Literal homelessness—lacking permanent housing of one’s own—is a condition that has been present throughout human history. It has always been dangerous as well, given the necessity of shelter for survival. Nevertheless, the routine occurrence of homelessness in the past probably prevented the problem from generating any extraordinary degree of collective concern. Members of pre-modern societies often experienced losses or disruptions of residence as a result of food scarcity, natural disaster, epidemic disease, warfare, and other environmental and self-inflicted circumstances. Such forces contributed to the likelihood, if not the expectation, that most people would be homeless at some point in the life cycle.

Ironically, now that homelessness is relatively rare in Western societies, it has achieved a special notoriety. When shelter security becomes the norm, the significance of housing evolves beyond the purely functional. Homes, like jobs, constitute master statuses, anchoring their occupants in the stratification system. Hence, being without a home portends a more general and threatening disaffiliation, defined as ‘‘a detachment from society characterized by the absence or attenuation of the affiliative bonds that link settled persons to a network of interconnected social structures’’ (Caplow et al. 1968, p. 494). This is the broadest meaning associated with the concept of homelessness, at the opposite end of the continuum from its literal definition.

Homelessness, broadly construed, first appeared on the American scene during the early stages of colonial settlement, with paupers, indentured servants, petty criminals, unemployed seamen, and the mentally impaired forming a pool of individuals at risk of vagrancy. It began to assume major proportions as a social problem in the United States near the end of the nineteenth century. Over the several preceding decades, urban homeless populations had emerged in response to a series of events at the national level, including Civil War displacement; the arrival of impoverished European immigrants; seasonal employment patterns in agriculture, construction, and the extractive industries; and severe economic setbacks in the early 1870s and 1890s (Rooney 1970).

As a makeshift remedy, downtown warehouses and old hotels were converted into inexpensive, dormitory-style lodging facilities. The proximity of the lodging facilities to one another, along with the distinctive mix of commercial and recreational establishments growing up around them, helped to concentrate the homeless physically in areas that came to be known as skid rows (supposedly named for a ‘‘skid road’’ in Seattle used to slide logs downhill). At the turn of the century, these areas were less burdened by the seedy images later evoked by the term ‘‘skid row.’’ Instead, they were vibrant neighborhoods offering a temporary resting place and a range of services to thousands of tramps, the mobile workers who laid the foundation for the U.S. industrial economy.

The manpower needs created by World War I subsequently drained skid row districts, but a pool of footloose veterans replenished them at war’s end. An even greater surge in homelessness—one extending well beyond the boundaries of skid row—was soon sparked by the Great Depression. The widespread hardship of the period forced previously domiciled individuals into a migrant lifestyle, and shantytowns (dubbed ‘‘Hoovervilles’’) sprang up in urban and rural settings alike. These new manifestations of homelessness in turn stimulated the first generation of sustained research on the subject among sociologists. Anderson (1940), Sutherland and Locke (1936), and other scholars conducted studies of different segments of the homeless population as part of the Depression-era relief effort.

A second generation of research started in the 1950s. Large-scale single-city surveys—many of which were funded by urban renewal agencies— informed the debate over what to do about deteriorating skid row areas (Bahr and Caplow 1974; Bogue 1963). Demographic data obtained during the surveys showed homeless respondents to be predominantly male, white, single, older, and of local origins. The surveys also lent credibility to the popular view of the homeless as deviant ‘‘outsiders.’’ Depending on the city under examination, between one-fourth and one-half reportedly were problem drinkers, a higher percentage had spent time in jail or prison, most were unable or unwilling to hold down steady employment, many suffered from poor health, and few were enmeshed in supportive social networks. This negative profile based on the survey findings was countered by a parallel body of ethnographic evidence. Field observers like Wallace (1965) portrayed the homeless of skid row in subcultural terms, as a cohesive group with their own language, norms, and status hierarchy. Participation in the subculture was believed to help members cope with a problem more serious than their presumed deviance: extreme poverty.

