Homelessness in America is a persistent, complex, and widely-occurring problem that incorporates many economic, social, and psychological dimensions. After years of war and economic decline, the ranks of the homelessness have grown to include families with children (35%); military veterans (23%); children (25%); persons fleeing domestic violence (30%); and the mentally ill (20-25%) (National Student Campaign, 2012). Additionally, the number of homeless young adults, aged 18-to-24, is growing, giving homelessness a new face.In the problem of homelessness, some people perceive a call for greater human compassion, while others demand more effective social policy and more comprehensive public health services. Still others insist on greater individual responsibility and more respect for the needs of business, reinforced by aggressive criminal justice responses.
There is a problem with homelessness in the United States, and it is caused by the capitalist system and the ‘free market’ policies of the last thirty years that have increased the gap between the rich and poor and weakened the social safety net. Merely criminalizing the poor and homeless, or following punitive and retributive policies toward them will not address the root causes of this problem. Homeless people are not criminals and poverty is not a crime, but is caused by the political and economic injustices of this society, and the mal-distribution of wealth and incomes. In no other nation in the Western world is the gap between the rich and poor so unequal or the welfare state so weak and limited. No other Western nation criminalizes poverty, mental illness and homelessness to such a degree, or incarcerates such a high percentage of its population.Millions of people are have been incarcerated are also denied social services or even the right to vote and also end up homeless, basically trapped in an endless cycle of poverty and incarceration. There have been huge bailouts for Wall Street and the big banks that often defrauded the poor and investors with bogus subprime mortgages, but no one has bailed out the ‘little people’ in this country. This simply demonstrates yet again that the political power in the U.S. is really in the hands of the wealthy and large corporations, and that the system is more of an oligarchy than a democracy. These injustices can only be addressed by a radical change in public policy, and more redistribution of resources to the lower levels of the social pyramid in this society. There should be a major distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. to address these problems, especially for the poor, the working class and minority groups, but it will only come about if there are organized social groups at the bottom of society that demand change. More prisons and more police will not sure the sickness and inequality of American society that has left millions of people homeless, and indeed those kinds of policies will only exacerbate the problem.
In the U.S., the real causes of homelessness are systemic poverty, racial discrimination, unequal distribution of wealth and incomes, the absence of a social safety net and lack of employment and educational opportunities. According to the standard sociological definition, a homeless person is someone who lacks a fixed abode or regular residence and lives in the streets, in a vehicle, homeless shelters or with friends and relatives. Homelessness is defined as the lack of a regular, fixed nighttime residence, no matter whether the homeless live with relatives or sleep in parks, shelters or vehicles. There are at least 3-4 million homeless persons every year, including 35% of which are families with children, 23% military veterans, 25% under age 18, and 20-25% with some type of mental illness(National Student Campaign 2012). Some estimates place the number of homeless children under age at about 1.3 million per year, or one-third of the total homeless population (Bingle, 2008, p. 5). Because of the present economic depression, the actual homeless population may be double these figures or about ten million people, and nothing like this has occurred in the U.S. since the 1930s Depression.
High levels of poverty, unemployment and home foreclosures will always lead to an increase in the homeless population, especially given the lack of low-income housing. Among the very poor and permanently homeless, mental illness and addiction are also major factors in homelessness (Bingle, p. 8). Children from dysfunctional and broken families or those who have spent lengthy periods in the foster care system are also more likely to become homeless (McNamara, 2008, p. xii). Single males who are homeless are also the least likely to receive any type of assistance or social services, as are homeless people living in rural parts of the country, while the elderly homeless are also a largely ignored and forgotten group. Because of systematic and institutionalized racism in the U.S., blacks and Hispanics have double the rate of poverty and unemployment of whites, are far more likely to be incarcerated, and also have at least double the rate of homelessness.
Homelessness started to become a major national problem in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration cut back funding for public housing and federal assistance to the poor and the mentally ill by over 50% and this has never been restored. During the years 1945-70, state and federal programs had almost eliminated homelessness in this country, which had last been a major problem in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the turn toward conservative, ‘free market’ policies over the last three decades has completely reversed this. In the U.S. there is not enough low-income housing for those who need it. Today’s minimum wage is actually worth only about one-quarter of what it was in the 1960s and is no longer sufficient even to lift poor families and individuals above the federal poverty line or to buy even the basic necessities of life(National Student Campaign 2012). Most of the working poor cannot afford private medical insurance, which now costs an average of $8,000 per year for a family of four and is less frequently provided by employers(National Student Campaign 2012). As in the 19th Century, a major illness or accident can completely bankrupt poor and working class families that lack the means to pay for private medical care. For the 20% of the homeless with substance abuse problems and the 25% with mental illnesses, lack of funds to buy private insurance combined with cutbacks in federal programs means that they usually receive no treatment of any kind (National Student Campaign 2012).
