THE NEW HEOMELSS: Rockefeller Foundation Research FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 30 Dec 1997 18:41:47 -0800 (PST)

FWD from <>
~ Rockefeller Foundation / Research Briefs on Poverty ~


Many of the new homeless are products of rising unemployment, racial
discrimination, a lack of affordable housing, and a public welfare
system that neglects poor, unattached men and women.

Key findings:

Since 1970, the homeless population has become younger and included
more women, children, and blacks.  A shrinking pool of affordable
housing, increasing unemployment among young men, and an erosion of the
public safety net have led to rising homelessness.

Key numbers:

The average income of a homeless person is less than one-third of what
it was in the late 1950s.  Estimates for the number of homeless vary
from 250,000 to 2 or 3 million nationwide.

Key policy implication:

The U.S. social welfare system is failing to prevent destitution and
homelessness, even though there is considerable public support for a
system that guarantees a minimum standard of living for all.

Homelessness has waxed and waned throughout U.S. history. But it took
on new forms in the 1970s. Today, homeless people are much more likely
than in the past to live on the streets and in other public places,
because of the shrinking pool of inexpensive housing and a relaxation
of vagrancy laws. They are also poorer. The estimated median income of
a homeless person is less than a third of what it was in the late

The faces of the homeless have also changed. First, whereas the
homeless once were predominantly white (70 to 80 percent in New York
and Chicago), the majority today are minorities.  Second, studies of
the homeless from the 1960s indicate that the proportions of women were
very small---for example, 3 percent on Chicago's Skid Row. In contrast,
studies from the 1980s found that women constituted 21 percent, on
average, of the homeless population. Third, homeless people are much
younger today. Their median age has dropped from around 50 years in the
late 1950s to about 35 years today. Estimates in Chicago indicate that
10 percent of the homeless are children.

Contrasts between extremely poor individuals who are homeless and those
who are not reveal that individuals who have chronic mental illness,
severe alcoholism, or criminal records have high risks of becoming
homeless. These conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, for
individuals to find and secure employment of any kind. And they make it
difficult for family members and friends to provide shelter and
support. A study of the homeless population in Chicago reveals that a
third of the homeless report that they have spent some time in a drug
or alcohol detoxification unit, and about a fourth have been
hospitalized at least once in a psychiatric institution.

Homeless persons generally have few contacts with friends and
relatives. But only a third of those interviewed in Chicago had no
contact with any relatives and fewer than a fourth had no contacts with
any family or friends.

How many people are homeless? Estimates have ranged from 250,000 to 2
or 3 million nationwide. Driving this wide variation is a lack of
consensus among government bureaus, academic researchers, and advocates
for the homeless who disagree not only over the best methods for
measuring the homeless population but also over the very definition of
homelessness. Some observers restrict their definition of homelessness
to those who do not rent or own a conventional dwelling. But broader
definitions include individuals who live in inadequate housing, double
up with others, lodge in basements or abandoned units, or are
temporarily housed in hospitals or other institutions.

Regardless of the definition used, there is little doubt that the
homeless population has grown since the 1970s. There are visible
indications in the growing number of people living on streets and in
public places. In addition, the demand for spaces in shelters and
welfare hotels has increased severalfold in large cities like New York
and Chicago.

The shrinking pool of affordable housing has contributed substantially
to the growing rate of homelessness. The proportion of housing renting
for 40 percent or less of the poverty-level income declined by 12
percent in Baltimore from 1978 to 1983, by 40 percent in Washington DC
from 1977 to 1981, and by 58 percent in Anaheim, California during the
same period. Nearly all the cheap, cubicle hotels in large cities were
demolished during the 1960s and 1970s. And single-room occupancy hotels
are following a similar fate in such cities as Los Angeles and Chicago.
Only emergency shelters have replaced the housing stock---albeit shabby
and inadequate---that these buildings represented.

The declining demand for unskilled labor and dramatic increase in the
unemployment of young men---particularly young black men---from 1955 to
1985 have also contributed to increased homelessness. From 1968 to
1986, the average earnings of young male workers declined by 20
percent. Young women have experienced less of an increase in
unemployment and decrease in earnings. But they have felt some of the
indirect effects of these trends. For example, the so-called
feminization of poverty is associated in part with a shrinking pool of
marriageable men. Nearly all the homeless heads of households that
appear in studies of homeless populations are single mothers waiting to
qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Another factor contributing to homelessness has been the erosion of the
public safety net for the nation's poor. The importance of income
support programs in alleviating extreme poverty and home-lessness is
evident in the success of the Social Security program. This program has
virtually wiped out extreme poverty and homelessness among the elderly.
But although Social Security payments for the elderly have maintained a
constant value, the government support programs that cover people below
retirement age have deteriorated severely (chart 1). For example, the
value of AFDC payments dropped by 37 percent nationally from 1968 to
1985.  General Assistance payments also declined during the same
period---by 47 percent in Illinois.

Several policies would help reduce the current, unacceptable levels of

A housing policy that preserves and enlarges the low-income housing
stock.  A welfare policy that restores the value of welfare payments to
their 1968 levels and extends them to unattached adults.  A health
policy that enlarges the definition of disability to include chronic
mental illness and reverses the policy that deinstitutionalizes persons
whose disabilities endanger their physical well-being.  A public works
policy that creates employment.

Public policy decisions such as those that cut spending for housing and
income support programs contributed largely to the problem of
homelessness. They also can solve it.