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Homelessness Essay, Research Paper

Title

Imagine a typical day in your life: You wake up, throw back the covers and get out of bed. You don?t put on a robe because the heat is on and it?s warm in your room. After freshening up in the bathroom, you go to your closet to choose an outfit to wear. You grab a quick breakfast. Then your best friend gives you a lift to school. At the end of the day, your mother picks you up to go shopping. Later, after dinner, you do your homework, talk on the phone and watch TV with your brother and sister. Most people would agree that a day like this is fairly ordinary. Shelter, clothes, food, education, family these are things you usually take for granted. What?s more, these are things that everyone deserves. Unfortunately, These things do not belong to everyone.

Far too many people in this country have no homes. They own only the clothes they own only the clothes they are wearing. They don?t know where their next meal will come from. And they have no family or friends to turn to for help. About 3 million people are homeless in the United States, and the problem is getting worse. Some researchers believe that, by the year 2000, 19 million could be homeless (American Red Cross 1).

Homelessness is not a new problem in our society. In the second half of the 19th century, millions of immigrants poured into this country to find a better home. The immigration occurred around the same time as the abolition of slavery, when thousands of freed African Americans flocked to cities to look for work. At first, many of these people could not find homes or jobs. Since they were starting out with nothing, it took them awhile to get a foothold. Also, they were competing with many others who were just as poor and uneducated as they were.

Large cities had huge ghettos filled with these newcomers. The living conditions were cramped and miserable. But this period was also an era of tremendous expansion for the country. Industrialization was sweeping thorough the cities, and new territories in the west were opening up. The expanding nation was able to put most of its new citizens to work.

During the 1930s, the country faced another challenge: the Great Depression. Again, United States was confronted by widespread homelessness hunger, unemployment and poverty. Charity groups and religious organizations could not help everyone that needed assistance. Most citizens felt it was time for the government to step in to assist those of need ( Kraljic 6).

From the 1930?s to the 1960?s, Social programs were setup to aid the poor and guarantee them food allowances, medical care, minimal income (Hyde 8). Welfare, food stamps, Medicaid health coverage and unemployment insurance all offer aid to those in need. The government supports theses programs largely with tax money paid by the public. When these programs were established, it was hoped that poverty and homelessness would eventually be abolished (Jencks 5).

So what happened?

Some of the programs set up by the government to assist the poor were cut back in the late 1970?s and 1980?s. The federal government spent less on social programs such as job training. In addition, the cost of food and clothing was increasing at the same time, as was the rest. And because of the cutbacks, poor people had less money to spend on these necessities. More and more people were facing poverty (Hyde 10).

At one time, people could support themselves on welfare. But since 1970, the cost of living has tripled, yet government benefits have barely increased at all. It fact, some programs have been reduced or eliminated entirely (Jencks 7). For example, since 1982, the food stamp budget has been reduced by billions of dollars. As a result, a million people who need help in buying groceries are not getting aid. The government also made cuts in its housing programs. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the government spent $33 billion on maintaining low-income housing in 1981. By the end of the decade, that amount would be slashed to about $7 billion (10 -15). In the 1950s, the government funded construction of thousands of public housing projects. (United Way 1). Although the need for low-income housing has increased, the number of new buildings has decreased drastically since the early 1980s. Other cuts in government spending have affected the aged and the mentally ill. Many of these people who were once aided by the government suddenly had their benefits cut off. They had nowhere to turn for help (2 & 3). Meanwhile, many businesses were also facing hard times. Workers in two of the country?s biggest industries, farming and oil were suddenly losing their livelihoods. Other big industries, such as steel, automobile and textiles, also felt the crunch. Since 1979, about 20 million people in these industries have lost their jobs (Kraljic 9). The nation?s economy has been in a state of upheaval since the 1970s. Widespread homelessness is one of the results.

Americans used to see only a handful of homeless men and women in cities. Mostly alcoholics, drug addicts, or mentally ill, they were often referred to as “bums,” “derelicts.” “winos” or “bag ladies” and were said to live on “skid row.” They were so few in number that they were not an overwhelming problem. Charity groups and the government gave them shelter and food (National Coalition For The Homeless 20)

But the face of the homeless has changed. Former farmers and city residents, of all races, religions and backgrounds, are now without homes. Charities and the government have not been able to take care of them all. There are simply too many people in need. The homeless seem to be everywhere now ? in parks, on doorsteps, at bus stations. And they aren?t all loners. There are more homeless families than ever before. As we approach the millennium, homelessness has evolved into one of the nation?s most troublesome and challenging problems.

History has shown that many factors lead to homelessness. But the most important reason is that there are more poor people than there are affordable homes. Widespread poverty plus a serious housing shortage leads to a crisis of homelessness.

The facts are chilling. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, about 34 million Americans live below the poverty line (they are officially classed as poor by the government). Since 1979, the number of poor families has increased by 35 percent (Salvation Army 2). In other words, more than 1 out of 10 families lives in poverty. Not all of these people are homeless. But as the cost of living continues to rise, the chance that many will lose their homes becomes greater.

