Homelessness has been described as a state in which people do not have access to regular dwellings. Often, it is regarded as an embarrassing and a taboo subject to talk about perhaps the reason why governments mostly understate the problem. But is homelessness even an issue? While some maintain that homelessness is nurture, a social problem that can be solved, others conclude that homelessness is a nature, an enduring feature of modern urban settings. Some researchers have even said that a certain proportion of homelessness in every society is inevitable (Edison-Brown, 2014). Statistics for homelessness in the developing world, as other researchers have noted, are scanty and not reliable (Chamie, 2017). The United Nation’s estimates and those of some countries, where available, indicate that there is an upward surge for the past 20 years. Most people who are projected to be void of homes by the UN live in developing nations. The present impact of climate change, wars, and economic setbacks may certainly aggravate the homelessness issue. Enabling conditions like the socio-cultural, economic and political environments of every country influence the categories, prevalence, factors and characteristics of homeless people. The experiences of homeless people, risk factors of homelessness and the interventions put in place to tackle it are all evidence of it being a social phenomenon.
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The question now would be what exactly is homelessness? Is it merely a state in which people do not have access to regular dwellings or there is more to it? Is a traveler who has spent an entire month in a hotel homeless? Or would an employee who has spent a whole year living inside his/her car be considered as homeless? The line between homeless people and those in homes is not clear and the concept of homelessness remains contested in many regions around the world. What does the lack of a home mean? Some researchers have defined homelessness based on different criteria. For instance, according to Speak (2018) “homelessness can be defined based on one of three standards: location, insecurity of tenure and quality of housing, shelter or services”. However, other researchers like Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) have put forward a definition, called the cultural definition, widely accepted by policy-makers and researchers as the definition of homelessness. According to the cultural definition of homelessness, 'the minimum community standard is a small rental flat - with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and an element of security of tenure - because that is the minimum that most people achieve in the private rental market' Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008). Thus, homelessness is therefore any situation when people live outside of the minimum acceptable standard of housing.
Characteristics of homeless people vary with region. Persons who live in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out in abjectly poor, dangerous structures might be homeless in developed nations. But then governments in developing nations would argue that they are living in houses and are not by any means homeless. This is the typical case of Kibera Slum of Kenya where residents there are often tagged impoverished rather than homeless. In developed countries, it is normal for squatters and people living in boarding houses provided by charity organizations to be termed homeless; such people are not categorized as homeless in the parlance of developing nations. The globally unmistakable category of persons regarded as homeless are ‘pavement dwellers”, “rough sleepers”, refugees and internally displaced persons.
Globally, poverty is characteristic that plagues homeless people and it is a feature that exacerbates the very status of homelessness. This is because, a homeless person who doubles as a pauper would do anything to survive. Life for him or her is akin to being in a jungle when it is survival of the fittest. This leads homeless people to start abusing substances, a characteristic which was seen in 71 % of missing, runaway, throwaway, or abducted children in England (Addiction Center, 2019). A homeless person with the status of a refugee might be sure of at least one meal daily but this is not true for rough sleepers who beg on the streets to survive. The number of homeless persons who are employed is insignificant, and even the employed homeless people are still needy. Homeless women in developing countries have been known to prostitute as a last resort in order to survive, something they would not do were they better off. The proportion of women accosting men on the streets for money in developed countries is hardly reported. The homeless person living on the pavement is vulnerable to kidnap, trafficking, robbery, sexual violence, and police brutality as reported in Colombia and other South American countries. Certain communicable diseases like respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases are regular features amongst homeless people on the streets or in temporary accommodations. Addiction Center (2019) reported that 33 % of homeless people battle mental illnesses including: bipolar disorders, paranoia/delusions, schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders (particularly high in homeless veterans), major depressive disorders and severe anxiety.
Homelessness is not a condition that affects only a particular age group although it is more noticeable among adults on the streets. In England, 1.4 million students (ages 6 to 18) were said to have experienced homelessness in the 2016/2017academic year (ChildrenTrends.org, 2019). The figure might sound staggering to people in the developed world, but it would be a nonevent in developing countries if the same criteria were used to categorize those students. Apparently, the said students categorized as homeless might have been anything from squatters to those living in boarding houses, and such conditions are aptly for the homeless. Living on the streets with an entire household is more common in developing countries. This is because these households are mostly women and children running away from war and other conflicts. In the past, homeless people have globally been known to be men. The situation seems to be changing in some developed countries like England; England had roughly equal numbers of male and female children in shelters among whom were 52 percent unaccompanied female youth in shelters (ChildrenTrends.org, 2019).
