Homelessness in America

In the USA, homelessness is among the most topical and widespread social issues that requires effective and efficient measures to find a solution. The statistics related to the number of the homeless vary depending on the source, yet it is undeniable that millions of Americans of all the ages live in the streets or have the status of hidden homeless people. In fact, the causes of homelessness are primarily related to poverty and the absence of affordable housing, but the list of the risk factors of becoming homeless is more extensive; they include adverse childhood experiences, drug addiction, and mental health issues. The homeless experience many challenges and have peculiar housing, social services and health needs that often remain unsatisfied because of the lack of financial resources and the lack of access to health care. Taking into consideration the topicality of the issue and the adverse impacts on all the stakeholders, the US government, charity organizations, and social services should pay special attention to the problem of homelessness and dedicate efforts and resources to solving it. Hence, the current paper aims at providing a brief overview of homelessness as an extremely topical social issue with a particular focus on risk factors, causes, needs, and some other aspects related to the phenomenon under consideration.

Nowadays, the world and the society face many extremely topical and widespread social problems common for all the countries irrespective of their geographic location and economic status. Virtually all the countries encounter one of the common international social issues that is homelessness. This social issue is also topical for the USA, where millions of Americans and immigrants live on the streets or at the risk of becoming homeless for a variety of reasons. A story of each homeless person is unique, but all the experiences are similar in terms of health, housing, and social needs. Contrary to some other social issues, the study and measurement of statistics related to homelessness is quite complicated as it is rarely a fixed state and not many homeless individuals can be considered as the constant homeless. Besides, there are millions of so-called the hidden homeless, who either live at the verge of losing the shelter or become homeless occasionally due to different reasons. With account to the topicality of the issue and the adverse impacts on all the stakeholders, the US government, charity organizations, and social services should pay special attention to the problem of homelessness. The reason for a need for action is the fact that it seems to be paradoxical that one of the most developed countries of the world has one of the highest rates of homelessness and lacks adequate solutions to the social problem.
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The researchers define the concept of homelessness and the homeless in different ways depending on the focus and the purpose of studies; that is why there is no unanimously agreed definition of the social issue. However, one of the frequently used definitions states that a homeless person is an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence; and has a primary night-time residency that is: (a) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations, (b) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or (c) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. 

This definition is widely accepted in the USA and represents a part of the federal law. However, the federal law does not provide any classification of the homeless; that is why different researchers use different classifications. Commonly, the homeless are divided into the absolute homeless or the unsheltered and the hidden homeless, who are also referred to as the concealed homeless and couch-surfers. The absolute homeless are individuals, who visibly live in the streets, do not have any permanent shelter, and lack the means to acquire a shelter. These individuals represent a typical image of the homeless as traditionally viewed by the society.

In turn, the hidden homeless represent a group that is difficult to identify and the needs of this group often remain unaddressed by existing programs aimed at combating the problem under consideration. Thus, the hidden homeless may be defined as individuals, who are provisionally accommodated, including those whose accommodation is temporary or lacks security of tenure. The hidden homeless are not immediately visible to the public and social services working with the homeless in general, since they have temporary housing; yet these individuals are still homeless as they do not have any permanent residence and do not stay with friends or family. Besides, the hidden homeless live at a constant risk of losing their temporary housing and their status can be easily altered to the absolute homeless. Sometimes, a group of the situational homeless is distinguished and these individuals represent the people, whose homelessness has resulted from a change in circumstances, such as eviction, or urban redevelopment.

Another complication related to the fight against homelessness is associated with the lack of reliable statistical data needed to show how many homeless individuals live in the USA. Hence, the social issue has been extremely topical and has been increasing in rate since the mid-1980s in the USA. However, the measurements of the homelessness rate and the number of the homeless differ across different sources. For instance, the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent Homelessness estimated that there were 110,917 homeless adults on any single night in the USA in 2009. In turn, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty claimed that in 2012 the number of the homeless ranged from 700,000 to 2 million on any single night in the USA. Shelton et al. claim that about 3.5 million Americans are homeless in any given year in the country. In fact, it is evident that there is a significant gap in the estimations as different sources provide different figures. The same applies to the homelessness rate, as some sources estimate the rate to be at the level of a 3% increase per annum, while other sources forecast a 33% increase during the next decade. The figures usually include only the absolute homeless, while the estimates of the hidden homeless are unavailable. Irrespective of the disparity in estimates, it is apparent that the problem of homelessness is extremely widespread and topical in the USA taking into consideration the fact that the USA is considered to be one of the most developed and richest countries in the world.

