Since the 1940s, the issue of homelessness has remained a growing concern within the United States. Factors contributing to the problem are varied and deep-set within the make-up of our economy. This article will cover the causes of homelessness and characteristics of the homeless population.
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Living without a home, be it on the streets or in shelters, is what defines homelessness. It happens to individuals, as well as families, of all different nationalities and backgrounds. The National Coalition for the Homeless showed a population of anywhere from 30,000 to 7,000,000 homeless people in the United States as of 1995. The actual number is unknown due to the transiency patterns within the population.
There are two prevailing theories on the causes of homelessness. One theory attributes the cause to society-based conditions within an individual's circumstances. These would include minimum wage employment, lack of public assistance services, and lack of mental health services. The other theory views personal problems as the cause. Not wanting to work, excessive substance abuse, and poor money management skills are examples of personal problems that can lead to homelessness.
Sociologists have found that the likelihood of someone becoming homeless depends on circumstances that include both societal-based causes and personal problems. Personal problems such as substance abuse, mental illness or minimal education don't necessarily lead to homelessness, as can be seen in the lives of those who have these problems and still have homes. When certain societal structures are present, personal problems are curable, making destitution a last resort rather than an only resort.
A 1998 survey of 30 cities in the United States showed that nearly one in five homeless persons residing in shelters held full-time jobs. This survey illustrates how the lack of necessary low-income housing, minimal public assistance, and missing vocational/educational opportunities can play a critical role in how a person's circumstances play out. The disparity between inflation rates and minimum wage requirements has created a vacuum in which homelessness is a real outcome.
Typically, one may think people within the homeless population are in a "long term" lifestyle; however, this is not always the case. There are actually three categories under which one might fall.
Transitional: those who've undergone one incident of homelessness that lasted under 59 days.
Episodic: those who've had four to five incidents that total less than 266 days.
Chronic: those who've had two incidents totalling 650 days or more.
Oftentimes, crisis events are enough to cause a person to enter at the transitional level. Individuals encountering episodic and chronic occurrences are dealing with a more complex set of life circumstances.
In some ways, how society views the homeless population can affect its ability to understand what causes are at work. Many view homelessness as substance abusers and mentally ill individuals, when in fact these are just a portion of the group. Single mothers with children and people with minimal job skills make-up nearly 50 per cent of the homeless population.
In the case of single mothers with children, a 1998 government study showed that 22 per cent of these women left their previous residence because of domestic violence issues. The lack of a supportive network of friends and family was shown to be a predominant theme within the lives of the people surveyed. With no supporting network, a crisis event--be it a health problem, abuse, or financial--was all it took to tip the scales. Homelessness, within this context, became the only option.
The solutions needed to eliminate homelessness are the same ones needed to prevent its occurrence. Prevention is a present day need as so many people within our society currently sit at the brink of devastation. Areas in which assistance is most needed include low-cost housing, affordable health care, adequate mental health services, improved vocational/educational opportunities, and job opportunities.
Prevention efforts cost less compared to the costs of imprisonment, maintaining shelters, and distributing food to a growing population. Unfortunately, funding for these needs continues to dwindle, on both federal and state levels.
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