Homelessness is a serious problem, especially in the fastest –growing segment of those living in shelters and the streets. Everyone know that the population of homeless people has grown continuously in recent years; estimate ranges from several hundred thousand to several million people.
Calling these people “homeless” leaves them without a face. They typically lack such resources as childcare, social skills, work experience, and savings. Many of the homeless have background of mental hospitalization, abuse as children and adults, and problems with drugs and alcohol. Some researchers believed that alcoholic intoxication provides more than just a means of running out on the self (Steele and Josephs, 1990). By causing people to lose touch with reality and shed their inhibitions, it also evoke a state of “drunken self-inflation” in one study, for example, subjects rated their actual and ideal selves on various traits-some important to self esteem, others not important. After drinking either 80-proof vodka cocktail or a harmless placebo, subjects re-rated themselves on the same traits. As measured by the perceived discrepancy between actual and ideal selves, subjects who were drinking expressed inflated views of themselves on traits they considered important (Banaji and Steele, 1989). Alcoholism and drugs abuse may serve escapist function for people who (1) realize they are falling short of personal standards, (2) accept the blame for failure, (3) focus too much attention on the self, (4) experience negative affect, such as depression, (5) think in rigid short-sighted terms to cope mentally with the anguish, and thus (6) shed the inhibition that would normally prevent them from harming themselves.
Self-handicapping refers to actions people take to handicap their own performance in order to build an excuse for anticipated failure. People differ in the extent to which they use self-handicapping as a defense, and there are different ways to do so. One of the most common ways for men to use handicapping is taking alcohol and drugs (Higgins and Harris, 1988).
These deprived backgrounds produce a host of physical and mental illnesses that leave them weakened and vulnerable to losing their homes. Once homeless, they suffer new psychological traumas in the form of street violence and abuse as well as the harshness of shelter life. Communal sleeping arrangements, overcrowding, lack of privacy, exposure to the weather, and dangers in the streets all contribute to poor mental and physical health. Children face malnutrition, depression, increased risk for HIV and other infections, stunted development, and academic underachievement (Rafferty and Shinn, 1991).
Homelessness is one of the great social tragedies of our time. Nobody knows for sure how many people are homeless today in the United States. However, most surveys estimate that on any specific night some 300,000 to 400,000 men, women and children are without a home (Jencks, 1994). Number of homeless people is sufficient to populate a medium sized city. In one of the richest countries on earth, people sleep on street, carry their belongings in grocery carts, and rummage through piles of garbage to find food.
Now compare American homelessness with an anthropologist’s account of life among the Moose in West Africa:
“Moose welcome anyone who wishes to join the community and move into the village. New arrivals have only to say where they wish to build their homes, and the user of the land in question gives it up for the newcomer’s residence. I experienced this myself when I moved into the village and arranged to build huts and a living compound for my family: no one expected any compensation, and indeed, we were gradually assimilated into the family of our hosts… Water is even scarcer than land…. Each of the two years that I lived there, the well ran dry and villagers had to walk miles to get water for themselves and their stock from other villages, carrying it home on their heads. Each of these other villages shared their water until their wells were nearly dry, without expecting any reciprocation for the water. Even in these circumstances, any stranger who comes into the village may ask for a drink, and any visitor is offered water” (Fiske, 1991, pp.190-191).
Among some of the poorest people on earth, no one goes without shelter, or remains thirsty as long as anyone has water to drink.
How can we account for the extraordinary difference between American homelessness and Moose hospitality? Homelessness is, of course, a complex phenomenon affected by many specific economic and political factors. But it may also be a symptom of a profound loss of social connection in American society.
In many metropolitan areas, blacks are moving to the suburbs at rates equal to or greater than those of whites. Minorities still find themselves in segregated neighborhoods, however. Hispanics in the Northeast are likely to be concentrated in isolated pockets of poverty, as are blacks outside the West (Massey and Eggers, 1990). Most homeless and poor people in the United States are white, but minority groups have disproportionately high rates. Homelessness rate of African American and Hispanics is triple than the white Americans. Homelessness and income of the people vary among regions in the United States, and that it hits hardest in inner cities and rural areas.
It is very easy to blame homeless people themselves. Description of lower-class life is replete with examples of laziness and irresponsibility. The images that come into focus reveal women bearing children casually and indiscriminantly, men eschewing family responsibilities for the cheap thrills of street. Although poverty has been usually seen as a symptom of lack of motivation and skill, homeless may get more sympathy (Lee, Lewis and Jones, 1992). The crushing social forces that create the homelessness often blame the homeless people for their poor state because most Americans primarily identify characteristics of the poor themselves: lack of thrift, effort, ability, and morals. This is a wrong concept altogether. There are several factors, which caused the poverty and homelessness among the people. As we are discussing the homelessness of mentally ill or alcoholic people, some factors of homelessness of these people are as following:
Causes of Homelessness
- Low income or poverty: America’s problem with poverty is complicated by relative deprivation, an insufficient income to afford what others have. Because people tend to compare their plight to others, they can feel deprive even if their income level is well above the poverty line of absolute poverty as long as they lack the luxuries possessed by those around them. Mentally ill or alcoholic people are usually homeless because they have no or very little income support. They do not have the social support of friends or family on whom they could depend
- Stigma and Discrimination: Mentally ill and alcoholics often face discrimination from the society. Their illness or drug abuse locks them into increasingly unpleasant social interactions. Such individuals tend to reject other people, perhaps because they fear being rejected themselves. They are withdrawn and ineffective in social interactions, perhaps because they perceive negative reactions even where there are none. Whenever any organization planned to build or renovate houses for mentally ill people, whole neighborhood protest against it
- Laws: legal laws of different towns sometimes prohibited such homeless persons to achieve a home. In West Heaven, Seven men were not given permission to establish a drug and alcohol recovery residence because, according to the law, not more than three unrelated people live in a same house
Some Successful Housing Programs
Although life is not easy for such homeless persons, who are either having any mental illness or having problems with drugs and alcohol, but still there are several programs for rehabilitation for such persons. Following are some of such programs.
