The Stewart McKinney Act of 1987 defines a homeless person as Aone who lacks a fixed permanent nighttime residence, or whose nighttime residence is a temporary shelter, welfare hotel or any public or private place not designated as sleeping accommodations for human beings@ (583). Included in the homeless population are people who stay with friends or family for a short period of time and then decide to find shelter on the streets because of conflict with the people whom they are staying with, or because of personal pride. In the early 1980=s homelessness was determined to be a major problem in the United States. These years saw a steep rise in the number of homeless, due to poor economy and diminishing financial help for housing and income.
The homeless consist of all types, races, and ages of people. A large portion of the homeless population consists of men but the number of women and children living on the streets is on the rise. Current statistics show that women and children now make up around forty percent of the homeless population. According to John J. Macionis one-third of homeless people abuse drugs and one-fourth are mentally ill. The current homeless population is mostly non-white and has an average age of the middle thirties. Veterans make up about one-third of the total number of homeless men.
The homeless all suffer from absolute poverty. As stated in 1995 by the United States government, 36 million people or 13.8% of the population was poor. The government defines a family of four as being poor if they generate a yearly income of $15,569 or less, although the average improvised family=s income was only around $10,000 in 1995. The Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics states, the average annual income of the homeless in Chicago was $1198 in 1996 (584). APerhaps we should not be surprised that one percent of our population, for one reason or another is unable to cope with our complex and highly competitive society@ (Macionis 183)
According to the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics homelessness in America has several causes. One such cause is the competitiveness of the business market. Companies are no longer as loyal to their employees as they used to be. Many corporations now use overseas laborers. Also, a diminishing amount of low-skill jobs, due to industrialization has increased the chances of low-skilled workers finding employment. The Chicago coalition for the homeless states that a person must be employed full time and earn more than $8.29 per hour in order to exceed the federal poverty level for a family of four. According to the 1997 census report 2.3 million people worked full time but were still below the poverty line (5).
Another reason for the increased number of homeless is the lack of affordable housing, especially in urban areas. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports that, nationally, 10.5 million low income renters compete for 6.1 million rental units that are within their price range, leaving 4.4 million without affordable housing (3). Many low-income areas are being bought out by wealthy entrepreneurs who remodel and restore them and restore them and sell them for a large profit.
The mainstreaming of institutionalized mental patients is another reason for homelessness. According to Microsoft Encarta nationally 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from some sort of major mental illness (2). These people are less likely to be able to obtain support such as treatment, case management and the help that is necessary to find and maintain permanent housing.
The most recent cause of homelessness in the United States is the Afeminization of poverty.@ Because of the high expense of child care and the increasing numbers of single mothers, the number of homeless women and children is on the rise. According to Stacey Chambers the rise in the number of homeless women is partially due to domestic violence. In an interview of homeless mothers ninety-two percent had been assaulted at one time in their lives. More than half had suffered from bouts of major depression inther lives whereas only twenty percent of the United States female population had suffered from similar depression (2).
Despite these facts and statistics, little else is known about these people. Most sociological surveys are conducted by phone or mail and obviously cannot reach the homeless people. The lack of affordable housing forces many homeless people to dwell in more remote and isolated places and are, therefore, more difficult to interview. Many homeless people who are available to be interviewed are too incoherent or paranoid to do so. An additional reason for so little being known about the homeless is that homelessness is such a controversial issue that many of the interviewers are biased and base the findings of their interviews on the personal beliefs.
The direct effect of homelessness is that approximately 700,000 people are sleeping on the streets each night. Controversies on File points out that people stay away from areas where homeless people are because they do not wish to be confronted by panhandlers. People often feel threatened in areas where homeless people are because the homeless are often mentally disabled or on drugs. Areas inhabited by the homeless become run down and barren and businesses are hurt (1).
Controversies on file explains that during the past twenty years the government has imposed pollicies that were to encourage people to get off the streets by offering them help with health care and finding jobs and residence. By taking a laissez-faire approach it was hoped that the homeless would just integrate into society. Currently laws regarding the homeless have become much more strict. In October of 1999 Mayor Giuliani, of New York created a policy, which obligate the homeless to work in return for shelter. Later he had the homeless arrested if they refused shelter (1-2). These policies are an Aout of sight, out of mind@ solution. They make poverty a crime when it is often not the fault of the homeless people themselves.
Every year thousands of people flock to our nation’s capitol to see our beautiful cherry trees. Imagine for a moment a nice young couple and their two children taking a trip to admire our nations capital at its most beautiful. They walk along the avenue as the father explains some of Washington=s history to his little girl, but he notices she is distracted by something and he directs his attention to the direction of which she is looking. He sees an old looking man who appears not to have seen a shower in months, dressed in what used to be military fatigues, but are now rags. He sits in the shadows next to a rusty old Folgers can containing some loose change and a piece of cardboard that reads, AVietnam veteran, please help, God bless you.@ Once the homeless man sees that he has the attention of the little girl and her father, he starts to approach them and ask for some spare change. At which point the father then grabs his daughter by her hand and says to his family, Adon=t even look at him,@ and then rushes them away.
ASee no evil, hear no evil@ tends to be the mentality of our society. We do not want to see the ugliness of our own country. We want to think of AAmerica the beautiful@ not America the country with 700,000 people that have no roof over their heads. Every time a person walks down the street and sees a homeless person, it is programmed into their heads to look away. Society thinks, Adon=t give them a dollar because they are just going to spend it on boose and drugs.@ We do not even think about talking to these homeless people because we just might find out that they used to be just like anybody else. They may have had a Anormal,@ life but somehow they lost their footing along the way and were never able to regain it. Nobody wants to think about this. It ruins our image of @America the beautiful, the land of the free and the brave.@
Society sees the homeless as a growing and unsightly blemish and wants it to go away. The government dropped the more compassionate pollicies of the past and began evicting the homeless. According to Stacey Chambers the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty discovered that laws have been passed to make many of the activities that are associated with homelessness illegal in forty-two cities. This is mainly achieved by not allowing the homeless to use public property as a place to rest or sleep, placing Arestrictions on begging,@ and targeting specific areas where homeless are and forcing them to relocate or in some cases arresting them. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty determined that Apenalizing peopleY, will not deter them, since they have no alternative. YHomeless people who are chased out of one public area and have nowhere else to go will simply appear in another area.@(3-4) The governments current Aout of sight, out of mind@ policies are simply not dealing with the problem.
In our current booming economy there is truly no excuse for the degree of poverty in the United States. The obvious solution to the problem of homelessness is to increase the amount of affordable housing and the number of living wage jobs. New York University did a study that concluded that low-income housing projects are ultimately the best solution for getting families off the streets. The Christian Science monitor reports that a builder in Columbus Ohio is erecting 800 housing units distributed around the city in order to alleviate this problem. This project will be backed up by the support of caseworkers and around the clock supervision for mentally ill persons. Our society must to make these types of efforts because the root cause of homelessness is society itself.
In order to combat the homelessness problem society must quit taking a blind eye to the issue. 700,000 people have no roof over their head because of lack of work, mental disabilities, or lack of support and few people can recognize that these things are of no fault of the homeless individuals. The problem is not being properly addressed by enforcing strict policies such as arresting the homeless or not allowing them the necessities of life. We should realize that society, as a whole is to blame for the homelessness situation and refrain from placing the blame on individuals.