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Homelessness -- A Twelve Year Study by Wanda Gray

By Wanda Gray  Posted by Christopher Rice (about the submitter)     Permalink
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In November 1998, I was studying for my degree to become a Social Worker. One of our assignments was to write an article on some aspect of the job we could expect to encounter. I chose the topic of homelessness since I had spent some time working with the homeless living in the Hammondville area of Pompano Beach, Florida. I updated and revised the article around 2007 and again with 2010 updates and revisions. The face of homelessness has drastically changed and alarmingly increased.

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 defines a homeless person as "one who lacks a permanent nighttime residence or whose nighttime residence is a temporary shelter, welfare hotel, or any public or private place not designed as sleeping accommodations for human beings." "The terms "homeless' and "homelessness' did not become common until the recession of 1981-82." DiNitto (1995, 45-46) quotes Ellickson, "The term "homeless' is now used to describe people in two quite different situations on a given night. First, it applies to the street homeless -- people who sleep in vehicles, parks, bus stations, and other places not designed as residences. Second, it includes the sheltered homeless -- those who obtain temporary housing either in shelters that local governments or charities operate, or in rooms that can be rented with emergency housing vouchers supplied by welfare agents."

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The education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act includes a more comprehensive definition of homelessness. This statute states that the term "homeless child and youth' (A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence" and (B) includes: (i) children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and includes children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement; (ii) children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a private or public place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings" (iii) children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings, and (iv) migratory children"who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this subtitle because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii).

Most literature and statistics of that day agree that a large portion of the homeless have either substance abuse problems or are mentally ill. DiNitto iii says, "Two groups have comprised most of the homeless population. One is alcoholics and drug addicts. "The second group is those with serious mental illness. Deinstitutionalization of people with mental health problems beginning in the 1970s, combined with the lack of community-based mental health services, adds to the number who live on the streets. But today homelessness has a third face -- [one and two-parent families] with young children. Given high housing costs, unemployment, and low-paying jobs, some families no longer have a place to call home. Spousal violence also contributes to the need to seek shelter, and some children are homeless because they have run away as a result of abuse, neglect, or other family problems. Another group of homeless young people have been released from foster care on reaching adulthood without an appropriate transition to independent living." Families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population.

The official national estimate of the homeless in 1997 was approximately 575,000 and this number was increasing in both urban and rural communities in this country. . "Early estimates ranged from a low of about 250,000 in a 1984 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to suggestions of 3 million in a 1983 report published by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. In an analysis of homelessness in America, social worker Joel Blau suggests that the best estimates come from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Using the HUD data, the alliance estimated that 735,000 people were homeless on a given day and that 1.3 to 2 million were homeless at some time during that year." Others indicate that the best available estimate probably comes from the Urban Institute's 1987 study which arrived at a figure of between 500,000 to 600,000 during a week's time, with more homeless generally found in urban areas." In 2004, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year. They found that, on a given night in October 1996, 444,000 people (in 346,000 households) experienced homelessness -- which translates to 6.3% of the population of people living in poverty. On a given night in February 1996, 842,000 (in 637,000 households) experienced homelessness -- which translates to almost 10% of the population of people living in poverty. Converting these estimates into an annual projection, the numbers that emerge are 2.3 million people (based on the October estimate) and 3.5 million people (based on the February estimate). This translates to approximately 1% of the U.S. population experiencing homelessness each year, 38% (October) to 39% (February) of them being children (Urban Institute 2000).

"Children are often the hidden, silent homeless. Nonetheless they constitute the largest and fastest growing segment of the homeless population."ii In 2003, children under the age of 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population; 42% of these children were under the age of five (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty,
2004). For approximately one year, I worked with the First Christian Church of Margate's "The Lord's Homeless Mission" and our focus was the homeless in the Hammondville area of Pompano Beach. My experience was that the children in that group are indeed the "hidden homeless". For many weeks we were with these people every Sunday morning. The majority of the forty or so who came for the food and clothing we distributed were males. There were approximately six females but we saw no signs of children for several months. When the group felt more comfortable with us, they brought two children one Sunday. Once we were aware that there were children involved, we began asking questions and finally learned that there were at least 11 children in this one group though we never saw more than five of them the entire time that I was there.

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The average number of children per homeless family in 1992 was two, with an average age of three years. In 1987, there was an average of one child with an average age of seven years.iv This again reflects a growth in the number of homeless children and a drop in the median age of those children.

