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Homelessness in America by Colin Henry


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Paper on Homelessness in America

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Homelessness in America by Colin Henry

  1. 1. Name: Colin HenryCourse: SOCS 185Topic: HomelessnessDate: May 23, 2002 Homelessness What is homelessness? Contrary to what many people believe quite a number ofpeople some time in their lives have been homeless. My concern however is not who aretemporarily homeless its with those who are permanently homeless. According to theAmerican Heritage dictionary a homeless person is one who has no home or haven. Thenext issue to consider is why do people become homeless in the first place, whateconomic, personal, social and domestic reasons make people find themselves without ahome. Economic Trends for the last twenty years point to a growing impersonalitytowards the homeless and needy where government departments have adopted abureaucratic way of dealing with the homeless. Since there’s millions of people inAmerica who are homeless at any one time over 2 million, do they have a culture of theirown? Do the homeless have a particular way of life? There has been a significantdifference in homelessness in the 1980’s compared to the 1990’s, what legislativechanges have occurred and with this change has society adopted a different attitudetowards homeless people? The homeless must face great difficulty; just staying alive andhealthy is a great task. Many might say what can I do as an individual? I’m only oneperson, how can I possibly make a difference. It turns out that an individual can helpwith the immediate needs of the homeless, long-term needs are much harder to satisfyand I think will require a joint effort by many. WHY? According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, a person is considered homelesswho “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence”(NCH Fact Sheet #3).There are many reasons why people become homeless. The major reason is domesticviolence in homes, which has been on the increase for many years. However two majortrends have occurred in the last twenty years that is responsible for the hike in homelesspeople. Firstly the increasing shortage of low-income housing, and secondly thesimultaneous increase in poverty. But how can this be true? America has for the lasttwenty years enjoyed fruitful and wonderful economic growth within this time period.This is the main reason however why rent for apartments has increased so dramatically.If the average middle class American and the upper class is earning much more,according to the Christian Science Monitor the lower half of the pool has experiencedminimal increase in wages. This has put many housing units out of the reach of millionsof individuals. The frightening fact is that twenty years ago the minimum wage had morevalue, in 1997 was 18.1% less than in 1979(NCH Fact sheet #1). It continues withpointing out the reason for the decline in wages. A steep drop in the bargaining power of un unionized workers; erosion in the value of the minimum wage; a decline in manufacturing jobs and the corresponding expansion of lower-paying service sector employment; globalization; and increased nonstandard work, such as
  2. 2. temporary and part-time employment (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999). WHO? If the lower half of the poor is at risk to homelessness, then who makes up thisgroup. According to the U.S Conference of Mayor’s survey of the homeless concludedin 30 cities that children under the age of 18 accounted for 25%, a 1987 study showedthat people between the ages 31-50 accounted for 51% and persons ranging 55-60accounted for 2.5%. The U.S Conference of Mayor’s survey 1998 concluded that singlehomeless adults are more likely to be men. Recently a major concern is the increase inthe number of families that are without shelter. This group is the fastest growing groupand in 1996(Shinn and Weitzman) comprised of approximately 40%. It is now 2002 andsince the September 11,2002 terrorist attacks there has been a flood of families going toshelters across the nation, especially in New York. According to the Christian ScienceMonitor.” Families of the working poor appear to be hit the hardest by the combinationof high housing prices-- a legacy of the 90’s—and shrinking job opportunities. In NewYork, for instance, of 80,000 people who lost their jobs in October, almost half werelow-wage service workers. On an Ethnic point of view according to the U.S. Conference of Mayor 1998survey, African Americans comprise of 49%, Caucasians 32%, Hispanic 12%, NativeAmericans 4% and Asians 3% of the people who are homeless. This has some majorimplications. As you can see African Americans as a minority group far out number theother ethnic groups’ ratio in America. The social stratification of the society has manyrepercussions on different ethnic groups. Caucasians or more precisely WASPS (WhiteAnglo Saxon Protestants) have made all other groups subordinate to them. However thehardest hit