Homelessness Essay

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During the 1980s and 1990s, scholarship on homelessness focused on documenting the growing number of people sleeping in public places or public and private shelters. Scholars debated the reasons why so many lacked access to conventional dwelling and puzzled over whom and how many people lived precariously, invisibly and sometimes illegally with friends and family. Researchers investigated this continuum of residential instability and improvisational strategies and questioned whether, and to what extent, homelessness was a product of structural failings in job and housing markets; organizational inertia (perhaps incompetence) of agencies entrusted to help the homeless; or mental illness, drug and/or alcohol problems. Such inquiries inspired copious studies into the causes and persistence of homelessness.

In the past, the ”old homeless” were romanticized as rugged individualists in studies of hoboes and tramps during the 1920s; families of the Great Depression in the 1930s whose misfortune earned our compassion, or disaffiliated adults whose presence in flophouses, single room occupancies and bars defined skid row sections of American cities until the 1970s. The ”old homeless” were primarily single white males whose marginal relationship to employment implied their inability to form social connections with family and friends, which, it was argued, further isolated them from mainstream social institutions, norms and values. In contrast, current definitions of homelessness focus less on social disaffiliation and more on homelessness as a housing market condition while at the same time linking homelessness to broader structural and organizational problems facing those who live in extreme poverty. Peter H. Rossi’s 1989 distinction between the literally homeless and the marginally or precariously housed discussed in Down and Out in America, resonates with HUD’s McKinney—Vento Homeless Assistance Act, first enacted in 1987 and subsequently reauthorized, which defines homeless persons as lacking access to adequate nighttime residence, including shelters, institutional settings, and places not intended for human habitation. The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act develop programs that address the residential instability, heterogeneity, size, composition and geographic distribution of the homeless. Accommodating the diverse needs of sub-populations by age, mental illness, substance abuse; veteran and family (mostly female headed) status; and noting the disproportionate number of homeless Blacks, are all part of research and policy.

Current homeless policy falls under two models, both of which depend upon organizations to carry out policy objectives. Housing readiness models provide homeless families and individuals with a continuum of housing options. Clients temporarily reside in a series of structured housing programs, with the aim of eventually ”graduating” into more permanent supportive housing. Moving up is contingent upon their ability and willingness to obey a set of rules and participate in a variety of supportive services, such as substance abuse and job readiness programs. These programs are designed to help homeless persons learn to live as ”independently as possible,” and are contingent upon the client’s ability to demonstrate housing readiness.

In contrast, Housing First models emphasize providing housing irrespective of whether clients participate in supportive service programs. Intended for the chronically homeless — individuals with disabilities who have been continuously homeless for one year or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness over the past three years — this model espouses the rapid placement of individuals into permanent, independent housing. Since housing and treatment services are separated, housing is not contingent on a client’s ability to maintain sobriety, remain medicated, or meet with case managers on a monitored basis. Treatment is a choice.

However, policy goals are not the same as implementation, or policy-in-action. We need more in-depth and comparative ethnographic and qualitative studies of organizations and their fields to understand how the above housing program models operate in practice. We need to understand how organizational cultures and imperatives frame and execute policy goals. Such studies would provide useful information for policymakers and substantiate how organizations mediate homelessness.


  1. Dordick,   (2002) Recovering from homelessness: determining the  quality of sobriety” in a transitional housing program, qualitative Sociology 25 (2): 7—32.
  2. Lee, B. A.,Tyler, K., & Wright, J. (2010) The new homeless revisited. Annual Review of Sociology 36.
  3. O’Flaherty, B. (1996) Making Room: The Economics of Homelessness. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London.
  4. US Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research (2007) The Applicability ofHousing First Models to Homeless Persons with Serious Mental Illness. Washington, DC.

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