"In 1987, the profile of a homeless family revealed ninety-two percent of heads of household was female with an average age of thirty-five years. Sixty percent of the heads of household were single and forty percent were married. Sixty-two percent were high school graduates with sixty percent having had some work experience. Twenty-three percent had a history of substance abuse. Thirty-two percent had a history of domestic violence and five percent had been in foster care as a child."ii

In 1992, this profile had changed. There were "ninety-seven percent female heads of household with an average age of twenty-two years. Eighty-seven percent were single and only thirty-seven percent had a high school degree. Past work experience dropped to forty percent while substance abuse rose to seventy-one percent and a history of domestic violence rose to forty-three percent. Twenty percent had been in foster care as a child. Almost forty-five percent had never lived in their own apartment". the homeless family population was growing at a rate faster than that of the homeless single population."

ii

"The rate of poverty for the working poor is driving people into homelessness. "It's going to rise because poverty is rising," Linda McKameyey, executive director of Catholic Charities said Those surveyed range from 17 to 85, and the majority were white and non-Hispanic single males, average age 46, with 72 percent having a high school education or more. Nearly half, 49.7 percent, reported mental illness or substance abuse. Their top two reasons for being on the streets: Unemployment and inability to pay rent. Other reasons given include having been incarcerated, having a disability or addiction and domestic violence in their families. Children were 17 percent of the count, mostly male. " About one third of those surveyed are currently employed yet can't afford a place to live."

Media reports of a growing economy and low unemployment mask a number of important reasons why homelessness persists, and, in some areas of the country, is worsening. These reasons include stagnant or falling incomes and less secure jobs which offer fewer benefits.

While the last few years have seen growth in real wages at all levels, these increases have not been enough to counteract a long pattern of stagnant and declining wages. Low-wage workers have been particularly hard hit by wage trends and have been left behind as the disparity between rich and poor has mushroomed. To compound the problem, the real value of the minimum wage in 2004 was 26% less than in 1979 (The Economic Policy Institute, 2005). Although incomes appear to be rising, this growth is largely due to more hours worked -- which in turn can be attributed to welfare reform and the tight labor markets. Factors contributing to wage declines include a steep drop in the number and bargaining power of unionized workers; erosion in the value of the minimum wage; a decline in manufacturing jobs and the corresponding expansion of lower-paying service-sector employment; globalization; and increased nonstandard work, such as temporary and part-time employment (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999).

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Each state, county, and city addresses the problem of homelessness on their own level. One major federal legislation is the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 that provides money for emergency shelters, rehabilitation of single room occupancy dwellings, nutrition assistance, health and mental health care, job training, education for homeless children, and other social services for homeless people.iii

Most social work literature agrees that homelessness is mostly the result of lack of affordable housing, higher unemployment, and lack of education. DiNitto states that, "Although there are different views of homelessness, perhaps there is more agreement that the United States has a serious shortage of affordable housing. The largest item in most household budgets is housing. Whether in the form of the monthly rent or mortgage payment, housing consumes an increasing portion of the personal budget. As far back as the Housing Act of 1949, Congress acknowledged the need for a "decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.' After years of increasing rates of home ownership, it has become more difficult for many Americans to realize the "American dream' -- owning a home. It is also increasingly difficult to pay the rent. A 1992 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that many low-income households are paying half their income for rent and that in thirty-nine of forty-four metropolitan areas studied, housing exceeded the entire grant received by AFDC families."

Senator Gorton (R-WA) offered a floor amendment to the Senate version of Labor-HHS Education FY98 appropriations bill, S. 1061. The Gorton amendment would eliminate the McKinney Education of Homeless Children and Youth by consolidating most K-12 education programs into a large block grant that would go directly to local education agencies with no requirements or restrictions on how funds are to be spent. The House Labor-HHS Education FY98 Appropriations bill, H.R. 2264, does not contain such a provision so would support the McKinney Education of Homeless Children and Youth and would increase the program funding by $2,000,000.00. Both bills provide $826,000,000.00 for the Consolidate Health Centers. The House bill would increase funding to Projects of Assistance in Transition from Homelessness by $3,000,000.00 while the Senate bill would increase it by only $2,000,000.00. The Senate bill increases funding to the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project by only $2,500,000.00 but the House bill would increase it by $5,000,000.00. Neither bill would provide funding for the Adult Education for the Homeless Program nor incremental Section 8 vouchers. Both bills provide $823,000,000.00 for HUD Homeless Assistance Programs and $100,000,000.00 for FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program. v This disagreement between House and Senate continues with every bill introduced every year no matter the subject or content. It is not what the people want or really need. It is, "I know what is best for the people and you don't."

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