group is African Americans especially the women. This is rather disturbingsince in recent times African American women comprise of in majority the head offamilies and households. Another major reason for homelessness is domestic violence. According to 46%of cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified violence as the primarycause of homelessness. Other groups make up the homeless such as army veterans, thementally ill, drug addicts and the unemployed. PERSONAL How does one actually get homeless? Most people who are homeless neverthought it could happen to them. So what is behind homelessness? Here are somepersonal experiences taken from The National Homelessness Organization. Melanieexplains, “During the first ten years of my life, I could never imagine myself beinghomeless. Within four years her family lost most of their possessions and foundthemselves in a shelter with hundreds of strangers. Living in the shelter was a big changefor the family; many things they took for granted was now a great privilege. Melanielearnt that all homeless people were not drug addicts or alcoholics. Many were familiesjust like hers in the same situation she was. School proved to be very difficult to stay insince she no longer had a permanent address and she had to keep her situation a secret.The Charlie’s Bill fixed the permanent address problem, but keeping her homelessness a
  3. 3. secret was in Melanie’s hands. Joann’s story is not a unique one its one that representsmany of the homeless today. She had a dream like most people and did very well in highschool, getting accepted to Howard University. Her family however was unable to sendher to College, which soon left her cleaning government offices. After years doing thesame job earning the same amount of money luck struck her way and was able to start asmall business of her own with a partner. Joann worked feverishly and soon foundherself with more money than ever before in her life. On a weekend back at home sherealized that she was better off than most people in her community and thought shecould buy her friends, she spent all her money and was introduced to alcohol. Soon shewas a functional alcoholic and later was introduced to crack cocaine. She soon sold hershare of the business and went on a partying and spending spree with her friends,hopping from one apartment complex to the next. She continued to deny that she had aproblem with alcohol and drugs, saying” At least I am not like the winos on the corner, Ithought- at least I have a roof over my head”. Eventually her money dried up and Joannfound herself without a home. It wasn’t long before she found herself at a homelessshelter where she was raped. This brought back memories from her childhood. It turnsout that her uncle, as a child for eight years, molested Joann. This caused greatemotional scarring and emptiness, which was probably what led her to alcoholism anddrug addiction. Joann found help from the New Endeavors by Women (NEW) and isnow seeing better days. Homeless people aren’t lazy rejects of society. Homeless people have a particularway of life, a code of conduct for survival, their own sub culture. Despite popular beliefmany good, law- abiding citizens end up without shelter and on the streets. TheSjobloms share their unbelievable tale. The Sjobloms a family of four in the upper poorclass with Russell the head of the family earning $1,375/mth and free rent andelectricity. His lower income job required him to be the jack-of-all-trades focusing onlabor. Russell injured his back and had to temporarily take a leave of absence. Hisworkers compensation quickly went into effect and the family received $225.75 perweek. Despite the accumulating medical bills Dian mother of two looked forward forbetter times with her part-time job to fill the gap until her husband could return to work.Soon after his return Russell re-injured his back, this time critically, with seriouspermanent damage. This would spiral them into a desperate situation seeking help fromtheir community and government departments. They contacted the Freehold, New JerseyWelfare Department and got no assistance, Monmouth County welfare to apply forFamilies with Dependent Children (AFDC), were denied because they exceeded themonthly income amount. The family finally received some assistance from FoodStamps. This was not nearly enough with the back rent and the current month rent duethe family contacted the HUD’s Department of Community Affairs HomelessnessPrevention Program, she was put on wait. With the clock ticking against her Diane triedcalling the Homeless Prevention Dept. to get some status on her application, she wastold they were processing the application and would get back to her; and mostimportantly not to call again. With Russell’s workers compensation depleted the familywas now eligible for AFDC assistance, which was a drop in the bucket. With timerunning out to pay the families rent,” Diane again called the Homeless Prevention Dept.and was reassured she would receive a phone call that same afternoon. No call came. At4:00pm, Diane called the Homeless Prevention office and was told the worker with
