The Social Problem of Homelessness
SOC203: Social Problems
Despite the view that homelessness is an outcome of poor choices and/or work ethic, homelessness is considered a social problem. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) terms homelessness as “lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” and “having a primary nighttime residence that is supervised publicly or operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations…or a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings” (Christian, 2015, para 5). This problem arises due to fundamental inequalities-such as the unequal distribution of income across the economy, poverty, job shortages, lack of affordable housing and decreases in federal assistance. Increases of homelessness go along with the economy’s cycles of performance, rising between 2009 and 2010 by 9% attributed mostly to unemployment (Korgen & Furst, 2012). This paper will examine homelessness as a social problem, review the conflict theory that can be utilized to analyze this issue, indicate the implications of homelessness, determine what society has done to alleviate and discuss an effective alternative response to the social problem of homelessness.
As the number of homeless people rises, more people are becoming affected with this epidemic. Homelessness has a social pattern that doesn’t just affect random people; it touches broad groups of people. Those that are homeless include the mentally and/or physically disabled, college students, veterans, families with children, foster kids that have “aged out”, those that are unemployed and even the working middle class. To determine why and how homelessness is a social problem, we must look at the world from a sociological perspective rather than a personal standpoint, looking past our own immediate circumstances and the experiences of people we know (Korgen & Furst, 2012).
Sociologically speaking, homelessness can be analyzed from a conflict theory perspective. Philosopher and historian Karl Marx believed that the ones controlling the “economic institution, or the system that controls the distribution of goods and services in a society, also control the other institutions in society” and that fundamentally society as a whole was founded on conflict and is made up of groups competing for power (Korgen & Furst, 2012, section 1.3). With that being said, one is not astonished to see the extraordinary level of today’s economic inequality in which homelessness is brewing. Conflict theorists argue that the wealthy influence institutions in order to enhance themselves at other people’s expense. They maintain that although expected when groups are competing for power, “high levels of inequality can pose a threat to people in power” but when the deprived “unite and develop a class consciousness, workers can achieve greater equality” (Korgen & Furst, 2012, section 2.3).
Society plays a major part in the risk factors that are associated with the homelessness epidemic. Since the rise of homelessness is intertwined with the economy, when the Great Depression in 2008 occurred even families started becoming homeless – homeless families with children account for 23% of the homeless (Boundless, 2016).Urbanization also contributes to this social problem as such a large number of homeless people tend to settle in urban neighborhoods; when a large number of residents dwell in a small area resources will naturally become strained (Boundless, 2016).
Christian (2015) describes the homeless as the most disadvantaged and poorest people in society, and are likely to be concentrated in urban cities as the HUD reported in 2013 that one out of five homeless citizens reside in either New York City or Los Angeles. Sadly, those that suffer from mental disorders and drug or alcohol abuse are also at risk to become homeless, the 2016 article Homelessness explains that 22% of homeless people have serious mental illnesses or are physically disabled and 30% have substance abuse problems. While society has shelters that do assist a percentage of those without a home, with the rising number of people becoming homeless many are being turned away due to the shelters being fully occupied. Where else can they turn to for a meal and a warm place to lay their head at night when the only place they know that will accept them in is filled to capacity?
Consequences of homelessness include consuming resources and tax payer money when they are hospitalized, put in jail or require emergency housing accommodations. C.B.C. Television (2008), states that it can be between a $10,000 – $30,000 individual saving for taxpayers when homeless are provided with housing and services, as opposed to just leaving them on the streets. The homeless need guidance to take back control of their lives, treatment for their conditions as well as support to become reintegrated into society. Programs and policies to address homelessness can be funded by a “pay back” program. In the 2008 video Homelessness is a Symptom, the city of Portland understands that the core issues need to be met with the homeless, rather than just putting them in jail and have turned to a solution of “compassionate conservatism”. An example of Portland’s solution is a housing development where the wealthy and the homeless dwell together. Ron Arquette, who was previously homeless for twelve years, now lives in a building that combines high end condos with subsidized housing. Ron doesn’t have any income; he is unemployed and does not receive a pension or social assistance. In the “pay back” program, he would use his time to assist businesses in need – the pay he would receive from those businesses would be provided back to the homeless programs to invest in helping shelter other homeless individuals in need.
A potentially effective response to the problem of homelessness would be to first have a center with bathing facilities, where the homeless would be able to maintain their hygiene. Since cleanliness can be difficult to obtain when living on the streets, this facility will allow the homeless to revive their self-worth. Another response to this problem is to place the homeless into permanent supportive housing. This response would assist the homeless that need the most support, due to their vices or them having children, out of the streets and into a home. If one already has difficulties and believe that they essentially have no hope because of their lack of living arrangements, being provided with a place to live will ultimately put them in a better frame of mind. Once they are in a better space, it will also allow them to obtain the necessary help and support they need to improve their health and overall well-being.
While homelessness is primarily socially driven due to poverty and lack of affordable housing, many areas have prepared laws to only deal with the public space problems homelessness causes instead of the actual homeless and their complications. Christian (2015) explains that on top of programs that provide temporary and transitional shelters for those affected by homelessness, there is a greater need for increasing federal housing resources and accessible permanent housing to alleviate this social problem. This issue can be associated with personal characteristics and choices, however most attributes to homelessness are not able to be controlled – poverty, housing and health (Christian, 2015). It can be especially challenging for one to maintain living quarters when they are unable to find a decent job in a deprived economy, the underlying social forces have a hindering effect. The Associated Press (1996) argues that shelters are not the answer to battling homelessness as they are only temporary and that more single room occupancy units and permanent housing units are needed for accommodating this epidemic. To understand the social problem of homelessness, we need to use our sociological imagination. Society must put themselves in someone else’s shoes, which involves taking real life events and associating them with social trends. But that means more than simply just feeling empathy and merely accepting that people reside on the streets, we have to do the best we can do to assist and figure out the solution. It is simply not enough for society to provide the homeless with a survival kit and send them on their way back to living on the streets.
Associated Press (Producer). (1996). USA: NEW YORK: NEW SOLUTION TO CITY’S PROBLEM OF HOMELESSNESS [Streaming video]. Retrieved from Associated Press Video Collection database.
Bernhardt, E. (2011, September 14). Applying sociological imagination to homelessness [Presentation]. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/tetx-noolc2t/applying-sociological-imagination-to-homelessness/
Boundless. “Homelessness.” Boundless Sociology Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 10 Jan. 2017 from https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/population-and-urbanization-17/urban-life-124/homelessness-703-10485/
C.B.C. Television. (2008). Homelessness is a Symptom [Video]. In Homelessness: The “Housing First” Approach. Retrieved from the Films on Demand database.
Christian, J.A. (2015). Homelessness. Research Starters: Sociology (Online edition).
Korgen, K. and Furst, G. (2012).Social Problems: Causes & Responses. San Diego, CA. Bridgepoint Education, Inc.