Mental Health Association housing program in North Carolina (Raleigh, N.C.)
Mental Health Association running a housing project for people having mental illness in North Carolina since 1985 (National Mental Health Association). Mental Health Association has developed more than 15,000 residential units including, single family homes, apartment complex, duplex houses, individual apartments etc.
Shelter Plus Care
This program provides rental assistance with social service support to the people, who are mentally ill, having any disability or drug and alcohol problems. This program provides the grant for up to five years and provides housing assistance for:
- Tenant based rental Assistance: it is a contract with the mentally ill tenant directly
- Project Based Rental Assistance: it is a contract with the owner of the building
- Sponsor Based Rental Assistance: it is a contract with a non-profit organization
- Single Room Occupancy Based Rental Assistance: it contracts with public housing authority
Although support services also provided in this program, but funding for support services will be required from sources other than Shelter Plus Care. These support services must be either equal or more than the amount provided by United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for rental assistance.
Supportive Housing Program
This program provides home and support services to homeless people. Funds in this program available, for such people who are physically or mentally disable, for up to three years. Support services like operative cost of supportive housing, rehabilitation also provided through this program.
Section 811 Supportive Housing
This program provides home rental opportunities to disable and low income people. It provides interest free loans to such non-profit organizations, which develop housing projects with support services to these people. The amount provided through this program remains interest free for at least forty years. Rental assistance will also be provided to residents with the help of this program. Residents only pay 30 percent of their gross pay as rent while Section 811 pays the remaining balance.
Community Development Block Grant Program
It is a grant divided between states and towns to provide affordable housing services to all such people, who could not afford it themselves. This grant will be provided for one to three years.
Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME)
This program provides funds to States and local governments for constructing, and buying houses for people who could not afford it. It is the largest program of Federal government for rehabilitation, which grants $1 billion per year to States and local government for this purpose. This program requires 25 percent payment from the recipients while HOME program pays the remaining 75 percent.
HUD-VA Supported Housing Program (HUD-VASH)
This program is funded by United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This program provides permanent housing opportunities to the people, who are mentally ill, having Drugs and alcohol problems or veterans. HUD under its section 8 Voucher program provides $44.5 million for this program while VA provides clinical care for these people.
Integrated Services for Homeless Adults with Serious Mental Illness Program
This program is managed by the State of California. This program provides funds for housing development, and for other housing costs (Foster and Snowdon, 2003).
Multi-Family Finance Program
Funding for rehabilitation, acquisition, construction of new houses etc is provided through this program to the homeless people who cannot afford it.
Hazards of homelessness need a more effective strategy to deal with. For example, solution along this line include creating an economy that guarantees employment at livable wages, provide healthcare for all, and has tax policies to transfer wealth to the poor instead of the well-to-do. The current welfare system includes medical care for the poor, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income for disabled and elderly, and aid to families with dependent children. Few people admire this system but they do not provide clear direction for reform. Some researchers believed that although it provides food and shelter to the poor, but also creates dependency and robs in recipients of their dignity and incentive (Murray, 1984).
Government has increased its efforts to cope with the problem of homelessness. It’s policies in the whole decade of 1990s based on two major themes (1) improvement of such Federal Government funded programs which deals with the requirements of poor and (2) start new and expand existing programs to provide shelter for all the homeless people.
Most recent political responses to the homelessness problem have taken either of two approaches. One advocates changing the opportunity structure by providing low-cost housing, better wages and more jobs to the people who are either mentally ill or having alcohol problems. Otherwise, these people cannot cope with the strained economy and harsh job market. Critics reply that many of such people have no interest in taking advantage of an invigorated economy or new job slots, and that they need motivation rather than merely opportunity.
The second tack focuses on building incentives into the current welfare system. Proponents of this view argued that government welfare policies today do not reward people for holding down jobs and maintaining families. Instead, they say, the present system produces dependency. Cutting public assistance spending, offers one way to get poor and disable people back into the labor market.
Clearly homelessness is not caused only by the personal inadequacies of mentally ill and alcoholic people or external conditions beyond one’s control. It results from a complex interaction between the individual and social forces. Society cannot be changed without influencing the individuals who compromise it, and changing individuals requires that we alter the social environment that shapes them. Eliminating the problem of homelessness will require a comprehensive, perhaps even a revolutionary, approach.