  4. 4. whom she had previously spoken and who was supposed to call her back that day hadgone on vacation and would not be back until July 4th ”. This was the straw that brokethe camels’s back, the family soon found themselves in a shelter. In June Dianecontacted the Homeless Prevention office and was informed that her application wasdenied because the family no longer received workers compensation and their AFDCassistance would not cover their future rent payments. These events are similar to manyother people and families experience in the same situation. Government department andassistance programs for the needy tend to be impersonal and rigid, much like a properlyfunctioning bureaucracy. With financial cuts, shrinking low-income housing and therecent downturn in the economy, homelessness will continue to rise at an exponentialrate. ECONOMICS AND SOCIAL ATTITUDE The government in the 80’s was very sympathetic towards the homeless, becauseit was a delicate issue at the time and could be used as a political tool. Many volunteerand government programs were introduced to combat the problem and millions ofdollars was poured in for the cause. Eventually as time passed people became lessemotional about the issue like any other issue. It seems that America over reacts to itsproblems when they surface and within five to ten years it seems most people forget theyexist like AIDS, and homelessness. In the 90’s America saw great economic gain, thebest she has ever had yet according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, twotrends over the last 15-20 years are responsible for the rise in homelessness; the growingshortage of affordable rent. Although the median earning for families has increased 2.7%from 1988-1999 to $40-800 (Christian Science Monitor) the lower half of the poor havegotten poorer, therefore a growing number of people are at risk of loosing their homes.In the same period government spending on the homeless has been cut. Between 1970and 1994, the typical state’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefitsfor a family of three fell by 47%, after adjusting inflation (Greenberg and Bauhmohl,1996). A more shocking fact is that the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families(TANF) benefits combined with food stamps is below the poverty level in every state.During and since the Clinton administration welfare reform has taken place having atfirst positive results but recently have put many on the verge of homelessness.” A surveyof homeless shelters around the US 1999 by the Institute for Children in Poverty foundthat 37% of families on welfare had their benefits reduced or terminated. Of those, 20%said that the cut contributed directly to their homelessness.” We’re seeing a very directconnection, ”says Mary Bronahan, executive director of New York’s Coalition for theHomeless. ” Certainly, between 30-40% (welfare recipients) are graduating intoemployment, but the bottom 25% are falling deeper into poverty and many into literalhomelessness.” Since the September 11th attacks New York has seen a hike in familiesneeding shelter due to the shrinking job opportunities and simultaneously the squeeze infinancial support from the government (Christian Science Monitor). The city is currentlyfacing great social and economic unrest. CONCLUSION The country currently faces great obstacles and pressing issues, such as nationalsecurity and the hike in homelessness, especially in families. Despite the evidence thatmore money and capitol is needed to bring reform, in the last decade the government has
  5. 5. cut funding almost in half. Twenty years ago people without shelter were given aidreadily and experienced sympathy from their fellow Americans. Today homeless peopleexperience abuse and a general insensitivity to their situation. So how can the homelessbe helped? Many ways, according to the National Coalition for Homeless (NCH FactSheet #16) one can volunteer at a shelter serving food, doing clerical work, help to buildand fix houses. Another way is sharing technical and professional skills to better preparehomeless people for the job market. Shelters always are in need of computers and othertechnological equipment, books, food clothes, stationary and many other things. Aperson could fight homelessness from a political stand - point lobbying for new effortsand more funding towards the cause to eventually eliminate the problem. In my opinionall these factors must be working together on a large scale simultaneously for the nationto see a significant decrease in the number of homeless people. The need for SingleOccupancy Housing (NOH) is a pressing one and millions of units are currently needed.But most importantly the social attitude towards homelessness needs to be changed.America once more needs to be sensitive to these human beings who are just like anyoneelse, but are just without a home. On the money we spend is written “In God we trust”.This country was found on the basis of freedom and righteousness. Let us do the rightthing, be righteous and help the homeless.