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.