Homelessness in the United States

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Homeless man in a downtown San Jose, California, USA doorway. Though he has a stereotypical shopping cart for his possessions, note that contrary to stereotypes of homeless people being illiterate and/or always begging or staggering around drunk or drugged out, he is quietly reading.

The first major wave of homelessness in the United States took place during the Great Depression.

The second major wave took place in. Possible reasons for the current homelessness crisis that began during that period include:

  • the economic crises and "stagflation" of the 1970s, which caused high unemployment and led to a tax revolt movement
  • the movement in the 1960s in state mental health systems to shift towards community-based treatment as opposed to long-term commitment in institutions; unfortunately, outpatient mental health programs were never fully funded due to the tax revolt movement, and many patients failed to take their medications regularly and ended up in the streets
  • the overreliance of American cities on sales tax and property tax (as opposed to taxing income directly, which became politically impossible after the late 1970s) led them to prioritize construction of revenue-generating office towers, shopping centers, and factories over housing
  • the failure of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide effective mental health care for many veterans of the Vietnam War
  • the failure of urban housing projects to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing to the poor
  • improvements in civil engineering and materials science which led to stronger, safer buildings but also drove up the cost of building houses and of renovating existing housing (e.g., asbestos and lead remediation)

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency shelter in 27 U.S. cities increased 13% in 1988 and 25% in 1989. Twenty-two percent of those requesting emergency shelter were turned away. With budgets squeezed dry, cities across the U.S. adopted a closed-door attitude toward the displaced. For example:

Traditionally single men have constituted the overwhelming majority of the homeless. In the 1980s there was a sharp rise in the number of homeless families in certain parts of the United States; notably New York City. Most homeless families consist of an unmarried mother and children. A significant number of homeless people are teenagers and young adults, mostly runaways or street children. A 1960 survey by Temple University of Philadelphia's poor neighborhoods found that 75% of the homeless were over 45 years old, and 87% were white. In 1986, 86% were under age 45, and 87% were minorities.

Advocates for the homeless support public funding for housing and subsidization of rent for low-income individuals and families. Critics of this approach point out that the reasons for homelessness are varied and that aid of this type will not materially improve the quality of life for persons who are homeless due to mental illness or substance abuse.

Missing image
This homeless man is having a conversation with a parking meter on the streets of Los Angeles, California

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