The Causes and General Definition of Homelessness

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I would like for all of you to imagine what it’d be like to have a tent as a home and a sleeping bag as a bed. As of January 2018, the United States had an estimated 552,830 people experiencing homelessness according to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. After investing several weeks into research about homelessness and being an everyday observer of this issue as well as being fascinated with this complex social issue and how it is connected with many other issues, I feel that I am credible to inform you on the causes of. Over the last few decades the rate of homelessness has gone on a tailspin increase to the point that it has become a huge societal issue. Homelessness is a complex social and economic problem because it stems from various factors that include lack of affordable housing, poverty, family instability, substance abuse/addictions, poor physical and mental health. All of which lead to diverse forms of homelessness. Thus, homelessness is a difficult economic/social issue to define and resolve. The key points that I would like to discuss in my causal argument are the causes and effects of homelessness through topics such as housing affordability, drug use, health/sanitation and criminal justice. I will also explain how it impacts our society as well as its concurrence with other societal issues.

Causes: Before diving into the causes of homelessness I would like to state the definition of homelessness provided by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development which divides it into four categories. Category 1 is literally homeless which is someone who lacks a permanent and adequate nighttime residence. Category 2 is imminent risk of homelessness which is when the lack of a permanent and adequate residence will inevitably happen to an individual. Category 3 is homeless under federal statutes (such as having been in permanent housing but with constant instability). Category 4 is when an individual is fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence and has not secured a permanent residence.

Housing Affordability

This issue relates to Category 2 definition. Many low-income people/families have ended up homeless given their poor wages or unemployment in constant rising housing costs. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University reported that, in 2015, 43 million families and individuals reside in rental housing, an increase of 9 million in 2005. This is due to factors such as foreclosure, declines in household incomes, and tightening credit have led to this increase. This has led to households spending 55 percent less on health care and 38 percent less on food than similar households living in affordable housing. These are risk factors that lead to destabilization then homelessness (Clark III).

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Familiar Instability/Poverty

In a study conducted by the American Journal of Public Health on foster care children and family homelessness it was stated that large numbers of homeless adults had history in the foster care system. The study examined 195 children in foster care where nearly 50% of those children’s birth parents were reported to being homeless (Zlotnick, Kronstadt and Klee). In the same study but with data provided from another study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that in a Northern California county where there was a population 339,952 youth aged 0-19 that for every 1,000 of them 10.4 were placed in foster care. If that is not enough data 35.7% of the children in that same county were surviving on or below the poverty line with 13,000 children of the total population of the youth in the county experiencing at least one night of homelessness (Zlotnick, Kronstadt and Klee.) It is evident that the lack of familiar stability in these children’s environments are major factor of homelessness in their present and future. As there is nothing stable about their families in them jumping from shelters and lack of permanent residences.

Substance Use/Addiction

The issue of substances and its involvement with homelessness is a combination of cause and effect. Addictive drug use has been a cause of many people ending up homeless as it destroys an individual's life in order to feed their addiction. While at the same time people who have ended up homeless have resorted to heavy drug use to cope with the living conditions they found themselves in. Youth experiencing homelessness are at high risk for frequent substance use. A study in L.A. of substance use among young people the ages of 13-24 of 474 participants showed that homelessness on average was experienced for over two years amongst them. Almost a third used substances frequently; significant risk factors included delinquency, sensation seeking, and ongoing homelessness (Lightfoot, Wu, Hughes, Desmond, Tevendale & Stevens). A study of of 17,565 homeless people that have been incarcerated shows that 74.2% suffered from substance abuse/mental illness and were not homeless prior to their arrest while 89.4% were homeless prior to their arrest and suffered from substance abuse/mental illness (Greenberg & Rosenheck 96). Effects: As I have now given information of some of the causes of homelessness I will now show what are the effects of it through societal/economic areas that affect us directly.

Criminal Justice System

Homeless people have a significant effect on our criminal justice system as they are more prone to being in jail or prison as a result of their quality of life. In 2018, 70% of the unsheltered homeless population in CA reported to have been incarcerated at one point in their lives (Franco & Jolly). There are four risk factors that explains the high rates of the relationship between the criminal justice system and homelessness. These include: The homelessness itself is criminogenic which means trying to survive with limited resources, poor health status in relation to mental illness and substance abuse, socio-demographic reasons (education, ethnicity, gender etc.) and homelessness decreases community and familiar ties (Greenberg & Rosenheck 89). From the study provided by the American Journal of Mental Health where they used 195 foster care children as subjects many of them were displaced into the foster care system away from their families due to their birth parents having at least one criminal charge on their records. The incarceration of homeless people is a significant cost to the public in the long run as their incarceration is more expensive than providing the necessary institutions/programs for rehabilitation and tackling the root causes of the problem.

Public Health/Access to Healthcare

The increasing number of homeless people on the streets has led to public health hazards. Lack of access to restrooms and trash receptacles has led to human waste and trash being disposed in public and it has polluted waterways and public spaces. There has been a return of various bacterial and viral diseases due to the lack of access to proper health care. This is very dangerous to the public as these diseases are transmittable through direct and indirect contact. For example, there has been a resurgence of hepatitis A virus, primarily among persons experiencing homelessness and users of illicit drugs. In California, during November 2016–May 2018, an outbreak of HAV IB infections resulted in 708 case-patients, 465 hospitalizations, and 21 deaths in which California declared a public health emergency in October 2017 (Probert, Gonzalez, Espinosa & Hacker).


As I have now discussed that there are many diverse causes and effects to the complex issue of homelessness. One thing is certain the factors that contribute to homelessness are complex and often intertwined with one another. The economic/social factors that include poverty, lack of affordable housing, familiar instability mental/physical health issues and lack of proper care for health issues etc. are a result of failures within our countries structure. Overall, it is evident that the issue of homelessness is a major economic/societal issue that affects our society deeply and is a result of the failures of our societal and economic structure.

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