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Policies on the Social Issue of Homelessness in America Through the Years

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“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his own control.”

~ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948


While individual circumstances vary, the main reason people experience homelessness is the scarcity of affordable housing available in the United States, especially in urban areas where homelessness abounds. Well over half a million people are currently homeless on any given night in the United States. About 17 percent of the homeless population are considered chronically homeless, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines as someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years (for a cumulative total of at least 12 months), and has a disability. Approximately 8 percent of homeless are veterans. This research paper explores a new understanding of homelessness and examines past and current policies, proposing that we seek better ways to assist the homeless, America’s most destitute citizens.

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Homelessness, both historically and presently, is generally caused by structural reasons – such the fact that wages are not high enough to pay for housing and the U.S. needs millions more units of affordable housing. According to a recent statement From the Law Center’s Founder & Executive Director Maria Foscarinis, “Currently, the United States spends more to subsidize the housing market for households making over $100,000, through the mortgage income tax deduction, than for low-income households, through all the housing programs combined. If government subsidies cause ‘dependency,’ where is the evidence that the mortgage deduction is undermining the upper class? We also know that racial segregation is caused by social engineering, those government policies and practices that perpetuate racial living patterns in our communities, not the reverse” (Foscarinis, 2016).

Colonial Period

Homelessness has been documented in America since 1640, although it did not become a chronic problem in U.S. society until the mid-1800s. In Colonial times, homelessness was seen as a moral deficiency and a character flaw. It was generally thought that a good Christian, with the grace of God, would naturally have their needs met. The overarching belief systems held that people outside of that grace were ultimately deserving of their plight (and personally responsible for their own self-improvement), because God rendered justice accordingly and fairly.

Industrial Revolution

With the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, people began to migrate from the rural areas to the urban city centers in search of work. Philadelphia and New York City had many people walking the streets, leading to the first local pan-handling ordinances. Jails became de facto shelter systems. Poor safety regulations caused physical disability and death. Disabled people and widows with dependent children had no means to provide for themselves and nowhere to turn. The 1850s brought the first documented cases of homeless youth, many of whom were kicked out of their homes because their providers could no longer afford to raise them (Fischer, 2011).

Civil War & Reformation

During the Civil War, a newly discovered painkiller called morphine was used to treat the injured, which enabled soldiers with amputated limbs to survive. Opiate addiction became widespread; hundreds of thousands of war veterans were addicted. In the late 1800s, one could purchase syringes of morphine and heroin from the Sears and Roebucks mail-order catalog. Criminalization of drug addiction followed in response to the epidemic. The Civil War brought with it countless cases of what is now diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The terms tramp, hobo, and bum were also coined during this era.

Early 20th Century

Natural Disasters are another factor in the homelessness issue. Combined, the Great Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, massive flooding of the Mississippi River in the 1920s from Ohio to Louisiana, displaced over 1.3 million people. (More recently, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans, are just a few examples of disasters that affected millions of people’s households.) During this time period, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s passage of the New Deal marked the full acceptance of the right to public assistance. Poverty “was no longer regarded as a question of personal weakness” (Trattner, 1972).

Late 20th Century

In 1980, the government began to allocate funding to the homeless. In 1984, shelters were built to accommodate and feed them. As a result of the sudden increase in homelessness precipitated by severe HUD cuts in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan signed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act into law in 1987, which remains the sole piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of homeless people. The act also mandates equal opportunity to a free public education to homeless students and intends to break down the barriers homeless students face in seeking an education. These include residency restriction, medical record verification, and transportation issues. Studies in the 1980s showed that up to 85 percent of homeless adults suffer the ravages of substance abuse and mental illness, resulting in serious social isolation. New insights into the causes of increased homelessness linked the population explosion of the baby boom to increases in the numbers of Americans at risk for substance abuse problems, mental illness, and homelessness. The relationship between the inner-city drug epidemic and increases in family homelessness was documented. The failed policies of deinstitutionalization, decriminalization of alcoholism, and the gentrification of skid row neighborhoods and substance abuse treatment centers also contributed to the rise in homelessness (Baum, 1993).

21st Century Homelessness

The National Coalition for the Homeless reports a disturbing, growing trend in the U.S. towards criminalizing the state of being homeless. Proponents believe that punitive measures will deter people from choosing to be homeless. Cities across the country are outlawing sleeping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, and selectively open containers or loitering laws against homeless populations. In Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles” (Court of Appeals, 2006). However, on October 15, 2007, the Court vacated its opinion after the parties settled the case and withdrew the Opinion.

Critics of homeless criminalization claim that such measures only make matters worse, as homeless people find it harder to secure employment, housing, or federal benefits with a criminal record. Although the court’s opinion in Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated, the result suggests that criminalizing homelessness may be unconstitutional. Similarly, in response to growing reports of hate crimes, some state governments have proposed the addition of “people experiencing homelessness” to their hate-crimes statutes. In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized the United States for the criminalization of homelessness, noting that such cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is in violation of international human rights treaty obligations.


Homeless people today include men, women, and children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds; displaced and deinstitutionalized persons; alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and people with AIDS; physically-abused mothers and their babies; adolescents who have been kicked out, have run away, or been sexually abused; neglected elderly people; migrants, refugees, and veterans. The low-income housing crisis; deindustrialization; recession and unemployment; increases in the poverty rate; cutbacks in social welfare programs; increasing family instability and domestic violence; and deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill are all factors that have contributed to the rise of contemporary homelessness.

No brilliant political solutions to the plight of the homeless have yet been discovered. In 2003, over $48 million in grants were awarded, aimed at serving the needs of the chronically homeless through the Ending Chronic Homelessness through Employment and Housing initiative. This was a collaborative $13.5 million grant offered jointly by HUD and the Department of Labor (DOL) to help the chronically homeless in five communities gain access to employment and permanent housing. The government assists the highest-need homeless families by awarding grants and vouchers. The policy around who receives vouchers is being altered, and there will be fewer vouchers granted to the homeless population.

While a large percentage of the population recognizes that the new homelessness is a product not only of individual circumstances but, more importantly, of institutional and structural arrangements (Barak, 1991), some communities still regard homeless persons as being fully responsible and treat them with scorn. In the majority of American communities, however, a majority of the homeless are relatively invisible, but public and private agencies provide emergency assistance.

In spite of the ugly trend toward the victimization and the criminalization of the homeless, the homeless do not pose a serious or dangerous threat to society; instead, the homeless tend to belong more to a class of vulnerable people than to one of hard-core habitual criminal offenders.

Homelessness is a serious societal issue that has become more prevalent in recent decades. The experience of not having a home can fracture social networks and stop people from participating in society. The current responses at the state and national level are inadequate. What is needed is an effective preventative strategy to resist homelessness, as part of a domestic policy based on a willingness to confront the underlying structural nature of the problem. A solid examination of our policies and the underlying values must be questioned. As a nation, we need to recognize, believe in and act to protect the dignity of each individual.


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