In the 1970s, almost a century after skid row became a recognizable entity in the American city, its demise seemed imminent. Urban renewal and redevelopment projects had eliminated much of the infrastructure of skid row, while slackening demand for short-term unskilled labor was eroding one of the few legitimate economic roles the area could claim to play. Consequently, several investigators predicted skid row’s disappearance and, by implication, the decline of the U.S. homeless population (Lee 1980). Yet within a decade of such forecasts, homelessness had resurfaced as an important national issue. During the 1980s media coverage of the so-called new homeless increased dramatically, and federal legislation (most notably the McKinney Act) was formulated to address their plight. The amount of social scientific inquiry rose as well. Indeed, the recent outpouring of scholarly monographs on the topic has surpassed that of any prior generation of research.

Despite this renewed interest, what is known about contemporary homelessness remains limited, for several reasons. Unlike most groups surveyed by sociologists, the homeless are not easily reached at residential addresses or telephone numbers. The demolition of skid row districts in general and of single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels in particular, accompanied by social control measures designed to reduce the public visibility of drunks, panhandlers, and other ‘‘undesirables,’’ has intensified the difficulties involved in finding homeless people, pushing a higher percentage of them into more dispersed, obscure locations. Those referred to as the doubled up, who stay with settled relatives or friends, are virtually inaccessible to investigators. Also poorly captured by surveys are the many individuals for whom homelessness is of brief duration or episodic in character. Even among the homeless who can be found, participation rates fall far short of perfect. The prospect of further stigma and humiliation keeps some from admitting their condition, thus excluding them from sample membership, while others are too suspicious or incoherent to take part in an interview.

Finally, the political context surrounding the latest wave of research magnifies the significance of each methodological obstacle just identified. Because the homelessness issue has been transformed into a referendum on the ability of the state to meet its citizens’ needs, liberals and conservatives both use the slightest technical shortcoming as ammunition with which to attack any study unfavorable to their own position. Similarly, members of both camps—not to mention the media, advocacy groups, government agencies, and other actors—selectively draw on research results to frame the homelessness problem in a way that attracts (or diverts) public attention. Thus, apparently straightforward ‘‘facts’’ about homelessness—and there are few of these to begin with—become matters open to debate.

‘‘Snapshot,’’ or single-point-in-time, data on the size of the national homeless population illustrate the uncertain nature of the existing knowledge base. According to an early assertion by advocates, the number of homeless in the United States as of 1982 stood at 2.2 million, or approximately 1 percent of the total population of the country (Hombs and Snyder 1982). However, only two years later the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (1984) compiled a series of estimates, extrapolated from street counts and surveys of informants and shelter operators, that yielded a ‘‘most reliable’’ range of 250,000 to 350,000. A 1987 Urban Institute study arrived at a figure—500,000 to 600,000 homeless nationwide on a single day—that fell between the advocate and HUD extremes (Burt and Cohen 1989). More recently, the Census Bureau enumerated 240,000 homeless people in the course of its massive yet heavily criticized 1990 S-night (street and shelter) operation (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1992).

Although most experts now dismiss the advocate- generated 2 million figure as groundless, the remaining estimates vary considerably. One explanation for this variation is that all are point estimates, depicting the size of the homeless population at a specific moment (e.g., a particular day or week). To the extent that the number of homeless changed during the 1980s, studies conducted on different dates should produce different results. Indeed, the trend retrospectively uncovered by several investigators (Jencks 1994)—slow growth early in the decade, rapid increase in the middle, and decline after 1987–1988—seems consistent with the magnitudes of the HUD, Urban Institute, and Census estimates. Others believe that the homeless population grew rapidly throughout the decade, by as much as 25 percent annually in some places. That growth rate could be inflated, though, given the relative stability documented in one of the few large cities (Nashville, Tennessee) for which longitudinal observations are available (Lee 1989).

It is hard to know whether the most credible point estimates accurately reflect the true scope of homelessness. If the homeless population is marked by high turnover, with many people entering and exiting quickly, the total number who experience homelessness over a longer period will be grossly underestimated by a point estimate. Two recent period-prevalence studies illustrate this dynamic. In the first study, counts of unduplicated shelter users in New York and Philadelphia suggest that roughly 1 percent of the residents of both cities are homeless each year, and the figure rises to 3 percent for a three-to-five-year interval (Culhane et al. 1994). In the second, 15 percent of the respondents to a nationally representative telephone survey reported that they had been literally homeless or had doubled up with someone else during their lifetimes (Link et al. 1995).

While definitional and methodological differences underlie much of the disagreement over the magnitude of the homeless population, generalizations about its composition have been complicated by

  1. the selective emphasis of many inquiries on atypical ‘‘slices’’ of the whole (homeless veterans, the mentally ill, etc.) and
  2. real variation in the characteristics of the homeless across communities.

