was highly exacerbated by the conservative, neo-classical fiscal policies of the Reagan administration. These policies followed on the heels of the recession of the late 1970s which, by 1982, had left 10 percent of the workforce unemployed.15 They included: (i) a tight monetary policy characterized by high interest rates, benefiting wealthy creditors while impeding economic growth, (ii) economic deregulation and a favorable stance towards corporate mergers, (iii) the "reduction of top individual and corporate income tax rates", and (iv) an unequal taxing scheme which took a greater share of income away from low income families in comparison with those with greater income.16 These policies, along with others part of the "Reaganomics" fiscal program, contributed to the creation of 9 to 10 million more poor people in the 1980s, the increasing "feminiziation of poverty" in the United States, the rise of an "urban underclass" in the inner cities, and the widening relative gap between the rich and the poor within American society.17 All of these factors had a significant impact on the rise in homelessness throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, while the economy surged upwards in the mid-i 980s, as Patterson suggests, "the social damage imposed by [this legacy] was severe and lasting."18
In the absence of good comparative data on people who are “vulnerable” but for the time being housed, it is impossible to say with certainty whether and how these situational precipitants—or indeed the other background factors that may make them more likely to occur—combine to put people over the edge. Identifying the real basis for vulnerability is not always straightforward. Homeless families, to take one example, have certain characteristics that would intuitively appear to confer risk—such families are almost uniformly female-headed, single parent households, for instance—but the fact that their housed poor counterparts are equally likely to be headed by single mothers suggests otherwise.
The backgrounds of homeless adults also suggest serious disruptions in family stability. Surprising numbers experienced out-of-home placement as children (in foster care, juvenile hall, orphanages, and treatment facilities); estimates cluster around 20 percent but reach as high as 40 percent in some reports. These extraordinarily high rates may be tied to other indicators that suggest early family disruption in the lives of homeless adults as well—high rates of mental health, substance abuse, and physical health problems among their parents and/or other adult members of their households; physical or sexual abuse in the household; and jail time among adult household members. This is not to say, of course, that every homeless individual comes from a background in which each set of problems—residential instability, out-of-home placement, and family trouble—was apparent. However, the vast majority of the Course of Homelessness baseline sample had experienced at least one of these problems as children, and many had experienced more. Such problems, not surprisingly, are often bundled together. These childhood experiences, in turn, may be related to the longstanding observation that many homeless individuals either do not have the family and friendship ties that people rely on to buffer them from the consequences of hard times or have ties to people who are similarly stretched and are thus in no position to provide substantial support. More immediate situational factors appear to increase an individual’s vulnerability to homelessness as well. The impact of such factors was apparent in the Course of Homelessness study, which included detailed questions on events that occurred in the year before the members first became homeless. Some of these events had clear structural or policy connections. In the year before becoming homeless, for instance, half of the individuals in this sample experienced a drop in income, either because they lost a job or lost the benefits on which they had been relying. Moreover, approximately one-third experienced a major increase in expenses during that period, such as rent or health care. Other events spoke more pointedly to changing interpersonal relationships. More than two-fifths reported that they had become separated or divorced or that they had experienced a break in a relationship with someone with whom they had been close. Somewhat more than one-third had faced a situation in which someone on whom they had depended for housing, food, or money was no longer willing or able to help them. (Although not asked about in this study, an association between being pregnant or giving birth within the last year and homelessness was found in a study of homeless versus housed families on public assistance in New York City.) Still other events spoke more directly to individual disorders and their impacts. Almost half of these adults admitted that they were frequently using alcohol and drugs during the year prior to first becoming homeless. One-quarter had spent time in a hospital, jail or prison, group care, or treatment facility during that year. One-fifth acknowledged that they had experienced serious physical or mental health problems during that period. Nearly 90 percent of the sample reported at least one of these various experiences, but multiple experiences were the rule. On average, sample members reported three such experiences.