During the 1980s and 1990s, as homelessness increased dramatically and federal and state programs to assist the poor were drastically reduced, state and local governments began to deal with this problem by criminalizing the homeless population. They began to pass various "’quick-fix’ solutions to remove homeless people from sight, rather than addressing the underlying causes of homelessness” (Brown 1999). Many of the largest cities also have bans on begging and sleeping or camping outdoors, and at least half of the largest cities regularly use police sweeps to remove all homeless camps (Brown 1999). Laws against panhandling and sleeping outdoors can be challenged on constitutional grounds, unless they are restricted to certain specific areas of a city. In Massachusetts the Supreme Court ruled that begging was protected by the First Amendment on free speech grounds, while the federal courts ruled in Pottinger v. Miami that a city could not ban sleeping in public of it provided no alternative facilities (Brown 1999). In California, the State Court of Appeals found that a homeless man named James Eichorn, convicted of sleeping in public, could present a defense arguing necessity since he had nowhere else to go given the lack of beds in the homeless shelters. Federal courts also ruled that the city of Cincinnati, Ohio could not prohibit the homeless from sitting of lying on the public sidewalks (Brown 1999). San Francisco police began a policy of ticketing the homeless for violating ‘quality of life laws’ in 1998, issuing over 17,000 citations before being taken to court and forced to cease the practice. Chicago closed off a large public area on Lower Wacker Drive, which “was a common place for homeless people to congregate and live” and allows the businesses there to issue permits to anyone entering (Brown 1999). Other cities like Tucson also began to privatize public streets in the downtown areas and then banned the homeless from entering at all, although these policies have also been challenged in the courts. Cleveland was sued in federal court to block the “police practice of removing homeless people from the city by transporting them to remote locations outside of the city and abandoning them”(Brown 1999).
Almost all of these attempts to criminalize the homeless are unconstitutional and blatant violations of civil and human rights, and they do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness. Certainly the criminal justice system is incapable of dealing with the conditions that cause extreme poverty and homelessness, particularly traumatized veterans and persons with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. Even the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that it was much cheaper to provide housing, food and treatment that to house the homeless in jails. In Portland, Oregon, the police regularly swept all homeless encampments with 24-hour notices, but homeless advocates challenged this policy in 1993 and instead began to work with the police to obtain shelter and services for the homeless. In 1999 Seattle created a public hygiene center for the homeless and also passed a special tax ordinance to provide more low-income housing (Brown 1999). Police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida began to provide brochures listing services available to the homeless, while Miami passed a tax in 1993 to provide food and low-income housing for the homeless. Ultimately, though, this problem will only be resolved when cities and states begin to provide more low-income housing and services over the long term (Brown 1999). There is absolutely no reason that a country as wealthy as the U.S. should have so many millions of its citizens in poverty and absolute deprivation, except that so much of the wealth of society is concentrated at the top.
In the Western world, no other nation incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the U.S., and the poor and the homeless are always at much higher risk of being jailed on various charges. In 2009, over 2.2 million people were incarcerated, up 300% since 1980, while the total cost of jails and prisons increased 600% in 1982-2006, in effect creating a ‘prison-industrial complex’ in the United States (Criminal Justice, Homelessness and Health 2011). Nearly 60% of the homeless have spent time in correctional institutions, and 15% of inmates were homeless the year prior to being incarcerated. Inmates with mental health problems are also twice as likely to become homeless, while two-thirds also have substance abuse problems, yet almost none of these have “adequate mental and behavioral health care in the community or during incarceration” (Criminal Justice, Homelessness and Health 2011). In addition, there are various state and federal laws and regulations that deny inmates and ex-convicts access to Medicaid, Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income, public housing assistance, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, while over 5.3 million ex-inmates are not allowed to vote and eighteen states permanently bar them from the franchise (Criminal Justice, Homelessness and Health 2011). Here again, no other nation in the Western world has policies that criminalize poverty, homelessness and mental health problems the way the U.S. does, or provides so little treatment for substance abuse. Nor does any other Western nation deny the vote to ex-inmates once they have served their sentences.