Homelessness is not peculiar to an ethnicity and nationality. But then again, a certain country might experience an influx of people of a particular ethnicity running away from conflicts, for example, that would make a census of homeless people seem numerous. In America, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos are overrepresented among ethnicities experiencing homelessness nationwide, as reported by Moses (2019). In the same vein, homeless persons in South Africa are mostly immigrants from neighboring countries like Mozambique and Somalia. In Cameroon, most homeless people are from the northern regions and Central African Republic, and are women and children running away from internal conflicts.
The way homeless people are perceived by the public is influenced by the legal and political context of every country, which influences treatment by the police and other authorities. Certain characteristics of homeless people color the public perception, which is reflected in media. This sometimes leads to violence against them. Universally, homeless people, especially rough or street sleepers, are perceived as criminals and pick-pockets. Indeed, they are far more likely to be the victims of crime, especially violent crime, than the perpetrators. Street sleepers are generally destitute, drug dependent and begging.
Who are at risk of becoming homeless? A person is at risk of being homeless if they are at risk of losing their housing. A person could also be at risk of homelessness if they are facing factors that can contribute to homelessness. Some major risk factors include: financial stress (pending evictions, rental and/or mortgage arrears); housing affordability stress and housing crises; inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (unsafe, unsuitable/overcrowded included); termination of previous accommodation; relationship/family disintegration; child abuse, neglect or environments where children are at risk; sexual abuse; domestic/family violence; non-family violence; mental health issues and other health problems; problematic alcohol, drug or substance use; employment difficulties and unemployment; and, problematic gambling. Other risk factors include: changes in protective and care arrangements; discrimination including racial discrimination; disengagement with school or other education; involvement in or exposure to criminal activities; antisocial behavior; lack of family and/or community support; staying in a boarding house for 12 weeks or more without security of tenure.
Some say, homelessness is a modern problem, the making of our social systems whereas others argue that it is a problem that has been there from the beginning. Nevertheless, the causes of homelessness have been identified to be multiple and usually include the absence of viable employment opportunities. Poverty and destitution always feature as the leading causes of homelessness both in developed and developing countries, while affordable housing remains a major challenge, especially in developing countries. Major causes of homelessness in developed countries are structural factors, systems failures and individual circumstances. Structural factors are economic and societal issues that influence opportunities and social environments. Key factors include lack of sufficient income, access to inexpensive housing and health benefits; also, experiences of discrimination and shifts in the economy that can leave people incapable of paying bills. Access to affordable housing is the most noticeable factor, although discrimination could hamper access to employment, housing, justice, and beneficial services. On the other hand, systems failures occur when care and support systems fail, and vulnerable people become homeless. Such failed systems include, amongst others, transitions from child welfare, inadequate discharge planning for people leaving hospitals, corrections, mental health and addictions facilities, and lack of support for immigrants and refugees. Many people argue that homelessness is a societal issue; however, individual and interpersonal factors can impact a person’s likelihood of becoming homeless poverty (“The State of Homelessness in Canada”, 2013). These factors may include; traumatic events, personal crisis, mental health challenges, family/domestic abuse, drug addictions and extreme poverty.
In developing countries causes of homelessness are generally economic, social and political. Economic factors include poverty and evictions. Poverty is the principal driving economic factor in the developing world (Speak, 2018), and is the result of a failure of rural livelihoods and lack of rural services and opportunities. It pushes many people to leave their rural homes, initially temporarily, to seek better economic and social opportunities. When people migrate to cities, in developing countries, many of them end up in the city eventually find their way into informal settlements (Patel, Sliuzas and Mathur, 2015). Formal urban development and economic growth increasingly requires the removal of these settlements, regardless of their condition or longevity. The process often involves sudden, violent eviction of settlers who lose their shelter, belongings and livelihoods; thence, they are relocated far away from livelihood opportunities. Age, lack of welfare facilities, family-related issues and internal conflicts are the main drivers of homelessness in developing countries. A wave of social and demographic change has been sweeping the developing world over the past years and is beginning to entirely upset the housing security of more vulnerable people. Many countries in the developing world have experienced significant increase in old folk and have not yet developed systems of care for them. Divorce, separation and abandonment of women have been on the rise around the world, resulting in increased female homelessness and female headed-households, which are the poorest. Wars and conflicts succeed in turning multitudes of women into widows who end up as displaced persons or refugees. The boomerang effect is that they end up taking children along with them thereby increasing the fold of homeless persons (Speak, 2018). Homelessness is highly politicized in both the developed and developing worlds. In the developing world, the current failure of many governments to develop pro-poor development frameworks means that the poor have unequal access to land for housing (Brede Noord, Van Linder and Smet’s 2014).
