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Understanding Homelessness: From Memoir to Pathways Home (May 2014): The Etiology of Homelessness

By Irene Glasser and Eric Hirsch

The Etiology of Homelessness

Explanations of the “new homelessness” are numerous.  In 1989, Peter Rossi published one of the first books on the subject: Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness.  He was convincing in arguing that the rise of homelessness was related primarily to the lack of affordable housing for the very poor.  Rossi focuses in particular on the loss of cubicle and single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs), many of which were converted to high-rent apartments and condominiums starting in the urban renewal era that began in the 1960s.  Rossi argues that the decline of the casual unskilled labor market, decreased willingness of families to double up, and the erosion of welfare benefits have factored in the rise of homelessness in the late twentieth century.

Several years after Rossi’s book appeared, Martha Burt published Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s.  She attributed increased homelessness to cuts to Social Security benefit and General Assistance programs coupled with the loss of SRO and lodging house accommodations.  The cuts in services meant that the seriously mentally ill and those with substance dependencies were no longer able to find affordable housing.  In addition, higher rents combined with declining real incomes forced the very poor to spend an ever-increasing percentage of their income for rent.  Often this burden was too great, and the individual or family became homeless.  These pressures also made it more difficult for the poor to allow family or friends to double up with them.  This situation was further exacerbated by cuts to safety-net programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), food stamps, and rental subsidies.  These problems continue into the present.

In 1994, Christopher Jencks wrote what has become the best-known analysis of the causes of the new homelessness, The Homeless.  He argued that the rise in homelessness was due to deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the crack epidemic, male unemployment, declining marriage rates, welfare benefit cuts, and the destruction of skid row.  His most controversial statement was that rising rents had little impact on homelessness.

Columbia University economist Brendan O’Flaherty, in a comprehensive economic analysis of homelessness, countered Jencks’s argument in Making Room: The Economics of Homelessness.  In his study of six cities (New York, Newark, Chicago, Toronto, London, and Hamburg), he shows how the rise of income inequality led to distortions in the housing production market.  Housing production became focused at the top of the housing production scale, limiting middle-income as well as low-income housing production.  Because the poor tend to live in middle-class housing that has gotten old, the dearth of middle-class housing added to the problem of scarce low-income housing.  The rise in the real-poverty rate combined with rent increases, pricing the poor out of market-based housing.  O’Flaherty also points out that prevalence of emergency shelters—which were funded and built in response to homelessness—tended to increase homelessness over time, as shelters became the “housing” of last resort.

As Irene Glasser and Rae Bridgman discuss in Braving the Street: The Anthropology of Homelessness, much of the early discussion of homelessness in industrialized countries centered on the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, who became so visible on city streets.  On the other hand, Glasser and Bridgman argue that in fact homelessness was a product of structural societal forces: the loss of jobs, the cutting back of financial assistance, and the tearing down of cheap housing in the form of old hotels and rooming houses (gentrification).  As one of the most visible indicators of poverty, homelessness confronts citizens with the inability to offer everyone the most basic conditions for a healthy and productive life.  It leads one to ask what social and political forces led to the condition of a group of people who meet their basic needs of shelter, food, and sanitation on the street, in public view.

After more than twenty years of studying homelessness, Kim Hopper, writing in 2003 in Reckoning with Homelessness, reviews his own work on the streets, in the subways, in the airports, and in the shelters of New York City.  He also reviews much of the work on homelessness of the 1970s through 2000.  Hopper asks what good all of the ethnographic research has accomplished in that homelessness remains a problem.  By contrast, in their Private Lives, Public Spaces: Homeless Adults on the Streets of New York City, written in 1981, Ellen Baxter and Kim Hopper had shown that many homeless men were making rational decisions in staying away from the shelters, which were dangerous at that time, and Baxter and Hopper’s work did much to make the shelters safer.  Baxter and Hopper also documented the number of SRO housing units that had been lost to gentrification, thus pointing to why low-income housing was so hard to find.

In Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics, and the Failure of Social Policy, David Wagner, writing with Jennifer Barton Gilman, provides an excellent discussion of how the problem of homelessness was “discovered” in the early 1980s.  The authors analyze thirty years of newspaper articles in order to understand how people with no place to live moved from being so-called vagrants to being recognized as “homeless” by the early 1980s.  This meticulously researched book takes the reader from the early colonial poor laws, to homeless men riding the rails, to the modest victories of funding homeless services in the mid-1980s, to criminalization, to “compassion fatigue,” and finally to homelessness being viewed as a bureaucratic problem.  One of this book’s strengths is its discussion of the consequences of defining homelessness as a problem of mental health, deinstitutionalization, and substance abuse rather than as a problem involving lack of affordable housing, the retreat from cash assistance, and the shift in the U.S. economy from manufacturing jobs to low-wage, service-sector jobs.  Focusing on the provision of shelter and food, these authors argue, leads to ignoring the broader issue: the lack of a real safety net to help working-class individuals and families not slip into poverty and homelessness.

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