In the present depression, blacks and Hispanics are experiencing higher levels of poverty, homeless and unemployment than whites, which is also the case even during ‘good’ times in the United States. Even beyond the social class system and the highly unequal distribution of wealth and incomes, America has always had a racial caste system that still exists even after the election of a black president. Indeed, over the last thirty years, racial minorities have experienced a severe decline in incomes and rising levels of poverty that have only worsened because of the present recession and foreclosure crisis (Baumann 2001). These communities suffered the most from the huge crisis is fraudulent sub-prime mortgages, for example, but compared to the giant financial institutions that received trillions of dollars from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and the Federal Reserve, no one has ever bailed them out. This is because they have far less political power in the system compared to the Wall Street bank and investment firms, and why programs to aid the poor and homeless are always so easy for conservatives in Congress to cut while at the same time serving the interests of their corporate donors and sponsors.
Because of cutbacks in social welfare programs and tax policies favoring the very wealthy and big business interests, poverty and inequality have been increasing greatly since the 1980s, and in the present depression are as severe as any time since the Great Depression. For many years now, the top 1% in the U.S. have had at least 50% of the wealth while the bottom 20% have virtually nothing (West, 2001, p. viii). About half of black children live in poverty even in ‘normal’ times, and 10% of young black males under age 18 are in prison (West, p. 4). Blacks do not use drugs at a higher rate than whites, but they are nearly 70% of those imprisoned on drug charges, and with Hispanics are over 75% of the prison population (West, p. xii). Three-quarters of blacks still live in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods, with low-quality schools, public services and employment opportunities and very high levels or drug and gang violence. All of these problems of racism and racial segregation make it very “difficult to solve other problems connected to poor communities, such as crime, violence, poor health, high mortality, and abandonment of houses” (Ilhewuzi, 2008, p. 47). Black children under 18 are 900% more likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children and 300% more likely to like in impoverished, single-parent households (Ihewulezi, p. 43). Nearly 80% of black women in prison are mothers with their children living with relatives or in the foster care system, and less than half receive child support payments because of the “unemployment or the incarceration of the father of their children”, and this also means that a shortage of marriageable black males exists (Ihewulezi, p. 44). Taken as a whole then, all of these factors also lead to higher levels of homelessness among blacks and other minorities, and obviously the current system is incapable of addressing any of these issues since for the last thirty years it has basically been treating them as a law enforcement and criminal justice problem, when in reality they are social and economic problems.
Homelessness should be considered of deeper structural social, political and economic problems in the U.S., rather than as a criminal justice or law enforcement issue. It will never be ‘fixed’ with more prisons and police since the U.S. already incarcerates more of its own people by far than any other Western country. Homelessness was not a major problem in 1970, even though no one would consider the U.S. as some kind of ideal or utopian society at that time. Far from it, but the fact remains that state and federal programs like public housing, Food Stamps, the minimum wage, and AFDC had lifted enough people sufficiently out of poverty to reduce the numbers of those who were so utterly destitute that they ended up living in the streets. All those policies were very deliberately reversed, starting in the Reagan years, and the results have been quite predictable. Homelessness was already a major problem in the 1980s and 1990s, and due to the current recession it has become a catastrophic one. Certainly Congress and the political system have been very favorable to wealthy elites and large corporate interests over the last thirty years while downright hostile to those at the bottom of the social scale. Not only were they permitted to engage in uncontrolled speculation in subprime mortgages and other dubious ‘assets’ with minimal regulation and supervision, but when the whole house of cards collapsed they received an unlimited bailout from Washington—a veritable blank check. Those in the bottom 20% of the population have never received any such bailout in American history and in the last thirty years the main ‘social programs’ offered to them have been only more police and more prisons. This is extremely immoral and unjust by any standard except perhaps why that justifies unlimited greed, selfishness and corruption as some type of ‘free market’ or laissez faire ideal out of the 19thCentury. What the country really needs is a restoration of democracy and social justice, which will only come about by popular demand and organized popular movements from below. Not since the 1960s have there been any such movements on a significant enough scale to tip the balance in favor of the common people, which is why the country has social and economic policies that resemble those of the Gilded Age or the 1920s, when even regularly presidents proclaimed that the business of America was business.
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