Understanding the Cause of Homelessness Essay

This essay has a total of 1666 words and 9 pages.

Understanding the Cause of Homelessness

"Being homeless is often defined as sleeping on the streets. Although this is the most
visible and severe form of homelessness, there are many other types of acute housing need.
These include living in temporary accommodation, poor or overcrowded conditions, or being
in mortgage arrears and under threat of re-possession." (Hope 1986) It is a symptom of
many complex problems: mental illness, emotional instability, illiteracy, chronic
substance abuse, unemployment, and, most basic of all, breakdown of the family structure.

Anyone can become homeless and the reasons that force people into homelessness are many
and varied. The leading cause, however, of homelessness in the United States is the
inability of poor people to afford housing. "Housing costs have risen significantly over
the last decade, while the incomes of poor and middle-class Americans have stagnated."
(Erickson 1991) The millions of Americans who are unemployed or work in low-paying jobs
are among the most vulnerable to becoming homeless. Therefore, homelessness, housing and
income are inextricably linked. Low-income people are frequently unable to pay for
housing, food, child-care, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when
limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which takes a
high proportion of income that must be dropped.

Two major sources of income are from employment and public assistance. A decrease in
either one of them would certainly put poor people at risk of homelessness. Additionally,
minimum wage earnings no longer lift families above the poverty line. "More than 3 million
poor Americans spend more than half of their total income on housing, yet the Department
of Housing and Urban Development estimates families should spend no more than 30%."
(Gilbert 1993) Although many homeless adults are employed, they work in day-labor jobs
that do not meet basic needs, while technological acceleration excludes others from a
competitive job market.

Many factors have contributed to declining work opportunities for large segments of the
workforce, including the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs. The decline in relatively
secure and well-paying jobs in manufacturing, which have been replaced by less secure and
poorly-paid jobs in the service sector, has greatly limited the opportunities for
poorly-educated and low-skilled segments of the population. This transformation has led to
an unprecedented incidence of chronic unemployment and underemployment. (Hardin 1996)
"Underemployment is an especially useful measure of the decline in secure jobs since,
unlike the unemployment rate, measures of underemployment reflect not only individuals who
are unemployed, but also involuntary part-timers and those who have given up seeking
work." (Hardin 1996) In addition to increasing underemployment, "an estimated 29.4% of the
workforce are employed in nonstandard work arrangements" (Economic Policy Institute, 1997)
-- for example, independent contracting, working for a temporary help agency, day labor,
and regular part-time employment. These kinds of work arrangements typically offer lower
wages, fewer benefits, and less job security.

"As recently as 1967, a year-round worker earning the minimum wage was paid enough to
raise a family of three above the poverty line" (Sklar, 1995). From 1981-1990, however,
"the minimum wage was frozen at $3.35 an hour, while the cost of living increased 48% over
the same period. Congress raised the minimum wage to $5.15 per hour in 1996. This increase
made up only slightly more than half of the ground lost to inflation in the 1980s"
(Shapiro, 1995b). Thus, full-time year-round minimum-wage earnings currently not equal to
the estimated poverty line for a family of three. Unsurprisingly, the decline in the value
of the minimum wage has been accompanied by an increase in the number of people earning
poverty-level wages and the declining wages have put housing out of reach for many
workers: in every state.

Slashed public assistance has also left many people homeless or at risk of homelessness.
"Replacement of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement program-- a
program that was already inadequate in meeting the needs of families -- with the
non-entitlement block rant program will significantly increased the risk of homelessness
for many Americans." (Foscarinas 1996) Furthermore, earned income and asset limitations
discourage individuals and families from breaking the cycle of homelessness and extreme
poverty. Several states have terminated or reduced public assistance and food stamps for
individuals, while "Social Security Income (SSI) is inadequate -- and sometimes impossible
to obtain -- for disabled individuals." (Foscarinas 1996) As a result, the number of poor
Americans is growing and the poor are getting poorer.

Across America, there has been a substantial decline in the number of housing units that
low-income people and those in need of shelter assistance can afford. Those losses have
resulted primarily from downtown urban renewal, gentrification, abandonment, and suburban
land use controls. The elimination and reduction of federal low income housing programs
has also dramatically reduced the supply of affordable shelter. Moreover, construction of
low income and assisted housing has essentially stopped (Newsweek 1984). Due to the
increased demand and diminished supply of housing or shelter, the problem of homelessness
is further deteriorated.

The amount of housing available in the private sector rental stock is diminishing rapidly.
As more and more landlords abandon apartment buildings and houses rather than repair them,
the housing supply for the poor has declined at an accelerating pace in some cities in the
nation (Donwall 1985). The growth of service-sector employment in central business
districts has attracted white-collar professionals, many of whom prefer to live in
accessible central city neighborhoods, where they compete with poor, indigenous residents
for private market housing (Noyelle 1983). The result is frequently gentrification of
inner city housing which traditionally has been the major source of low- income housing.
At the same time, downtown service sector expansion has created jobs for many low-waged
workers, which increases the demand for low cost shelter readily accessible to the
downtown. It makes the homeless in downtown even harder to rent a place to live.

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