Families with only one percent are especially likely to live in poverty. Single parents have to care for their children as well as support them financially. Families headed by a single parent have increased by 40 percent since 1970 (Jencks 20). According to 1990 U.S. census, a single mother of four on welfare gets $5,000 a year below the federal poverty level. With the $640 a month she gets, she has to pay for rent, utilities and clothing for her entire family.

Even if the single parent has a job, there is no guarantee that the family will not be living in poverty. A person working full-time at minimum wage may make only a little more and maybe even less than a person receiving welfare. With such low incomes, something as simple as doing laundry often becomes a luxury. More expensive things, like proper health care, may not even be a consideration.

Unfortunately, housing has also become a luxury item for too many people living in poverty. Nobody wants to be homeless. All homeless people would rather be living in places they could call home. But there is a shortage of affordable housing in this country, and the problem is getting worse. Since the late 1970s, rents have skyrocketed. Everyone has felt the church, but poor people have been hit the hardest. Studies show that most people living in poverty spend more than half their income on housing ( Hyde 35). This means they have to sacrifice other necessities, like clothing or food, to keep their homes.

And what would happen in an emergency? What if the breadwinner lost his or her job, or if someone in the family needed costly medical care? Because poor people have no money to spare, they could very easily lose their homes. During the past 20 years, low-income housing has been disappearing in this country. There are several reasons for this. Gentrification: As rents increased in the 1970s and 1980s, middle-class people began looking for cheaper apartments. Some landlords of low-income housing fixed up their apartments and raised the rents by a few hundred dollars. But most poor people were unable to afford the new rents. Very often they were evicted, sometimes illegally, and were forced to look elsewhere for housing (Jencks 62). Abandonment: Some landlords could no longer maintain their buildings during 1970s. As prices soared, they couldn?t always pay their taxes, utility bills or mortgages. The buildings couldn?t be sold in the depresses market, so some landlords abandoned them. The apartments were boarded up, and now many of them sit empty (Kraljic 69). Throughout the nation?s cities, it is estimated that 500,000 low-income apartments are lost every year, mainly due to gentrification and abandonment (70 & 77)

Part of the problem is that the government has cut back on funds for new public housing. According to New York?s Coalition for the Homeless, the government supported the construction of 75,000 low-income apartments in New York in the 1950s. In the 1980s, however, only about 11,000 units were created. There are about 240,000 families on the waiting list for this type of housing (National Coalition For The homeless 26). Lack of affordable housing is probably the number one reason why there are so many homeless people today. It is estimated that about 6 million low-income apartments must be created to meet the need (28 – 36).

It is easy for a person to become homeless. Loss of job, a serious medical problem, a death in the family, even a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood-these are all events that can leave people homeless. But it is not easy for a person to escape homelessness. Once trapped in that unfortunate situation, a homeless person is faced with all the problems that go with living without a home. These problems can be overwhelming. Trying to survive from day to day makes it nearly impossible for a person to plan for the future.

When some people face hard times, they have the resources to meet the challenge. They might have savings in the bank or insurance policies. They might own a house or car that they can mortgage or sell. Or they might have friends and family they can turn to for support (United Way 26). But people living in poverty don?t have money saved for a crisis. Most can?t afford insurance and don?t have property or possessions to sell. Their friends and family are probably poor, too, and unable to help. Very often these people become homeless. The only alternative for a poor person is to ask for help from the government. Although each city and state is somewhat different, there are similarities in how governments aid people in need. First, a homeless person goes to a welfare center. The office evaluates the situation and determines where the individual or family should be placed. This process can take hours. In New York City, for example, sometimes the lines are so long that the applicants have to stay in the center overnight.

There are several kinds of temporary housing offered by most cities. Family-style shelters are considered to be the best. Usually run by charity groups, they offer families the most privacy and the best conditions. They may also have social workers who can help the homeless find jobs and return to living independently (Jencks 89). Barracks shelters are offered to applicants on a short-term basis. These are government structures that may have originally been schools or office buildings. Up to a hundred people sleep in one large room. There is no privacy, and the social services are limited. Because so many people use the facilities, these shelters are often dirty and noisy (Hyde 125). When the welfare office can?t immediately place a person in a shelter, the office might send him or her to a welfare hotel. These have the worst reputation of all the temporary housing solutions.

Welfare hotels are usually run-down, filthy and dangerous. Entire families may have to live in one room. The hotels have no kitchen facilities, and often there are mice and roaches, nonworking plumping, and limited heat and hot water (American Red Cross 25). When a person?s time and energy are taken up finding a place to sleep and food to eat, it is nearly impossible to stay in good health.

