The Homeless

I know that a significant percentage of United States citizens live below the poverty line, but I was wondering how many of them are actually homeless?

Furthermore, what reasons are there that a person would have to be remain homeless? Is it usually some sort of mental illness, or are there statistically many perfectly sane homeless people (I suspect, obviously, that there are)?

Finally, does anyone know what the average life expectancy for a homeless person is? They get somewhat decent medical care, at least, right?

OK, thanks to anyone who feels like helping out this upper-class white boy.

Research paper, eh?

This site should be able to answer most of your questions. There are also a few links on that site about homelessness which may be of some help.

Actually, no, just interested. Good idea though. Thanks for the link. Now if only I could get this quote thing to work…

McStain, just curious. WHY are you interested? And as far as decent medical care, hell, the non-homeless don’t even get that with those HMO problems in the news. I don’t know stats, but there are many homeless Viet Nam conflict vets. Very sad.

I don’t really have a particularly pressing reason. I moved to New York City from Dallas about two months ago, and the homeless are obviously much more of a presence here. In spite of the fact that I’m in a rather affluent part of town, they’re unavoidable once you leave the gates of the university. I’ve had brief conversations with a couple of them, but it’s hard to know, coming from the rather affluent situation that I was in, what to believe.

Basically, it bothers me passing by a homeless person and not giving him my spare change, but there’s so many that, being a college student, I obviously can’t help all of them. In addition, I know that a significant portion of them will use my money for alcohol or drugs.

So, I was sort of looking to inform myself on their situation, so that, at least initially, I’d some sort of understanding of what they’re going through, how to respond to them. That’s pretty much it.

P.S. I would have put this in my last message, but I couldn’t get the edit message thing to work. But I wanted to thank Gaspode, whether he had noticed it or not, for being a thoroughly hospitable, welcoming member of the message board, for a sensitive teenager like myself.

There have been heated debates in GD about this; some people claim that they want to remain homeless, but I don’t agree; certainly here in the UK, it seems to be because of a vicious circle:
[li]Homeless? - you can’t work here! go get yourself a ‘fixed abode’ first.[/li][li]Unemployed? - you can’t live here! - go get yourself a job first.[/li]
Various relief agencies exist here to help people break out of the cycle.

For some odd reason the number of homeless in the streets of London increased significantly when Margret Thatcher was PM.

I once read an article that claimed, during Republican administrations, we tend to hear a lot more about the (so called) homeless here in the U.S. By contrast, we hear very little about them when the Democrats are in power.

Why are there homeless? Sociologists have produced countless articles full of PC rhetoric that claim to explain “why,” but the bottom line is that a vast majority of them suffer from drug addiction an/or mental illness.

According to the US Census the 2000 census counted 280,527 homeless people in the US.
There is an article about it here:
(link requires registration)

That seems to be consistent with what I see. The term homeless drives me nuts. Is that really their only problem? If they had a home would they stop drinking, kick drugs, or become sane? Could they/would they hold down a job?

In the old days we used the term wino. That was before we deinstitutionalized so many of the mentally ill, and before drug addiction was such a scourge.

It would seem more helpful to refer to the them as substance abusers, mentally ill, or mentally ill substance abusers. The true homeless, those who lost their job and couldn’t pay rent, are probably a pretty small number. We should be able to help them with things like micro-loans to pay first and last months rent and get a decent set of clothes.

Not sure what to do about the mentally ill. Many of them are treatable with medicine, but schizophrenics often are paranoid and refuse to take it. We used to put people like that in institutions. In the mid-60s a strange coalition of right-ring budget cutters and left-wing patient rights advocates resulted in the mentally ill being released from institutions in droves. Not sure why sleeping in a doorway and dumpster-diving for food is supposed to be better than being in a mental hospital.

Where I live the services for the homeless are right in the middle of down-town in some of the most potentially valuable land. This creates a seedy area with high-crime and low property values. Seems to make more sense to put that sort of thing out in the burbs or in the country. Maybe we should bring back “work farms”. Provide a dormitory and some entry-level jobs.

I could rant for pages, I’ll stop now.

Part of the difficulty in answering a question about how many people are homeless in the U.S. is defining “homeless.” Do we mean people literally living in the streets? What about squatters in empty/condemned property? Or those living out of a car? Or those who have moved in with their parents, family or friends? In many towns, especially small, rural ones, officials are reluctant to report their homeless population. The Census relies heavily on permanent addresses to locate survey takers, so the homeless aren’t, generally, counting themselves. Moreover, the definition isn’t clear, so the total numbers are very soft and often based on conjecture.