Contrary to media reports and popular perceptions, the modal homeless individual is still an unattached male with local roots, similar in fundamental ways to his skid row counterpart of the 1950s or 1960s. Yet there clearly have been significant compositional shifts during the intervening period. Blacks and other minorities, rarely found on skid row, are now overrepresented among the homeless, and women, children, young adults, and high school graduates constitute larger segments of the population both absolutely and proportionally than they once did (Burt 1992; Rossi 1989). Family groupings, usually headed by the mother alone, have become more common as well. Taking these elements of demographic continuity and change together, perhaps the safest conclusion to be drawn is that a trend toward greater diversity distinguishes the new homelessness from the old.

The same conclusion applies with respect to deviant characteristics. Alcoholism, which previously constituted the most noticeable form of deviance among the homeless, is now rivaled by other kinds of substance abuse, and mental illness has surpassed physical illness as an object of public concern. Beyond a rough consensus regarding the greater variety of such problems in the current homeless population, little of a definitive nature is known about them. For example, a review of nine studies cited mental illness prevalence rates that run from a low of one-tenth to a high of one-half of all homeless (U.S. General Accounting Office 1988), and occasional reports suggest that as many as 90 percent are at least mildly clinically impaired. This wide range leaves room for opposing arguments: on the one hand, that pervasive mental illness is the principal cause of contemporary homelessness; on the other, that its presumed causal role represents a stereotypic myth created by the visibility of a small minority of disturbed folk.

Even if the extent of mental illness has been exaggerated, there can be no doubt that the general well-being of the homeless remains low. This is hardly surprising in light of the stresses that accompany life on the street. The absence of shelter exposes homeless persons to the weather, violence, and other threatening conditions. They have trouble fulfilling basic needs that most Americans take for granted, such as finding a job, obtaining nutritionally adequate meals, getting around town, washing clothes, storing belongings, and locating toilet and bathing facilities. To cope with these difficulties, homeless people draw on a repertoire of subsistence strategies (Snow and Anderson 1993). One of the most common is temporary low-wage employment, often as a day laborer. For some, shadow work—engaging in unconventional activities outside the formal economy (scavenging, panhandling, selling blood, trading junk)—offers a means of survival. Others resort to crime, especially petty theft, prostitution, and drug dealing, or become dependent on service providers.

While frequently creative, such strategies heighten the physical health risks to which the homeless are subjected. Compared to the settled population, a larger percentage of homeless individuals suffer from chronic disorders, and rates for most infectious diseases are at least five to six times greater (Wright et al. 1998). The collective consequence of these conditions is a drastically shortened life expectancy. However, to identify homelessness as the direct cause of higher morbidity and mortality would be an oversimplification. Preexisting health problems can reduce a person’s employability, prompting a downward ‘‘drift’’ toward homelessness and lessening the chances of returning to a normal life. Homelessness can also be a complicating factor in the provision of health care. In part because of their circumstances (e.g., lacking transportation, distrusting authorities, being unable to store medicine), many homeless miss appointments and do not follow through with their prescribed treatment. They are, in short, less than ideal patients from the perspective of health professionals, whose goal is to insure continuity of care.

Poor health and other disadvantages associated with homelessness tend to worsen as the length of time on the streets increases. Some people still experience the longer-duration bouts common in the skid row era; close to 10 percent may be homeless for five continuous years or more. These ‘‘chronics,’’ by virtue of their visibility, disproportionately influence public perceptions of who the homeless are, but they now constitute the exception rather than the rule. Results from most surveys indicate that the median episode of homelessness lasts between two months and one year (Burt 1992; Link et al. 1995). Of the persons who fall into this ‘‘temporary’’ category, some are homeless only once in their lives. Many, though, exhibit a more complex pattern marked by frequent exits from and returns to homelessness (Piliavin et al. 1996). For such individuals, being without shelter is just one manifestation of prolonged residential instability. Whether temporarily or chronically homeless, few prefer to be in that state. But if preference can be ruled out, what forces account for the new homelessness? Among the numerous answers elicited by this question so far, two general classes are discernible. Structural explanations treat homelessness as a function of large-scale trends that constrain people’s chances for success and that are beyond their immediate control. Scholars point in particular to

  1. the decreasing availability of affordable housing;
  2. the growth of the poverty population;
  3. changes in the economy (e.g., deindustrialization and the  expansion of the service sector) resulting in fewer decent-paying, limited-skill jobs;
  4. intensifying competition among members of the baby boom cohort during their adult years;
  5. the declining appeal of marriage (and the heightened vulnerability of unmarried women and men);
  6. the deinstitutionalization movement in mental health care policy; and
  7. wider access to controlled substances, dramatically illustrated by the crack cocaine ‘‘epidemic’’ (Burt 1992; Jencks 1994; Wright et al. 1998).