Because food is scarce, a homeless person cannot always eat regularly. And since homeless people generally lack kitchen facilities, junk food is the easiest and cheapest thing to eat. A healthy, balanced meal is often out of question. Proper hygiene is also difficult to maintain. In a barracks shelter, for example, a hundred people may be sharing a large institutional bathroom. Some welfare hotel rooms have inadequate or nonworking plumbing. Unsanitary kitchens and bathrooms exist in many shelters and hotels. If one person is sick in a shelter, the disease might spread to hundreds of others. Even if a shelter has a full-time health-care worker, he or she cannot possibly take care of all the patients. People who become homeless might lose whatever health care they had. Since they are forced to move repeatedly, their ties to the local hospital or clinic are cut off (Salvation Army 206).

Young children of homeless parents sometimes contract illnesses that no child should ever have. There are shots that prevent polio, measles and many other diseases. But the treatments require a series of trips to the doctor. When a family moves around a lot, it is difficult to complete the series (Hyde 98)

Stress can also affect a child?s health and emotional development. Unstable living conditions can slow the growth of language and motor skills. An infant may develop social and personal problems that he or she will experience for life.

And what homeless family is without stress? Homeless parents especially feel anxious and depressed. Not only do they have to take care of themselves, but they have to support their families. As a result of the pressures and stress, they sometimes neglect their children or, worse, physically harm them. Families are often torn apart by the tension. All homeless people live with stress and depression. The constant search for food and housing occupies most of their time. Some cannot cope with the pressure.

Sometimes stealing seems like the only solution. When a person feels hunger all the time, desperation sets in. Some people may not be able to resist taking food to feed themselves and their families. Or they may steal merchandise to sell in order to buy food. Some might turn to prostitution. Others might resort to selling drugs. These are people who feel that they have nothing to lose. Their lives are so bad that it?s worth the risk of getting caught. And many people who commit these crimes do get caught. They are sent to jail or let go on probation. When released from prison, most find themselves in the same situation of homelessness and despair. They may feel that they have no choice but to return to crime. Some homeless people turn to alcohol and drugs to escape their problems. They have given up hope, too ( Kraljic 205).

Crime and drugs in a homeless person?s life are rarely temporary. Once he or she becomes involved with them, it is difficult to give them up. Like other problems of the homeless, crime and drugs can make it impossible to escape a life of homelessness.

Everyone has come face-to-face with homelessness. We feel confusion or anger or sadness when we see someone living on the street or asking for money. There are so many homeless people that the problem seems overwhelming.

But the country has seen widespread homelessness before-in the 1890s and the 1930s, for example. The problem seemed hopeless then, too, but Americans were able to help. There are ways to help now, both immediately and for the future. With everyone?s help, homelessness can become a thing of the past.

One thing that needs to be done immediately is to improve the living conditions at existing shelters. Every shelter should provide a private space for each family or individual. The space should be large enough to accommodate the whole family so there is no overcrowding. There should be kitchens and working bathrooms in every unit.

The government (national, state or local) provides some services for the homeless. But these services reach only a small number of people in need. Vital services, which should be made available to all who need them, include: Free day care: If children can be cared for during the day their parents will be free to look for a job or a permanent pace to live. Employment assistance: Programs are needed to help the homeless look for work. These programs could also offer job training to teach skills to the unemployed. Alcohol and drug treatment: Many homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts. If treatment programs were made available, they could take the first step in regaining control of their lives. Counseling and treatment: Many people without homes suffer from severe stress and depression. These people need counseling to help them handle difficult situations. Nutrition education: Some homeless people get sick because they eat poorly. They need to be taught what foods are necessary to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. With their limited income, they must learn to choose the best foods for the money. These services would help the homeless now. What is needed for the future is more housing. Empty buildings should be reclaimed. New apartments must be created.

Homeless people also need jobs. Some companies are now going to shelters to look for workers among the homeless. One hotel chain, for example, has successfully hired many homeless. One hotel chain, for example, has successfully hired many homeless men and women. In addition to salary, the workers are offered health insurance and housing. More companies need to follow this example.

Of course, all of these ideas to end homelessness take time, energy and money. But the United States has faced tragedy before. It has overcome problems as its citizens have joined together to help one another. And as a democracy possessing rich natural resources and industrial know how, the country can surely find the money to guarantee food and shelter for all.

The homeless crisis so big that it may appear hopeless. It doesn?t seem possible that one individual can make a difference. But all across the country, ordinary citizens are getting involved to help.

You can help, too. Here are some suggestions.

Get your Church involved: Your place of worship may already offer help to the homeless. But perhaps your community needs additional help. Organize a group of members to concentrate on a specific problem. Your group can raise money for a local soup kitchen or shelter or can supply services such as tutoring or day care. Get your school involved: School is another place where you might be able to form a group to help. Your group can organize a food or clothing drive. Or you could hold a dance or sell raffle tickets to raise money for a local homeless charity. These activities take time and commitment. But the rewards are worth it. In addition to feeling good about yourself, you?ll have fun working with friends and making new ones. There?s still a long way to go before everyone has a home and enough to eat. But by offering your time and understanding, you can help make homelessness a thing of the past.


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