Social Welfare Policy Analysis
Homelessness as a Social Problem
Technically, all of the states in America are dealing with the issues of
homelessness. The facts remain that we are confronted by the matter and exposed
to the increasing visibility and prevalence of homelessness in our cities.
Still, people have very pitiable understanding of the causes, consequences and
enormity of the issue. Inadequacy of information about homelessness gave birth
to the emergence of stereotyping and misinformation as the “skid-row bum”, “hobohemia” (carefree vagabond), “new
homeless”. Many attempted to draw the line and
homelessness in the US. However, there are many constructs that hinder the
clarification of certain matters that surround the issue.
There is a necessity to come up with a concrete description that will truly reflect the contextual concept of homelessness. Conversely, there is no agreed upon definition of the term homeless or homelessness. There are many criticisms as to what extent a homeless individual could be considered as indeed ‘homeless’. The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 describes homeless, as individuals who lack predetermined, regular, adequate nighttime residence and individuals who have a chief nighttime dwelling that is publicly or privately operated and supervised. These are the different shelters that are designed to provide temporary living accommodations; temporary residence to individuals who are intended to be institutionalized and temporary sleeping accommodations for human beings (Housing and Urban Development, n.d.).
Encyclopedia defined homelessness, in general, as “the condition of not having a
permanent place to live” (2007). Both definitions have an inherent exclusion in
them that gains the attention of many critics. To wit, there are also
disadvantaged individuals under different federal assistance programs who do not
meet eligibility requirements. There is a drive then to expand the definition to
those who are living in multiple families that are contained in inadequate
living spaces; who are engaged in weekly rental of economy motels; who are
living inside their automobiles and who are exclusive “couch surfers”
Suggestions also emerged that definition should take into account the “hidden
homeless” and those who are at serious risk of homelessness (Housing and Urban
anthropology of homelessness reveals that this societal problem in essence beg
but fully commenced in the 1980s.
As Gregg Barak puts it, “homelessness is not a new American experience
notwithstanding the common dissimilarity from those homeless people of colonial
times”. The social production of homelessness is different. The homeless of the
1880-1980 was created by a depressed industrial economy that struggles due to
underproduction and labor surplus. Alternatively, the homelessness that emerged
in the 1980s was created by the transition from an industrial-based capitalist
economy into a post-industrial capitalist service economy inside the context of
international development of global relations (1992, p. 6).
homelessness in the 1980s
was brought by different factors as slum living, bowery experience and hobos living on train
tracks in pre-1960s;
and deinstitutionalization of patients and nomadic caravans in 1960s-1970s.
The conditions in the 1980s
were mainly brought by many policy shifts in Reagan’s regime. The federal
low-income housing programs were cut and there had been a continuum in the
deinstitutionalizing of mental-health hospitals (Housing and Urban Development,
are to account
to why people are forced to live in the streets and parks and why
the nature of homelessness is, theoretically, in constant drift. Homelessness is
complex and paradoxical in nature. According to Freeman, the main reason people
become homeless is economic. The contributing factors for homelessness are
personal problems, alcoholism, domestic violence, drug addiction, lack of
education, mental illness, poor work habits and lack of social skills. As such,
no individual becomes homeless because they have problems. These individuals
will be homeless once their economic capability will no longer sustain how they
can deal with their problems. In addition, the income gap had widely influenced
the growth of homelessness. People who considered themselves as condescending
money-making individuals a few years back are now at risk of becoming homeless.
And for those whose incomes are rising are becoming less able to afford the same
accommodation that they used to be able to get – including housing or rentals
Further, Jamshid Momeni found out that the homeless “live mobile, nomadic lifestyles and that mapping their migration routes will only be trivial, at least for the researchers. Surveys and accounts proved however, that the homeless orbit locally. Their drifting pattern is not as aimless as others would suspect instead, it exhibits a distinctive “sense of home”. Homeless are also disaffiliated from their social institutions as family and church. We can deduce then that homelessness, aside from being economic and psychological deprivation, is a shared cultural experience. The diversity of the demographic composition of the homeless varies largely by state and region” (1990, p. xii).
There are no complete and accurate ways to measure homelessness making it an inexact process. The most credible statistics so far were those that made three independent units. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1% of the entire US population or 10% of its poor (3.5 million) experience homelessness in a given year. Three per cent of them have HIV/AIDS; 58% of them are having trouble finding enough food to eat; 21% of them are homeless during their childhood; 54% were incarcerated at some point; 9% are in rural areas, 21% in suburbs and 71% in central cities; and 10% of those are homeless for up to two months; 10% are chronic homeless and 80% experienced homelessness for less than three weeks (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2005).
According to National Coalition for the Homeless, 5% are minors unaccompanied by adults, 14% are single females, 40% are families with children and 41% are single males. About 1.37 million (39%) of the entire population of the homeless are children under the age of 18. Homeless people, in addition, are of mixed cultural origin: 1% are Asian-American, 2% are Native American, 13% are Hispanic, 35% are Caucasian and 49% are African American (2007). The Urban Institute found out that 13% have regular jobs, 44% have been working in the past weeks and 50% receive less than $300 monthly income. Moreover, 28% of them have more than a high school diploma, 34% of them have a high school diploma or equivalent and 38% have less than a high school diploma (Urban Institute, 1999).
