Running Head: Homelessness in America: Then and Now – A Brief Insight of Being Homeless

In the 1980’s the issue of homelessness catapulted to the public’s attention and became a stark symbol of urban decay and poverty. In fact, up until the 80’s, individuals without shelter was typically denigrated as vagrants (Hanno, 2008). The shift to describing them as homeless persons signaled both a greater awareness of the problem and changed attitudes towards it. But it also reflected the fact that the homeless population burgeoned in this period. In 1984 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conservatively estimated that on any single night there were between 250,000 and 350,000 homeless people on the streets (Hannum, 2008). In fact this number was almost certainly an underestimate. At any rate, the rise of homelessness in the 80’s was indicated by figures such as the rise in the number people seeking emergency shelter in New York City from 2700 in 1981 to more than 10,000 just six years later. Indeed, as Hannum (2008) argues, this increase in the homeless population was seen in other cities in the country.
It was recognized during this period that homelessness stemmed from a number of causes, including substance abuse and mental illness. Indeed, it was estimated that one-third of the homeless abused illicit drugs and alcohol and another one-third suffered from mental illness (Hannum, 2008). In addition, in an era when the Vietnam War was recent history, a large fraction of the homeless population was veterans. In the 80’s it was also found that about half of the homeless population was made up of single men and only 10% were single women (Hannum, 2008). At the same time, there was also a larger population of families living on the streets.
One of the indirect causes of the homeless problem in America was the closure of mental institutions. Deinstitutionalization in the 1960’s and 70’s had led to the shutting of psychiatric hospitals across the country (Hannum, 2008). Indeed, the number of mental institutions plummeted from over half a million in the 50’s to fewer than 120,000 in 1980. The creation of a vast class of homeless people with mental conditions was a tragic, albeit unintended consequence of the deinstitutionalization movement.
Another factor which fed into the homeless crisis was the drug epidemic, and in particular the explosion of crack cocaine, in the 1980’s. When homeless people in shelters were tested by the Cuomo Commission, for example, it was found that about two-thirds tested positive for drugs and that most had taken crack (Hannum, 2008). But in addition to deinstitutionalization and the drug epidemic, conservative social policies implemented by the Reagan Administration and by local governments also contributed to the homelessness problem. Cuts in social programs and reductions in low-income housing, along with changes in the economy that shifted jobs from high-paying blue collar occupations to low wage, casual employment also fed into this social problem (Hannum, 2008).
But while the issue of homelessness was the subject of intense media coverage and policy debates in the 80’s, in the 90’s and 2000’s it fell to an extent in the public consciousness. In part this was the result of policies, such as that implemented in Giuliani’s New York that pushed the homeless population out of the gentrifying cores of America’s cities. Needless to say, the homeless problem has never gone away despite this lapse in public attention. For example, in the year between October, 2008 and September, 2009, over one and a half million people used emergency shelters and transitional housing (Shumsky, 2012). Of this total, about a million spent nights in shelters as individuals with the remaining half million being comprised of families; interestingly, these are almost the same proportions as researchers found in the 1980’s. In addition, the homeless population continued to skew towards men as it did in the past, being over 63% male (Shumsky, 2012). However, homeless families were typically comprised of women and their children.
But while homelessness remains a persistent social ill, there have quietly been recent strides in combating this problem. Researchers have come to recognize that the homeless population is overwhelmingly made up of people only transiently without shelter (Hombs, 2011). Only around 10% of the population is chronically homeless, i.e. homeless for years and decades. However, it is this chronically homeless population which ends up costing governments the most in terms of hospital care and incarceration (Hombs, 2011). Scholars, social workers, political leaders, and activists have come to recognize that, appearances to the contrary, the chronically homeless problem can be solved and that the most effective policy is to provide this population housing. In fact, it has been found that providing housing and supervision to homeless people can cost less than leaving them out on the streets, on account of the emergency room visits, incarceration, and other expenses previously mentioned (Hombs, 2011).

Studies looking at the cost effectiveness of this policy in 65 cities have confirmed that providing housing, support service, substance abuse treatment is cheaper than letting the homeless remain on the streets. In addition, social workers and other professionals have found success in helping connect the homeless with federal programs like Medicaid. This “Housing First” strategy has been found to have up to an 85% success rate (Hombs, 2011). Another program, Project Homeless Connect, which provides one-stop services like social benefits, clothing, haircuts, etc. to the homeless has implemented in 250 cities in the U.S. to great success. The evidence suggests that these innovative programs are helping to finally begin to turn the tide on the homeless problem, which had previously appeared so hopelessly intractable.


Hannum, R. (2008) “Homelessness.” The Eighties in America. Ed. Berman, Milton. Salem Press.

Hombs, M. E. (2011). Modern Homelessness: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO.

Shumsky, N. L. (201