The rise of the new homeless is typically attributed to the convergence of two or more of these trends in the 1980s.

The availability of affordable housing has probably received the most attention of any structural factor, in part because all the other trends are thought to operate in conjunction with this one to produce homelessness. The thrust of the housing thesis is that government action, a supply–demand imbalance, inner-city revitalization, and related events have not only priced many low-income households out of rental status but have also eliminated a key fallback option historically open to them: SRO units in downtown residential hotels (Hoch and Slayton 1989; Ringheim 1990). With the depletion of the SRO stock, displacement from other sectors of the housing market may lead directly to a homeless outcome.

In contrast to the structural approach, individualistic explanations posit traits, orientations, or experiences specific to the person as the main causes of homelessness. Few researchers have found much evidence that lacking permanent residence is a freely chosen lifestyle. Nevertheless, the enlargement of the emergency shelter system in recent years has made it easier for poor people who are exposed to domestic conflict or doubled up in a crowded unit to voluntarily head for a shelter as a way of coping with their untenable housing situations. In similar fashion, older thinking about the inherent immorality and wanderlust of skid row denizens has given way to revisionist claims that the primary antecedents of homelessness are deficits in talent or motivation or the debilitating effects of mental illness or substance abuse. Traumatic life events, either in childhood (e.g., sexual violence, placement in foster care or an orphanage) or adulthood (divorce, job loss, a serious health problem), can increase the likelihood of homelessness as well.

Interestingly, many experts who subscribe to some version of the individualistic view have had to invoke associated structural trends— deinstitutionalization in the case of mental illness, for example—in order to explain the size and compositional changes that have occurred in the homeless population in recent years. The tendency to draw on both individualistic and structural perspectives has grown more pronounced with the realization that a theory of homelessness, like that of any social phenomenon, can never be fully satisfying when cast in exclusively micro- or macro level terms. To date, the work of Rossi 1989) offers the most compelling cross-level synthesis. He contends that structural changes have put everyone in extreme poverty at higher risk of becoming homeless, especially those poor people who exhibit an ‘‘accumulation of disabilities,’’ such as drug abuse, bad health, unemployment, and a criminal record. Being ‘‘disabled’’ forces one to rely on a network of friends and family for support, often over prolonged periods. If the strain placed on this support network is too great and it collapses, homelessness is the likely result.

Though Rossi’s central idea—that structural factors and individual problems combine to make certain segments of the poor more vulnerable to homelessness than others—seems reasonable to social scientists, it could prove less acceptable to members of the general public. Based on previous research into public beliefs about the causes of poverty, most Americans might be expected to hold the homeless responsible for their lot. However, the small amount of evidence that bears directly on this expectation contradicts rather than confirms it. Findings from a local survey, supplemented with data from a national opinion poll, indicate that

  1. more people blame homelessness on structural variables and bad luck than on individualistic causes and
  2. many hold a mixture of structural and individualistic beliefs, consistent with the complex roots of the condition (Lee et al. 1990).

The relative frequency of the two types of beliefs is a matter of substantial political significance, since the study just cited shows that each type implies a distinctive set of policy attitudes. As a rule, members of the public who believe in structural causes consider homelessness a very important problem, feel that the response to it has been inadequate, and endorse a variety of corrective proposals, including a tax increase and government- subsidized housing. This policy orientation stands at odds with that for individualistic believers, who tend to devalue homelessness as an issue and favor restrictive measures (vagrancy enforcement, access limitation, etc.) over service provision. Regardless of which orientation ultimately registers the greatest impact on policy making, the sharp contrast between them says much about how homelessness has managed to stay near the top of the U.S. domestic social agenda for the past two decades.