In addition to statistical studies of the issue, understanding of reasons, why people become homeless, and identification of the risk factors are important. The deep understanding of the problem can help to develop and launch adequate programs and initiatives aimed at combating the problem of homelessness in the USA and in the world in general. Thus, different reasons exist, why people become homeless and the story of each homeless individual is unique but somewhat similar to millions of other stories. According to Burger, some of the most prevalent causes of homelessness include the poverty and the absence of affordable housing. In the USA, the amount of the low-cost housing, which is affordable for low-income individuals and the people, who live on social assistance, has been significantly decreasing recently, since the rundown areas of the majority of towns and cities are under redevelopment, i.e. undergo the process of gentrification. Therefore, the more affluent and developed the country becomes, the higher number of people becomes homeless that is a detrimental consequence of capitalization of all the domains of public life.

Besides the poverty and the lack of affordable housing, there are other risk factors associated with homelessness. According to the study by Shelton et al., the lifetime experience of being homeless is connected to such risk factors as childhood experiences of socioeconomic disadvantage, poor family functioning, abuse, and separation from parents or caregivers. Other risk factors include current socioeconomic problems, drug addiction, and mental health issues. Contrary to the popular assumptions, the researchers found little correlation between homelessness and criminal activity, gambling and alcohol addiction. The most significant finding related to the study of risk factors in terms of possible practical application is the fact that homelessness largely depends on the adverse childhood experiences and drug use at an early age. In terms of mental health issues, the most prevalent risk factors include being diagnosed with depression and receiving care in a psychiatric clinic. However, it should be noted that mental health issues often result from being homeless rather than represent the cause of the phenomenon. It should also be noted that drug and related addictions frequently become the consequence of homelessness rather than the cause of the phenomenon. The knowledge of the risk factors can essentially assist in developing effective and efficient programs aimed at preventing homelessness in the USA. Thus, a special focus should be placed on the children and adolescents at risk, i.e. the people, who live in dysfunctional families, suffer from neglect and abuse, and are placed in the foster care and adoption system.

All the homeless have peculiar health, social service, and housing needs that vary depending on the status. However, the needs are generally unmet due to the lack of access to the required resources. Surprisingly, the majority of the homeless do not list housing as their top priority need, instead they give priority to access to quality nutrition, transportation, and health care. In fact, the homeless experience numerous health concerns caused by their lifestyle including hypertension, arthritis, skin and foot problems, body lice, and various musculoskeletal disorders. The homeless frequently experience foot disorders caused by long distance of walking, lack of adequate footwear, and excessive exposure to moisture. The homeless are also at a higher risk of dying from injuries and accidents; they are also more likely to contract HIV, Hepatitis C, and tuberculosis than individuals, who are not homeless. Despite the prevalence of health issues, the homeless report difficulties related to access to the quality health care and proper treatment, which increases the risk of developing comorbidities and dying. In overall, the health problems caused by the lifestyle remain untreated as the homeless rarely seek health care because of stigmatization, lack of financial resources, and prioritization of daily survival over health-seeking behaviors, such as health promotion and primary prevention needs.

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Nowadays, the society clearly recognizes the need to help the homeless, but the existing programs and initiatives fail to solve the problem that is evident from the rising rate of homelessness. The number of shelters available for the homeless offered by various organizations is unable to house all the needy. Even though the federal government has declared the commitment to solving the problem of homelessness, no significant improvement has occurred in the country and millions of people continue living on the streets. Therefore, it is apparent that the government in collaboration with various non-profit and advocacy groups should revise the existing programs and initiatives to improve them with respect to known risk factors of individuals becoming homeless and the top priority needs identified by the homeless. Moreover, the access to affordable housing is of a paramount importance as it can assist many current homeless in solving some of the problems related to housing and health needs.

Withal, homelessness can be considered to be the national problem in the USA because of the prevalence and rapid escalation. Millions of people are identified to be absolute and hidden homeless and their needs remain unaddressed, while the country is highly developed in all the respects. The paradoxical situation and topicality of the issue call for adoption of more effective and efficient measures aimed at satisfying the core needs of the homeless in the immediate future and eliminating the phenomenon from the US society in the long run. The overwhelming majority of individuals become homeless not because they choose this lifestyle, but rather because they have no other option. Besides housing and health challenges, the homeless also suffer from social stigmatization and negative treatment of the public, which only aggravates their problems and prevents the victims from escaping the adverse life circumstances. Thus, it is necessary to launch the initiatives aimed at making the public more tolerant and compassionate towards the homeless in addition to other programs in order to reintegrate these individuals into the society.

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