Homelessness Causes

“Being homeless is often defined as sleeping on the streets. Although this
is the most visible and severe form of homelessness, there are many other types
of acute housing need. These include living in temporary accommodation, poor or
overcrowded conditions, or being in mortgage arrears and under threat of
re-possession.” (Hope 1986) It is a symptom of many complex problems:
mental illness, emotional instability, illiteracy, chronic substance abuse,
unemployment, and, most basic of all, breakdown of the family structure. Anyone
can become homeless and the reasons that force people into homelessness are many
and varied. The leading cause, however, of homelessness in the United States is
the inability of poor people to afford housing. “Housing costs have risen
significantly over the last decade, while the incomes of poor and middle-class
Americans have stagnated.” (Erickson 1991) The millions of Americans who
are unemployed or work in low-paying jobs are among the most vulnerable to
becoming homeless. Therefore, homelessness, housing and income are inextricably
linked. Low-income people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food,
child-care, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when
limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing,
which takes a high proportion of income that must be dropped. Two major sources
of income are from employment and public assistance. A decrease in either one of
them would certainly put poor people at risk of homelessness. Additionally,
minimum wage earnings no longer lift families above the poverty line. “More
than 3 million poor Americans spend more than half of their total income on
housing, yet the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates families
should spend no more than 30%.” (Gilbert 1993) Although many homeless
adults are employed, they work in day-labor jobs that do not meet basic needs,
while technological acceleration excludes others from a competitive job market.


Many factors have contributed to declining work opportunities for large segments
of the workforce, including the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs. The
decline in relatively secure and well-paying jobs in manufacturing, which have
been replaced by less secure and poorly-paid jobs in the service sector, has
greatly limited the opportunities for poorly-educated and low-skilled segments
of the population. This transformation has led to an unprecedented incidence of
chronic unemployment and underemployment. (Hardin 1996) “Underemployment is
an especially useful measure of the decline in secure jobs since, unlike the
unemployment rate, measures of underemployment reflect not only individuals who
are unemployed, but also involuntary part-timers and those who have given up
seeking work.” (Hardin 1996) In addition to increasing underemployment,
“an estimated 29.4% of the workforce are employed in nonstandard work
arrangements” (Economic Policy Institute, 1997) — for example, independent
contracting, working for a temporary help agency, day labor, and regular
part-time employment. These kinds of work arrangements typically offer lower
wages, fewer benefits, and less job security. “As recently as 1967, a
year-round worker earning the minimum wage was paid enough to raise a family of
three above the poverty line” (Sklar, 1995). From 1981-1990, however,
“the minimum wage was frozen at $3.35 an hour, while the cost of living
increased 48% over the same period. Congress raised the minimum wage to $5.15
per hour in 1996. This increase made up only slightly more than half of the
ground lost to inflation in the 1980s” (Shapiro, 1995b). Thus, full-time
year-round minimum-wage earnings currently not equal to the estimated poverty
line for a family of three. Unsurprisingly, the decline in the value of the
minimum wage has been accompanied by an increase in the number of people earning
poverty-level wages and the declining wages have put housing out of reach for
many workers: in every state. Slashed public assistance has also left many
people homeless or at risk of homelessness. “Replacement of the Aid to
Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement program– a program that was
already inadequate in meeting the needs of families — with the non-entitlement
block rant program will significantly increased the risk of homelessness for
many Americans.” (Foscarinas 1996) Furthermore, earned income and asset
limitations discourage individuals and families from breaking the cycle of
homelessness and extreme poverty. Several states have terminated or reduced
public assistance and food stamps for individuals, while “Social Security
Income (SSI) is inadequate — and sometimes impossible to obtain — for disabled
individuals.” (Foscarinas 1996) As a result, the number of poor Americans
is growing and the poor are getting poorer. Across America, there has been a
substantial decline in the number of housing units that low-income people and
those in need of shelter assistance can afford. Those losses have resulted
primarily from downtown urban renewal, gentrification, abandonment, and suburban
land use controls. The elimination and reduction of federal low income housing
programs has also dramatically reduced the supply of affordable shelter.

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Moreover, construction of low income and assisted housing has essentially
stopped (Newsweek 1984). Due to the increased demand and diminished supply of
housing or shelter, the problem of homelessness is further deteriorated. The
amount of housing available in the private sector rental stock is diminishing
rapidly. As more and more landlords abandon apartment buildings and houses
rather than repair them, the housing supply for the poor has declined at an
accelerating pace in some cities in the nation (Donwall 1985). The growth of
service-sector employment in central business districts has attracted
white-collar professionals, many of whom prefer to live in accessible central
city neighborhoods, where they compete with poor, indigenous residents for
private market housing (Noyelle 1983). The result is frequently gentrification
of inner city housing which traditionally has been the major source of low-
income housing. At the same time, downtown service sector expansion has created
jobs for many low-waged workers, which increases the demand for low cost shelter
readily accessible to the downtown. It makes the homeless in downtown even
harder to rent a place to live. Downtown development also diminishes the supply
of low-income housing for poor people. As the City raises more new office
towers, the vacancy for housing is getting less. In Seattle, for instance,
office space in downtown grew from 13 million square feet in 1981 to about 24
million square feet in 1990. On the other hand, the downtown low-income housing
stock declined from about 11,000 units in 1980 to less than 6,000 units in 1987.

“With the passage of the new housing levy, the City will try to regain some
low income units, but today low-income units vanish faster than they can be
built.” (Arcade 1987) and there is still a shortage in housing supply in
downtown areas. Besides, the qualities of temporary shelters for homeless people
are terrible that they think staying on streets is a better choice. “Not
only have the lost bed-spaces not been made up, but the new hostels are not as
readily accessible to the homeless coming directly off the street. They tend to
cater for special needs groups and access tends to be through referral”
(Housing Review 1988). Planners can play an important role in the search for
solutions to homelessness. And homelessness is an extensive, complex process.


Different kinds of intervention are needed to deal with the problem. But the
most widely accepted approach is a three-tier system, “beginning with
emergency shelters and moving through transitional accommodations to long-term
housing” (Urban Land 1986). Rehabilitation of old buildings by minimal
funding are common projects to provide shelters for the homeless people.


However, some observers suggests that making “the renovation of buildings
for low-income housing attractive, that is, profitable, for developers or
investors” (Urban Land 1986) can be the solution to the homeless problem.


Our examination makes it clear that piecemeal intervention can alleviate
emergency shelter crises, but such action will not resolve the long-term problem
of finding permanent shelter for the homeless and returning them to the
mainstream of society wherever possible, which we regard as the ultimate goal of
intervention. Equally obvious is that while long-term intervention strategies
are vital, they do not address the problems of survival for those presently
without shelter and support. We conclude that both long-term and short-term
measures are necessary, but that all the solutions should be based on
integrated, comprehensive understanding of the homelessness problem. Only such a
comprehensive approach will allow planners to develop workable strategies with
any chance for success.


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