Homelessness also persists as an issue because it is so hard to solve. Out of frustration, many communities have resorted to controlling the homeless. Historically, mechanisms to achieve this goal have included expulsion, spatial containment, and institutionalization (the latter for the sake of monitoring, rehabilitation, or punishment). Other efforts have been aimed at amelioration. For example, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act recognizes the responsibility of the federal government to meet the basic needs of the ‘‘down and out.’’ Since the McKinney Act was signed into law in 1987, it has authorized billions of dollars for food, shelter, health care, and other forms of aid (Foscarinis 1996). However, most of the funding is used to support emergency relief programs. The act designates only modest amounts for reintegration initiatives (for example, moving people into transitional or permanent housing) and virtually nothing for prevention. In short, it treats symptoms but not causes.

The effectiveness of legislation like the McKinney Act is further hindered by our federal system of government, which requires an unrealistically high degree of coordination among units at different levels to insure successful and equitable implementation. The current political climate does not bode well for such legislation, either. Repeated challenges have been made to the McKinney Act; critics want to reduce the size of the federal commitment, redirect the homeless toward existing social services (although many do not appear eligible to receive benefits), and give local government more flexibility. In practice, this is likely to mean a continuation of the piecemeal approach already taken in many places, with an assortment of nonprofit organizations, religious groups, advocates, volunteers, and state and municipal agencies attempting to do their part. As long as communities lack specific intervention strategies for keeping at risk residents from losing their housing and for equipping them with essential skills, there will be little change in the status quo.

The United Nations’ designation of 1987 as the ‘‘Year of Shelter for the Homeless’’ attests that homelessness has been an international as well as an American concern. The situation in Europe resembles that in the United States in several respects. Although rates of homelessness appear to be slightly lower across the dozen or so European countries for which data are available, the number of people affected annually (at least 2.5 million) is large (Wright et al. 1998). The compositional profile of the European homeless population looks familiar: Its members are disproportionately single, male, from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and in poor physical and mental health. Like their American counterparts, they have become homeless as a result of both structural pressures (e.g., a poverty and affordable housing ‘‘squeeze’’) and individual experiences (family breakup, substance abuse, etc.). Remedies for these causes are no easier to come by in Europe than they are in the United States. The primary response thus far has been to offer emergency relief, with the burden of service provision falling on the private sector.

Homelessness takes a different, more acute form in the developing countries of the Third World, where rapid population growth outstrips the expansion of the housing stock and the economy by a wide margin. Compounding the growth– housing mismatch are prevailing patterns of spatial redistribution: Rural-to-urban migration streams have created huge pools of homeless people in tenements, in squatter communities, and on the streets of many large cities. Besides such demographic trends, periodic events of the kind that once created literal homelessness in pre-modern societies—drought, earthquakes, food shortages, and the like—still contribute to the problem today outside the West. War (including ‘‘ethnic cleansing’’) and political instability add to the toll.

What is perhaps most striking about homelessness in the Third World context is its youthful face. Visitors to developing nations cannot help but notice the ubiquitous street children; UNICEF estimates that there may be as many as 100 million globally (Glasser 1994). A majority are ‘‘on the street’’ during the daytime, typically performing some sort of economic activity (begging, vending, etc.), but they have a family and dwelling to return to at night. Perhaps 10 percent qualify as literally homeless or ‘‘of the street.’’ The children belonging to this group may have run away from difficult family circumstances, been discarded as ‘‘surplus kids’’ by parents unable or unwilling to care for them, or been discharged from an orphanage or other institutional setting. Because children of the street must hustle to survive, they are occasionally romanticized as savvy and resilient. But they also lack adequate diets, are susceptible to criminal victimization, and engage in behaviors such as drug use and prostitution that jeopardize their health.

Sadly, the prospects for weaving a safety net to catch homeless children and adults—let alone for targeting the sources of the problem—must be judged slim in the face of the financial debts, service demands, and other burdens under which Third World governments operate. Possibly because these burdens are so overwhelming, homelessness—while important—has yet to achieve dominant-issue standing. As one informed observer put the matter, ‘‘neither the resources to address the plight of the homeless nor the degree of aroused public sympathy present in the United States are in evidence in the developing world’’ (Knight 1987, p. 268). However, that is the sector of the world in which a vast majority of all homeless persons will continue to live for the foreseeable future.

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