In 2005, NCH (National Coalition for the Homeless) estimated 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the US every year (NCH,1). But what is homelessness? Jim Baumohl, a noted author, explained in Homelessness in America, the most common definition of homelessness used by researchers is the “absence of belonging to a specific place or to people” (NCH, 3). However, there is no set definition, due to the variety of living conditions a homeless person encounters, and the opinions of the researchers. As Baumohl pointed out, “homelessness is but the latest of many research topics in which the population of interest is not clearly defined” (NCH, 15).
Even though there is no clear definition of the homeless, the questions still linger, who are they? Though the image of the homeless is viewed in a negative, there are many homeless persons who are struggling to receive help. Alcoholics, drug addicts, sexual abusers, and gang members have cast an image on homelessness that scares people away from helping. Mary Ellen Hombs, Deputy Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, wrote, “At the beginning of the decade the prevailing stereotype of a homeless person was that of a middle-aged, white male alcoholic…” (Hombs, 4).
This description is a common view of a homeless man, however, the nation does not see the other minorities crying for help. Homeless persons are growing in numbers in the areas of mentally ill, children, and families. Society is unaware of the problems many of these people are facing, due to the negative image created. These groups go unnoticed and rarely receive the attention and help they need to survive. David Levinson, a noted cultural anthropologist, remarked in Encyclopedia of Homelessness, “Alice Solenberger classified homeless society in her book as ‘homeless old men, chronic beggars, wanderers, and tramps’” (Encyclopedia, 475).
One of the most common-viewed images of a homeless citizen is of an alcoholic or drug abuser. Coincidently, Levinson noted, “In Finland, until recently, the word for ‘homeless’ and ‘alcoholism’ was puliukko, which derived from the words ukko (old man) and puli (a cheap liquor)” (Encyclopedia, 7). Homeless persons have raised the numbers in substance abuse drastically in the past years. Thirty-eight percent of homeless were dependent on alcohol and 26 percent abused other drugs in 2003 (NCH,1). Homelessness is usually caused by money spent on substances, which then leads to loss of housing. Substance abuse can be looked at as both a cause and a result of homelessness. Alcohol and drug abuse can be the result of homelessness, while being without a home can cause substance abuse to occur. Although the numbers of abusers is over half of the homeless population, there is an explanation to the high percentages.
Levinson added that alcohol is generally seen as an adaptation to life on the streets and a way for the homeless to cope with their difficult situations (Encyclopedia, 9). After reviewing the statistics of substance abuse among homeless persons, it is safe to say the homeless population has portrayed an image of negativity towards alcohol and drugs, and will continue to live with this image until the rate of numbers decreases and the minorities are shown the attention they need. Mental illness has generally been a minority among homeless citizens; but with growing numbers in substance abuse, mental illness has also taken a climb up the number ladder in the past years. “Most studies have found 30 percent of homeless have some mental illness” (Hombs, 43).
People affected by mental illness may neglect taking precautions to prevent disease, due to being uneducated about the disease they’re living with (NCH,1). When the mental health problems are combined with poor hygiene and lack of education, many cannot properly care for themselves. The most common mental illness among homeless is schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (NCH,1). Unfortunately, these two diseases put an individual in vulnerable situations and are the most dangerous mental illnesses to live with. They are almost impossible to recover from. NCH explained “Many programs for homeless with mental illnesses do not accept people with substance abuse disorders, and programs for homeless substance abusers do not treat people with mental illnesses” (NCH, 2).
Since substance abuse and mental illness usually coincide among the homeless, treatment facilities are making it nearly impossible for the homeless to acquire correct treatment and housing. Along with mental illness, comes physical health problems; the most occurring disease among homeless persons is HIV/AIDS. People with HIV/AIDS are at a higher risk of becoming homeless and people who are homeless have a higher risk of contracting the disease. There are multiple reasons for the homeless to be the most commonly found with the disease(s). Many homeless people are ones with HIV because of the discrimination shown to the citizens with the illness (Hombs, 49). People with HIV are likely to lose their job, which then leads to lack of income (NCH, 1). With no money and no health care, treating the disease is rarely an option. Another reason for the disease to be so common among homeless is because of survival. NCH publicized, “Many homeless adolescents find that exchanging sex for food, clothing, and shelter is the only way for survival” (NCH, 2).
If the only way for an adolescent to survive on the street is to exchange sexual activity, the minorities will never find a stop to the spread of disease. A homeless child known as “street youth,” faces dangerous situations and resides in risky locations everyday of their life (Encyclopedia, 540). The most common challenge a child has to cope with is lack of cognitive and motor development (Encyclopedia, 75). Missing these important stages of developing the brain will lead to mental illnesses down the road. Growing up with violence and crime will also put them in troubled adult lives. Many homeless children come from troubled families, domestic violence, or neglect.
The majority of street youth are with a single parent, most commonly a female (Encyclopedia, 75). With trouble at home, many resort to running away or becoming caught up in drugs or alcohol to deal with the pain of the situations they are faced with. Just like adults, disease is another problem among children. Many children’s parents lack hygiene or education on disease, and many simply cannot provide the correct care for their children. Martha Burt, a noted author and publicist, reported in Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, “Among homeless clients in family households, 10 percent reported that their children needed a doctor but were not able to do so” (Burt, 23). With this being noted, it is clear that children who are born into poverty stricken or homeless families will more than likely never see a doctor.
Recently, due to immigration, the race of the homeless population has changed. African-Americans and Latinos are a growing number in homelessness, while whites are falling behind. NCH announced, “U.S. Conference of Mayor found that the homeless population is 47 percent African-American” (“Who” 3). African-Americans have dominated almost half of homeless persons but struggle more than whites. Whites are far better off in job markets and income than blacks. Whites have better chances of receiving greater incomes, which puts other minorities into poverty and eventually homelessness. This is why the numbers have gone up and the face of “homeless persons” is changing. Many different types of homeless categories have been viewed. Unfortunately, the ones needing help are hardly known.
Homelessness has wrapped itself up in a negative way and has blocked out the helpless people with negativity. Alcohol, drugs, crime, violence, sex, and white males still dominate the face of homelessness and will continue to until change is made within those negative ways of living. When sexual abuse, crime, substance abuse, and spread of disease decrease among homeless persons, it will then be the start of changing the ways for minorities. The homeless have brought negativity on themselves by presenting their part of society in a stereotyped way. After seeing the facts, it is valid to state that alcohol and crime dominates homelessness and these factors block out the individuals needing help.
Burt, Martha R. (1999). Homelessness: Programs and the people they serve. Urban Institute. Retrieved from http://www.urban.org.pdf Hombs, Mary E. (1990). American homelessness. Santa Barbara : ABC-CLIO, Inc. Levinson, D. (2004). Encyclopedia of homelessness . (Vol. 2). Sage Publications, Inc. National Coalition for the Homeless. (2007). Hiv/aids and homelessness . National Coalition for Homeless Retrieved from http://www.nationalhomeless.org National Coalition for Homeless. (2009). Mental illness and homelessness . National Coalition for Homeless. Retrieved from http://www.nationalhomeless.org National Coalition for Homeless. (2007). Substance abuse and homelessness. National Coalition for Homeless Retrieved from http://www.nationalhomeless.org National Coalition of Homeless. (2007). Who is homeless?. National Coalition for Homeless. Retrieved from http://www.nationalhomeless.org
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