It is estimated that at least 150 million people (2 per cent of world’s population) are homeless and that 1.6 billion people (20 per cent of world’s population) lack adequate housing (Habitat, 2015). Getting an accurate picture of global homelessness is extremely challenging because of the following factors: variations in definitions; lack of resources and commitment to measure such an elusive phenomenon; governments shy away from the topic or understate it; many homeless people or homes are reluctant to be enumerated. Proportions of homelessness in the developed world, for example in countries within the Organization of Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) zone, are below 1 per cent. The highest rate of homelessness amongst OECD countries is 1 per cent, being New Zealand; in New Zealand, 40, 000 people live on the streets or in emergency housing or substandard shelters (OECD Affordable Housing Database, 2016). However, this figure pales when compared to the 700, 000 people living in Kibera slum in Kenya or the 2.4 million residents in Orange Town slum of Pakistan. Countries like Japan, Italy and Spain have less than 0.1 per cent of homeless people. In Cameroon, insecurity due to long-running tensions in the North-West and South-West Regions have forced more than 430, 000 people to flee their homes. More than 380, 000 people need shelter, and some 418, 000 people need NFI assistance. An estimated 3, 000 children suffering from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition (SAM) require urgent treatment. The humanitarian situation has fast deteriorated, with estimates stating a total of 1.3 million people need assistance (Relief Web/UNOCHA, 2019).
Governments are determined to collaborate with private firms and organizations in combating homelessness by providing satisfactory and safe accommodations for homeless persons. Furthermore, the holistic strategy towards homelessness zeroes on providing elementary healthcare services to persons to ensure comprehensive outcomes. Employment openings could be given to unskilled homeless people like waste carrying opportunities that require little training. Many NGOs and private organizations all over the world have been giving training to homeless people in order for them to be self-reliant and independent. Homelessness is a major issue that needs resolution through the employment of innovative and operative strategies. It should be handled via partnerships between its stakeholders in the society. Homelessness can be tackled by reducing stigmatization, negative perception, bias, and poverty in society. Additionally, homeless people need to be provided with meaningful training and development for meaningful employment opportunity.
Homelessness is a social problem that can create a negative impression on individuals, an entire household and a given society. The paramount approach to fight homelessness is to identify the root causes and develop proactive policies to ensure feasible outcomes. Also, homelessness can be battled by ensuring that basic social services like healthcare and education are available for the citizens of any nation. Government agencies should try to ensure that they have adequate data about homelessness in order to create effective interventions that will handle the issue. The saying goes that “if at first you do not succeed, dust yourself off and try again”. It is better late than never; to try implementing workable strategies towards combatting this negative phenomenon called homelessness.
- Addiction Center (2019). Homelessness and Addiction. Addictioncenter.com.
- Bredenoord, J, P. Van Lindert and P. Smets (Eds.) (2014). Affordable Housing in the Urban Global South: Seeking sustainable solutions. Abingdon/New York: Routledge.
- Chamberlain, C. and MacKenzie, D. (2008) Counting the homeless 2006. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; Catalogue No. 2050.0.
- Chamie, J. (2017). As cities grow, so do the numbers; YaleGlobal online; https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/cities-grow-so-do-numbers-homeless.
- Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (2013). The State of Homelessness in Canada. A Homeless Hub Research Paper. http://www.homelesshub.ca/ResourceFiles/SOHC2103.pdf
- Child Trends (2019). Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness. Https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/homeless-children-and-youth.
- Edison-Brown, T. (2014). What Causes Homelessness? Homelessness as a Social Problem. www.anawimhouse.com
- Habitat, (2015). Homelessness and the right to adequate housing. www.ohchr.org.
- Moses, J. (2019). Demographic Data Project: Race, Ethnicity, and Homelessness. Homelessness Research Institute.
- Organization of Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) (2016). Affordable Housing Database. http://oe.cd/ahd
- Patel S, Sliuzas R and Mathur N (2015) “ Risk of impoverishment in urban development induced displacement and resettlement in Ahmedabad”. Environment and Urbanization 27(1): 231–256.
- Speak, S. (2018) “Food security, landscape, urban change, and poverty in the developing world. www.un.org