The Social Welfare Policy: The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987
Inspite of the differences, nevertheless, there is a nationwide consensus to the need for an integral federal policy that could possibly bring solutions to the problem of homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Act was the first and the only major federal legislative rejoinder to homelessness. The act was originally named as the Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act and was later renamed as the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act after the death of its principal Republican sponsor on July 22, 1987. The legislation was subsequently named as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act by the former President William Clinton in honor of its leading supporter, Representative Bruce Vento (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
Primarily, the responses of the federal government to the increasing homelessness in the early 1980s were locally-oriented. Homelessness was viewed as a problem that does not require federal intervention. The first federal task force was created in 1983 to provide information on localities on the process of obtaining surplus federal property. Due to the inadequacy in particular programs, several advocates demanded the government to address homelessness as a national problem that requires a national response. The Homeless Persons’ Survival Act was introduced in 1986 in both houses of the Congress. However, only minimal portion of the proposal was enacted into laws (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
The Homeless Eligibility Clarification Act of 1986 removed permanent address requirements and other obstructions to several existing programs. Such programs include Supplemental Security Income, Veterans Benefits, Food Stamps, Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It was also during this year that the Homeless Housing Act was adopted, the Emergency Shelter Grant program and a transitional housing demonstration program were created. Moreover, the legislation that contains Title I of the Homeless Persons’ Survival Act was launched as the Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act which was considered to be known as the McKinney-Vento Act (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
act contains nine different provisions devoted
the homeless. These are:
1) statements of six findings by Congress and the definition of homelessness;
2) functions of the Interagency Council on the Homeless;
3) authorization of the Emergency Food and Shelter program under the administration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA);
4) authorization of the emergency shelter and transitional housing programs which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development;
5) requirements imposition on federal agencies to identify and make surplus federal property available for the homeless;
6) authorization of programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services in order to endow homeless persons with health care services especially for severely mentally ill individuals;
7) authorization of four programs including adult education, homeless children and youth education, job training and emergency community services grant;
8) amendments of the Food Stamp program; and
9) extension to veterans training (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
The present public policy has been amended four times to expand the scope and strengthened the provisions of the original legislation. The 1988 amendment is characterized by minor changes as expanding eligible activities and modifying the distribution of McKinney funds. The 1990 amendments have been more extensive as it includes altering of the majority of the programs as set by the original act. The act introduced new programs: the Shelter Plus Care and the Health Care for the Homeless programs. The former was designed to provide housing assistance to homeless individuals who are suffering from disabilities, mental illness, AIDS and drug or alcohol addiction and the latter purports on providing primary health care and outreach to at-risk and homeless children. Further, the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) replaced the Community Health Services program. There are also increased Education of Homeless Children and Youth program’s authorization and requires the states to provide grants for the local educational agencies for the purpose of ensuring the access of homeless children and youth to public education (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
The modification and expansion of the Title IV of the act – the shelter and housing provisions took place in the 1992 amendments. The amendments embrace the creation of ‘safe havens’ or very low-cost shelter for unwilling or unable individuals to participate in supportive services and a Rural Homeless Housing Assistance grant program. It was also during this amendment that the mental health services and the drug abuse treatment demonstration programs have been consolidated into Access to Community Care and Effective Services and Support (ACCESS) program (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
The Congress amended the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program and the Surplus Property Program in 1994. The amendment of the first program included provision for the local educational authorities to use funds in greater flexibility; specification of the rights to free and appropriate public preschool education; gave voice to parents of homeless children and youth about their children’s placement and required the educational authorities to coordinate with housing authorities. The amendment of the second considered the removal of military bases closed under the base-closure laws under the McKinney Act and created a new process which enables service providers to apply to Local Redevelopment Agencies for the use property at closed bases intended for the homeless persons (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
The act specifically acknowledged one major and most important premise for the homeless – the right to shelter. Along with other relevant constitutional and civil rights, the McKinney-Vento Act engages in three basic activities that fall under the rubric of homelessness prevention as crisis intervention, discharge planning and accountability for housing stability. McKinney-Vento intends to provide long-term programs that are enough to end their homelessness essentially through comprehensive homeless assistance systems. Though each program has specific targets, the main purpose of the public policy in general is to provide a continuum of care and stability. The concept of continuum of care encompasses through independent meanings as service availability and related pathways that homeless people should take by means of a service network. McKinney-Vento Act, based on this continuum, is a system of services within a community containing all the major elements for averting and ending homelessness (Levinson, 2004, p. 77).
The Problem-Policy Interface: McKinney-Vento Act
The efforts of the federal to transition homeless into stable, dignified life instead of being dependent on dole outs is commendable. In addition, the comprehensive care systems through consolidated approach provide homeless individuals with value, confidence, independence, balance individual rights and responsibilities. However, the implementation of McKinney-Vento had experienced, and still experiencing, challenges and dilemmas comprising of complications made possible by differences in target populations, eligible applicants and activities, funding systems and criteria among various programs as well as by confusing timeframes and regulations (Housing and Urban Development, 2005).
