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Who Are America's Homeless?

By Elaine Cassel

Homelessness is one of the most tragic social dilemmas of American life. At a time of unparalleled economic growth, record unemployment, and a growing number of millionaires and, yes, even billionaires, the number of men, women, and children who live on the streets, in abandoned cars and buildings, and in homeless shelters is growing.

In December 1999, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released the first comprehensive study of homelessness in America. The U.S. Census Bureau interviewed 4,207 homeless people and 11,909 representatives of programs that serve the homeless in 76 large cities, small towns, and rural areas. The study shows that homelessness is associated with a broad range of mental health issues. For instance, 25 percent reported childhood physical or sexual abuse, 27 percent had lived in foster homes or institutions as children, 39 percent reported a mental health problem, 38 percent an alcohol problem, and 26 percent a drug abuse problem. The median age of death of homeless adults is estimated to be between 41 and 47 years, almost 30 years less than the average life expectancy of Americans as a whole. *

The study did not attempt to determine how many people are homeless. Estimates vary depending upon whether the count is based upon people who are homeless on a given day (point-in-time counts) or those who are homeless over a period of time (period-prevalence counts). In one week in 1998, the National Coalition for the Homeless found between 500,000 and 600,000 homeless people on the streets and in shelters. However, that did not include the "hidden" homeless, those who live in abandoned cars and buildings, tents, and boxes.

Social psychologists study the varied causes of homelessness (such as mental illness, economic deprivation, and substance abuse) as well as why civilized society allows so many of its citizens to suffer hunger, exposure to cold, injury, disease, and early death. Whatever the causes, homelessness in American is indicative of the profound loss of social connection among the homeless and the society that turns its back on them (Brehm & Kassin, 1999). **

You can read a summary of the HUD report at

*Plumb, J.D. (1997, June 15). Homelessness: Care, Prevention, and Public Policy. Annals of Internal Medicine, 126(12), 973-975.

**Brehm, S.S., Kassin, S.M., & Fein, S. (1999). Social Psychology. 4th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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