Homelessness has been a widespread and chronic problem in the United States for decades. The sight of people living and begging on the streets has become a familiar one in many American cities, and the struggle to help homeless individuals and families has been a frustratingly complex and persistent problem for policy makers in Congress and across the country.
A recent economic downturn has worsened the United States’ homeless problem. A recession that started in 2007 was exacerbated by a financial crisis the following year that shook the global economy and led to a rise in unemployment and a slowdown in economic growth that has yet to abate. Many families, unable to afford their rent or mortgages, have found themselves living on the streets.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its annual homeless assessment report and found that the number of homeless families in the United States had increased by about 9 percent from October 2007 to September 2008. The report also found that homelessness in rural and suburban areas had increased by 56 percent, though urban adult males constituted the largest group of homeless individuals. A HUD report released in 2010 found that the number of homeless families had jumped by 20 percent from 2007 to 2010. The homelessness rate has decreased slightly since then, but being without a home remains a threat for thousands of people living near the poverty line.
Though the economic troubles of recent years have brought attention to the newly homeless, most discussion surrounding the issue has historically concentrated on eradicating the most visible and persistent form of homelessness-people referred to as the “chronically homeless.” According to HUD, a chronically homeless person is someone who has either been homeless for a year or more or has been homeless at least four times in the last three years, and who struggles with a “disabling” physical or mental condition, often including drug or alcohol abuse. The chronically homeless tend to be the most visible segment of the homeless population, and the hardest for outreach workers to help find permanent housing.
Additionally, a significant share of the chronically homeless are veterans. As of 2013, the government estimated that there are an estimated 57,000 homeless veterans, many of whom fought in the Vietnam War (1959-75). Many of these veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that can make it difficult to hold a job or function normally in society. Rates of PTSD have been even higher for veterans of combat in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than for those in previous conflicts, and officials worry that increasingly large numbers of younger veterans could become homeless in the coming years. Thousands of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are homeless already.
One of the most prominent approaches used to address chronic homelessness is known as “housing first.” The concept, which dates back to the late 1980s, involves offering the chronically homeless free apartments, along with a staff to help manage their problems, rather than merely extending them temporary services, such as shelters and soup kitchens.
Slow Economic Growth, Aging Population Complicate Homeless Problem
Social scientists and policymakers have attempted to anticipate future developments in homelessness. Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania has noted that the chronically homeless largely consist of baby boomers-the generation of Americans born in the decades after World War II (1939-45). He predicts that as these homeless people grow older, their health problems will compound, further complicating the homeless problem.
Experts are also concerned about the more immediate future. They worry that the recent economic crisis, as well as stagnant wages and rising housing and food costs, will continue to contribute to an increase in homeless families. Lower tax revenue has led many local and state governments to slash their budgets, trimming welfare programs in the process. In the past, some policymakers have suggested that private charities and religious organizations could make up for reductions in government programs for the homeless. Many others involved in the debate, however, deride such possibilities as naive, claiming that such groups lack the vast resources necessary to alleviate the problem.
How the nation will work toward a solution to homelessness will continue to be a topic of debate.
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