One such set of factors pertains to the childhood experiences of homeless adults. The picture that emerges when one delves more deeply into the backgrounds of homeless adults—particularly single homeless adults—is that homeless people are no strangers to poverty, housing instability, or the host of personal problems that disproportionately besets them as adults. As children, they disproportionately experienced significant disruptions in their residential stability, for example. In Los Angeles, fully two-fifths of a probability sample of homeless adults—the Course of Homelessness baseline sample (Sullivan, Burnam, Koegel, and Hollenberg 2000)—experienced housing problems while living with their families between the ages of six and eighteen (this at a time when the low-income housing market was far more forgiving). They doubled up with other households because of difficulty paying their rent, experienced evictions, and (in much smaller numbers) experienced literal homelessness with their families before such a phenomenon became common.
Understanding the causes of homelessness, however, is not easy, in part because the factors that explain contemporary homelessness are so complex and intertwined, but also because the concept of “cause” itself, as researchers Wright, Rubin, and Devine point out, is so ambiguous. Wright and his colleagues present the hypothetical case of a man named Bill:
Given the contemporary response to contemporary homelessness, it is hard to shake the feeling that our current quandary is not all that different from the one in which our allegorical villagers found themselves. Like the villagers, we have been toiling laboriously but ineffectively to end homelessness at least in part because our preoccupation with fishing people out of a bad situation has distracted us from the more fundamental issue of how they got there in the first place. Unless we understand and address the causes of homelessness, people will continue to fall into homelessness at a faster rate than we can pull them out.
Yet, homelessness remained, perhaps even worsened. Although able to point to real success stories, service providers haven’t stemmed the tide of homelessness for reasons that go beyond the fact that their programs are underfunded and unable to meet demand. Many of the people who graduate from their programs become homeless again. Even more disturbingly, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new faces joins the homeless ranks. Meanwhile, early optimism on the part of the public that a solution to this distressing social problem was at hand has given way to increasingly sharp frustration over the extent to which homelessness impinges on everyday life and a growing backlash against homeless people themselves.
Finally, a kind of exclusionary displacement occurs because poorer people who could once have afforded to live in the neighborhood no longer can, or the social networks that once helped support them thin out. Displacement also affects more people than those who are directly displaced. There is an effect on other residents who see their area changing, businesses closing to make way for more expensive services, and friendship and kinship networks being abandoned as people move away. People may leave simply because their relatives, friends, and neighbors have left and they no longer feel comfortable in the neighborhood.
This dilemma ultimately speaks to one of the central issues of contemporary homelessness in America. That is, what should be the goal of policies aimed at dealing with homelessness in America, and what are the most effective methods of achieving that goal? While ultimately there is no "right" answer to these questions given the diverse causes and needs of the homeless population, any significant progress in resolving them depends upon a collective response on the part of all American citizens. Only in this way will it be possible to truly provide the type of social activism and national "continuum of care" that is necessary to combat the continuing problem of homelessness in America today.
Bill is a high school dropout. Because of Bill’s inadequate education, he has never held a steady job; rather, he has spent his adult lifetime doing various odd jobs, picking up temporary or seasonal work when available, hustling at other times. Because of his irregular and discontinuous employment history, Bill’s routine weekly income is meager, and because his income is minimal, he is unable to afford his own apartment and lives instead with his older sister. Now, Bill drinks more than he should (this for a dozen different reasons) and because he drinks more than he should, he is frequently abusive and hard to get along with. Bill’s sister is usually pretty tolerant in such matters, but because she has been having some problems at work, she comes home one Friday in a foul, ungenerous mood only to find Bill passed out on the couch. She decides that Bill’s dependency and alcoholism are more than she can continue to take, and . . . Bill is asked to leave. Bill spends Saturday looking for an apartment that he can afford, but because his income is so low and because there are very few units available to someone with Bill’s income, he finds nothing and heads to the local shelter for homeless people instead, whereupon Bill effectively becomes a homeless person. (Wright, Rubin, and Devine 1998, 8)