As for why one might remain homeless, I’ll give an example I used in a thread about Welfare. Let’s say you’re the head of a family out in, I don’t know, Boondocks, Iowa. You aren’t educated past high school, if that. You don’t have any particular skills. Now you have no home. How do you obtain job skills? Where in your town can you get training? And let’s say you do get training-- why should anyone hire you? How do you make a good impression at an interview when new clothes and in some cases basic hygiene are unavailable?

A high percentage (I’ll try to find the exact number) of welfare recipients live in rural areas, belying the ghetto stereotype. Rural America faces some unique issues that are easily overlooked. Family farms are becoming rarer and rarer, and even farm conglomerates are often operating under generations of debt. When farms go under, where do the families go? It costs a hell of a lot of money to move, even if employment is found elsewhere.

And a lot of times, the employment available just doesn’t make ends meet. A job with BP (meat packing) or Wal-Mart or Target pay minimum wage, rarely more, and full-time positions, even at mimimum wage, aren’t always available. So a person can easily be employed and still need assistance.

Since you’re in college, now is a good time for you to take a Sociology class, especially one focused on poverty. You’ll learn lots.

I’m surprised to hear the Census managed to count them!
The Census is geared towards addresses. How does a homeless person have an address? Maybe some advocate group for the homeless took this task upon themselves?

I wanted to state for the record that there is NO accounting for those unemployed ONCE thier unemployment benefits run out. YOU JUST FALL THROUGH THE CRACKS. Many homeless don’t even qualify for these benefits, so I fail to see how there can be any accounting of them. It’s hard to believe the US Government took it upon itself to count them.

The government won’t account for the forgotten unemployed because it would drag down the unemployment figure - they like to make it look as sweet as possible. (Specifically, I’m talking about the forgotten skilled people who are left without a prayer…not just those on the streets in need of an elementary education - assuming they are of sound mind.)

Just my 2% of (pre-taxed) $1…

  • Jinx

This sums up my experiences. Yes, we hear about the “guy with a run of bad luck just trying to get back on his feet”, but most people that we refer to as “homeless” (or, in our less charitable days, “bums”), seem to be in it for the long haul.

My guess is, those that are truly temporarily without a home will either use their connections to stay with family/friends, or won’t be the homeless that we come in contact with (panhandlers).

Having worked in a shelter for the homeless for a year and a half during the economic miracle that was Reaganomics, and having since worked with the homeless off and on as a legal aid attorney, I can offer a few personal impressions.

Drug and alcohol addiction is much higher among the homeless than among the general population. So too is severe mental illness.

The proportion of the homeless who are mentally ill rose in the 1960s and 1970s as a consequence of well-intentioned policies meeting bureaucratic inefficiency. There was a vogue for the theory that many mentally ill people who were in institutions would be better served by being given job placement assistance, routine follow-up examinations, etc., and by being placed in group homes or halfway houses.

Government agencies began keeping count of how many mentally ill they released from institutions. Unfortunately, they largely forgot about providing alternative treatment, which had been the whole point to reducing the institution polulations. Some of this was deliberate callousness. Some of this was simple ineptitude; having worked for the Defense Department and the IRS, I can testify that government entities have a way of treating statistics as an end in themselves without keeping sight of what they are supposed to represent.

The assertion that “the vast majority” of the homeless are mentally ill, however, is not supported by my observations, unless you count the depression and anxiety which naturally develops from being homeless as mental illness. It is probable that the percentage of homeless people who are mentally ill probably rises during good economic times; a good many people become “temporarily” homeless during an economic downturn (though that temporary period can last a year or two in a lot of cases). This helps account for the assertion that one hears more about the homeless during Republican administrations–there are more of them; Reagan and George Bush Sr. had three recessions between them. Clinton had none.

Americans often boast that they have the finest health care system in the world, but it difficult to assess what this really means when one considers how limited the access to it is for many people–and not must the homeless. For the homeless in particular the system sucks.

The homeless population is also likely to have more physical ills than the general population. Sleeping on a heating vent is not conducive to avoiding colds and flu. Skipping high blood pressure medication or insulin for months at a time doesn’t toughen you up.

A true story: one client at the shelter where I worked in downtown St. Louis was a laid off blue collar worker. The city enforces strict occupancy limits for overnight guests at shelters. One night he got to the shelter a few minutes too late and was turned away because the shelter was already full up.

