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Understanding Homelessness: From Memoir to Pathways Home (May 2014): Reference and Websites

By Irene Glasser and Eric Hirsch

Reference and Websites

The primary print reference work for homeless studies is the Encyclopedia of Homelessness, an invaluable two-volume work edited by David Levinson.  This set offers brief, readable, authoritative articles on more than 150 topics relevant to homelessness.  International in scope, the encyclopedia includes essays on homelessness in cities and countries beyond the United States; represented are Africa, Asia (including Southeast Asia), Latin America, and western and eastern Europe.  The topics include some on which there is limited literature: homeless youth, street newspapers, self-help housing, criminal activity, and rural homelessness.  Especially nice features include the appendixes of autobiographical and fictional accounts of homelessness and a filmography of homelessness.  Levinson, who himself has written about life on the Bowery from the point of view of an anthropologist doing participant observation, secured the cooperation of a great number of the recognized experts in the scholarly homeless world.  The encyclopedia is also available in electronic form.

National Coalition for the Homeless has an excellent website.  Its free fact sheets, which can be downloaded, provide up-to-date discussions of such topics as domestic violence, employment, family homelessness, LGBT homelessness, tobacco use, and controversies regarding how to count the homeless.  In addition to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many states have their own coalition with timely and easily accessible state news regarding homelessness.  Many state coalitions also have a speaker’s bureau through which schools, universities, and civic organizations can arrange for a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals to speak and bring the issue to life.

There is little literature on homeless veterans, so National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) fills a serious gap in the literature.  Homeless veterans presently are the most visible failure of the services that support members of the U.S. military as they reintegrate into civilian society.  An advocacy and technical-assistance center, NCHV is a useful resource for governmental and nongovernmental agencies that work with homeless veterans.  The website’s Background and Statistics page (under the News and Media tab) is helpful for anyone who wants a beginning grounding in the issues facing homeless veterans.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) is an advocacy and research organization whose mission is grounded in the belief that “health care and housing are human rights and that all people have the right to participate in decisions that affect them.”  NHCHC’s website offers links to reports and scholarly publications on health-related topics within homelessness, including HIV prevention, tuberculosis, cultural competence in working with homeless individuals, and social isolation.  The NHCHC integrates the consumer (i.e., the homeless) point of view in formulating policy and setting research agendas.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness website offers a comprehensive compilation of approaches to ending homelessness.  Included are analyses of the state of homelessness in the United States; discussions of family, youth, chronic, veteran, and rural homelessness; policy and advocacy updates; and solutions for individual and family homelessness.


Authors of works on homelessness often have an implicit or explicit understanding of the etiology of homelessness.  They focus either on the medical, psychological, and personal characteristics of those who fall into homelessness, or on a structural explanation, including the loss of affordable housing, low wages, and gentrification that leaves a portion of the most vulnerable population without housing.  Clearly, the structural causes—economic inequality, rising rents, and the failure of government at all levels to compensate for the lack of housing affordable to very low-income households—create the potential for widespread homelessness.  Aspects of people’s personal lives—losing a job or public benefits, eviction or foreclosure, divorce, mental health problems, substance abuse issues—create the vulnerability to homelessness.  The resources available in one’s social network—including the ability to double up—determine when and if one falls victim to literal homelessness on the streets or ends up in the shelters.  Those who become homeless adapt as best they can, either finding a quick way out of homelessness or becoming chronically homeless.  The books and websites discussed in this essay can help one understand all aspects of the story of homelessness in the United States.

Works Cited