Different HUD evaluations revealed that the McKinney-Vento Act had created several valuable programs that helped homeless regained stability. In 1995, the act concluded that several programs have assisted a significant number of homeless people to regain independence and permanent housing at a reasonable cost and the continuum of care process had given localities and states new tools to address the problems of homelessness. However, the challenge remains that homelessness endures unabated across the nation. This manifests that after more than a decade of emergency responses the homelessness crisis is still prevalent. Not to mention that figures only show visible homeless and that the manner of counting unhoused people is still under debate. There is a necessity then to address the core causes of homelessness (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
Martha Burt argued that without the housing component, no amount of services would affect the levels of the act’s effectiveness. The federal should provide housing that will help people leave homelessness; assure people that leave institutions such as hospitals, treatment facilities and foster care system do not leave into homeless and create more housing more earning capacity and better preventive services (2003). The primary resource to address the premise is funding to which the advocates lack control of. In between 1994-1996, several McKinney-Vento programs lost their funding. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty claims that the share of allocated US budget for Homeless Assistance Grants, for example, had decreased by 8% over the past four years and by 28% since 1995. Further, the Administration suggested budget proposes a 36% decline in federal housing assistance by 2010 (as cited in National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006).
The National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH) outlined their concerns as well. NPACH is a national organization whose primary concern is ensuring that national homelessness policy will accurately reflect the needs of local community. They summoned that federal should provide communities the flexibility to address the local needs. The Notification of Funding Available (NOFA) had undermined local control and subverted the process of community planning and even pushed by the constricted HUD definition of homelessness. The notion also prevented many communities to respond to homelessness as it appears in their respective communities (National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness, 2006).
The chronic homelessness initiative should be also re-assessed. Chronic homeless refer to those unaccompanied homeless individuals with disabling conditions and who has wither been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past four years. The initiative, by definition, excludes homeless families, children and youth. The rigidity of homeless families, children and youth is being overlooked in exchange of providing for the most vulnerable homeless age group while forcing communities to incur sufficient funding intended for chronic homeless projects as well. As such, the federal priority serves as a threat for an effective localized response. It impacts the homeless service providers and local and state government to squeeze within limited resources, increased housing and service demands and policies that could only exacerbate the situation (National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness, 2006).
NPACH also claimed that the Congress should oppose language that identifies homeless according to categories and subsequently insists on support measures which will ensure rigorous needs analysis. For example, recent appropriation acts have provisions that require HUD to reserve 30% or more of its funds for permanent housing. However, the requirements for permanent housing are restricted to individuals with disability and homeless families that include an adult with disability. In effect, the set aside had forced local communities to slash down funds intended for areas which are of much greater urgency. The McKinney-Vento Act resources should be utilized for homelessness prevention and act as a transition to increase permanent housing and not as a replacement of those resources. To wit, the federal should not put specific requirements for composition and relationship in the legislation instead they should put in goals and expectations and let the local communities decide on how they are going to accomplish them (Burt, 2007, p. 12).
Barak, G. (1992). Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Burt, M. R.
(2003). Chronic Homelessness: Emergence of a Public Policy. Fordham Urban Law
Journal, 30(3), 1267
Burt, M. R. (2007). Reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Urban Institute. Retrieved on 18 February 2008 from www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/901120_homeless_assistance.pdf.
Freeman, A. L. (2002). Homelessness and Poverty – Homeless not Helpless. Retrieved on 15 February 2008 from http://anitraweb.org/homelessness/faqs/causes/index.html.
Definition of Homeless Individual. Department of Housing and Urban
Development. Retrieved on 15 February
Columbia Encyclopedia. (6th ed.).Homelessness.
New York: Columbia University Press.
Levinson, D. (2004). Encyclopedia of Homelessness. London: Sage Publications, Inc.
Momeni, J. A. (1990). Homelessness in the United States: State Surveys. New York: Praeger Publishers.
National Coalition for the Homeless (2006). McKinney-Vento Act. Retrieved on 18 February 2008 from www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/McKinney.pdf
National Coalition for the Homeless. (2007). Who is Homeless?. Retrieved on 15 February 2008 from http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/Whois.pdf.
National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH). (2006). HUD McKinney-Vento Reauthorization: Alternate Viewpoints. Retrieved on 18 February 2008 from www.npach.org/m-v_hearing_alternate_viewpoints.pdf.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005). Who is Homeless?. Retrieved on 15 February 2008 from http://www.nrchmi.samhsa.gov/facts/facts_question_2.asp.
Urban Institute. (1999). Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve – Findings on the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients. Retrieved on 15 February 2008 from http://www.urban.org/publications/310291.html.
US Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2005). Review of Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Programs Administered by HUD: Report to Congress 1995. Retrieved on 18 February 2008 from http://www.huduser.org/publications/homeless/mckinney.html.
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