He slept in a stairwell. The next morning he awoke in a pool of his own blood. Someone had kicked him in the head repeatedly during the night. Possibly it was a random attack by a mentally ill homesless person. Possibly it was just a random attack.

He got patched up. A week or two later he came by the shelter and seemed…sort of confused. He was taken to the emergency room of the city hospital. Underneath his bandages his cuts had bloated up, and they were swarming with maggots.

The Heritage Foundation, a prominent right wing think tank, issued a study a few years back purporting to prove that government assistance for the homeless was wrong because virtually all of the homeless are mentally ill and choose to live on the street because they like it. Back in the eighties this same group concluded that government programs for the handicapped were inappropriate because physical infirmities reflect a person’s “state of moral development”; i. e. they had “proven scientifically” that God makes people deformed as punishment for their sins–possibly in a past incarnation.

What everyone has said here is pretty much accurate about the plight of the homeless, but I’ll add a few things.

The majority of the homeless are mentally ill and not getting proper treatment. Schizophrenics run in a high percentage of their ranks, but depression, various psychosis, social disorders and organic brain disease exists there in great numbers. So does Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Jimmy Carter, whose wife is big on Mental Health, was president when he slashed the budgets of the Social Services so badly that he put Americas mental health system back around 100 years. Up until then, there were few street people and affordable mental health for all. Afterwards, the long term institutions had to dump any patient that might be able to survive alone on the outside because there were no longer funds to care for them.

This appalling situation has not yet been corrected because Congress tends to ignore the situation and many mental health facilities today are still under funded and struggling to survive. Now, the private sector jumped on creating great pay-as-you-go mental hospitals for those who can afford it because, interestingly enough, mental health treatment was in vogue when Carter cut the budget.

Shortly after, with the high unemployment of the times, Banks started calling in notes and throwing people on the street real fast. When this guy came up with a way for banks to make more money by offering repossessed homes to the upper class as investments and a way to make some quick money by fixing them up (you’ve seen the TV ads), the banks started throwing poverty plagued, unemployed out into the gutters even faster. After all, they could resell the homes at a profit! Then the well to do jumped right on the band wagon and started buying the places and making money.

Great for everyone but the original owners who were forced to live out of their cars.

People who choose deliberately to live in the streets run from mentally ill to adaptable. There are those who have made illegal homes in places like subway walls, have access to ‘free’ power, have scavenged discarded furniture and live for free in relative comfort. (A documentary was done on such a group, who dug rooms out of the dirt in a subway and had even set up a common kitchen with tables and chairs.) Some only need to go out and beg for a few hours to get enough money for their simple needs. Some even have low paying jobs or work around, but do not make enough money to afford even the meanest of rooms.

Out of 100% of the homeless, roughly 5% enjoy being homeless and are not mentally ill.

Most shelters for the homeless are not nice places, because they are usually poorly staffed and the strongest prey on the weakest. Homeless folks have told me on several occasions that they prefer to sleep outside where it is safer than in the local homeless shelter. People have been stabbed or beaten up just for their shoes. Government food handouts, once a month, give out anywhere from $8 to $15 worth of food. Not much, often generic, and frequently high on pasta and dried beans – and, interestingly, green beans and canned pears. Many cities do not even contribute funds to shelters, which provide hot meals, assistance and bad weather shelter for the homeless.

In some places, when the homeless find and take over an abandoned house or building, the local authorities throw them out, but they usually return, so the local government destroys the building. In one city, in a big stretch of wild woods by a rail road, a big homeless camp existed for years, until one guy, who was a criminal, raped a little girl. He was caught and jailed, but in revenge, the city wiped out the homeless camp, cleared the woods and started making sure no one lived there anymore.

All that because one scumbag committed a terrible crime. Then, everyone had to suffer because the mayor wanted to look good.

In many places, even the working homeless, getting minimum wage, cannot afford the enormous fees to get a house or apartment. With first, last, security, and utilities turnons, it can cost over $2000 just to get into a place with affordable monthly rent.

Most housing projects for the homeless concentrate on families or single mothers with children. Single guys are left to rot on the streets, along with single women.

There is no age limit among the homeless because they range from real young to real old and face the uncaring public equally.

There is no real need for us to have such a high homeless problem, but no one is willing to return the mental health budget to where it was, even though the government spends billions on much less deserving projects each year.