Essay: Homelessness in Contemporary American Society

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Homelessness in Contemporary American Society

Homelessness

is defined as the lack of permanent night-time shelter and it is a problem that affects between 3 and 4 million Americans of whom almost half are children. Those numbers probably underestimate the true extent of the problem because it does not include people who are dependent on the generosity of friends and family who allow them to sleep in their homes during periods when they would otherwise join the ranks of the homeless. Even before the recent economic recession, families with children were the fastest growing group of homeless people and that rate has only increased since the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 and the economic crises that followed closely thereafter. Homelessness is more of a problem in large cities that account for more than two-thirds of all homeless with approximately one quarter living in suburbs and less than ten percent living in rural areas. However, the homeless in rural America may suffer the most because they have access to fewer public resources such as homeless shelters and other support networks to assist them improve their lives that are comparatively available in big cities.

Solving the problem of homelessness is not easy because every homeless person and family represents the need for a good job (or several good jobs) and unemployment in the United States is currently at a record high in modern times since the Great Depression. Still, both public and private organizations can play important roles in helping homeless individuals improve their lives and in preventing homelessness in the first place. To a large degree, that means helping families avoid some of the common secondary effects and problems typically associated with homelessness. More generally, social movements such as the ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" effort will also likely play an important role in promoting economic reforms that are necessary to reduce poverty, unemployment, and homelessness in America.

The Causes of Homelessness

In principle, homelessness is not a difficult problem to understand: typically, individuals and families simply find themselves unable to earn enough money to pay for all of the needs of ordinary life. Almost nobody becomes homeless overnight except for those whose homes are destroyed in severe weather events such as floods and hurricanes in circumstances where they do not have the benefit of insurance to reimburse them for their loss and enable them to repair their homes or find new homes. Usually, homelessness is the last step of a much more gradual process of quality-of-life reduction caused by economic hardship (Toporek, Gerstein, Fouad, et al., 2006).

In many cases, people who lose their jobs or other sources of income gradually reduce their expenditures more and more until all that is left is food expenses and their rent or mortgage payments. By that time, continued inability to earn enough money to support their necessary expenses develops into homelessness as soon as landlords evict them for nonpayment of rent or lending institutions begin foreclosure proceedings on their homes. Unfortunately, many people do not seek out help until that stage, largely because they are simply unaware of what resources may be available to them. Sometimes, people who have never before required any form of public assistance are too proud or ashamed to take advantage of available resources to help them avoid homelessness.

Mental illness is another contributing factor to homelessness in America (Markowitz, 2006; Rush & Koegl, 2008), partly because those suffering from mental illness sometimes lack any effective support networks and cannot maintain long-term gainful employment. Many mentally ill individuals do not receive the necessary medical care and treatment for their conditions and those who are not eligible for government assistance may be unable to afford the cost of their medications (Markowitz, 2006). Once on the streets, they are even more susceptible to the many dangers of living outside and they are even less likely to receive the necessary treatment for their conditions.

Naturally, the current high rate of unemployment and the tremendous numbers of individuals and families who have lost their homes since the 2008 collapse of the housing market have increased the problem of homelessness in America. That is because so many families assumed "sub-prime" mortgage debts that they did not understand or because they assumed that value of their homes would continue to increase indefinitely and they borrowed money for living expenses using the equity in their homes as collateral for those loans. When the housing market crashed, they were left with debts that they could not afford to repay, no possible way of refinancing again, and mortgage obligations that now greatly exceeded the actual value of their homes.

Homelessness is also partly the result of a very skewed economic system that is the basis of the current protests across the nation. For the last several decades, the top income earners have continually increased their wealth while those in the middle classes and below have hardly increased their wealth and income potential at all during the same time period. To make matters worse, the wealthiest industries in the financial sector earned their profits on the backs of those who are less fortunate, such as by inventing and trading the securitized junk mortgage bonds that first inflated the housing market artificially and then destroyed it. Meanwhile, many of the stable manufacturing jobs that had been the backbone of middle-class America since the end of World War II have disappeared because they have been replaced by automatic processes or because employing business organizations have decided to outsource those types of jobs to foreign countries where the cost of labor is much cheaper. As a result, the middle class has shrunk considerably while the numbers of those living in poverty and in near-poverty conditions continues to grow. In fact, many homeless people are actually employed but in jobs that pay too little for them to afford permanent shelter; they are known as the "working poor" and often sleep in homeless shelters at night and work at minimum-wage jobs during the day (Carey, 2007).

The ever-increasing cost of health care is another problem that is a significant contributor to the homelessness problem. In the U.S., medical bills are one of the most common reasons that people slip into bankruptcy and poverty conditions for the first time (Grogan & Gusmano, 2007; Wronka, 2008). Health insurance companies have been free to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and even to drop coverage for some patients who were covered when they first contracted a major illness. At the same time, the dominance of the American health care by private for-profit health insurance companies has directly caused the inflated cost of health care services. Today, it is virtually impossible, even for working middle-class families to hope to afford the cost of major illnesses if they have to pay for their costs directly without private health insurance or public program reimbursement (Wronka, 2008).

Solutions

Public Institutions

The most obvious necessary change to reduce homelessness in the broadest sense and in the long-term would be to resolve some of the systemic problems in American society such as those currently at the heart of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. In principle, that will require addressing the fact that large and well-financed sectors (such as banks, financial industries, and health care organizations) have enjoyed the freedom to "lobby" legislators in Washington for decisions that are favorable to their businesses and profit margins while at the same time, ensuring that much of that profit is at the expense of the middle class and the poor who lack the same clout and access to their political representatives in any real sense. A minority of elected public officials have been very vocal about this problem, but unfortunately, they are still substantially outnumbered by their colleagues who clearly have no interest or intention in changing the status quo in that regard.

Existing public agencies and administrators of public assistance programs could help reduce the problem of homelessness by devoting more resources to publicizing and making their programs as available as possible so that individuals and families living at or near the poverty level in danger of losing their homes receive the maximum assistance for which they are eligible before their financial problems become unmanageable. That would include public school systems because homeless children are at a much greater risk of dropping out of school and of numerous other serious problems in childhood and adolescence than their counterparts who are not homeless. While school systems may not necessarily be able to prevent homelessness or assist families recover financially, they are in position to help ensure that homelessness does not become more damaging to students than it has to be.

Private Organizational and Citizen Responses

Businesses

Many private businesses maintain active community service and volunteer programs to give back to their communities. One example is the venture sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) that coordinates the free ("pro-bono") work of local lawyers with the needs of homeless individuals. Typically, people who are homeless need… [END OF PREVIEW]

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