Homelessness emerged as a national issue in the 1870s. Many homeless people lived in emerging urban cities, such as New York City. Into the 20th Century, the Great Depression of the 1930s caused a devastating epidemic of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. There were two million homeless people migrating across the United States. In the 1970s, the de-institutionalization of patients from state psychiatric hospitals was a precipitating factor which seeded the homeless population.
The number of homeless people grew in the 1980s, as housing and social service cuts increased. After many years of advocacy and numerous revisions, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987—this remains the only piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of homeless people. Over the past decades, the availability and quality of data on homelessness has improved considerably. About 1.56 million people, or about 0.5% of the U.S. population, used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009. Homelessness in the United States increased after the Great Recession in the United States.
One out of 50 children or 1.5 million children in United States of America will be homeless each year. In 2013 that number jumped to one out of 30 children, or 2.5 million. There were an estimated 57,849 homeless veterans estimated in the United States during January 2013, or 12 percent of all homeless adults. Just under 8 percent of homeless U.S. veterans are female. Texas, California and Florida have the highest numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth under the age of 18, comprising 58% of the total homeless under 18 youth population. Homelessness affects men more than women. At least 70% to 85% of all homeless are men.
Because of turnover in the homeless population, the total number of people who experience homelessness for at least a few nights during the course of a year is thought to be considerably higher than point-in-time counts. A 2000 study estimated the number of such people to be between 2.3 million and 3.5 million. According to Amnesty International USA, vacant houses outnumber homeless people by five times.
Causes of homelessness in the United States include lack of affordable housing, divorce, lawful eviction, negative cash flow, post traumatic stress disorder, foreclosure, fire, natural disasters (hurricane, earthquake, or flood), mental illness, physical disability, no family, substance abuse, lack of needed services, no unearned income (such as pension, Social Security, stock dividends, reverse mortgage, or annuity), poverty (no net worth), gambling, unemployment, and low-paying jobs. Homelessness in the United States affects many segments of the population, including families, children, domestic violence victims, ex-convicts, veterans, the aged, and others. Efforts to assist the homeless have included federal legislation, non-profit efforts, increased access to healthcare services, affordable housing, among others.
Following the Peasants' Revolt in England, constables were authorized under 1383 English Poor Laws statute to collar vagabonds and force them to show support; if they could not, the penalty was gaol. 
Vagabonds could be sentenced to the stocks for three days and nights; in 1530, whipping was added. The presumption was that vagabonds were unlicensed beggars. In 1547, a bill was passed that subjected vagrants to some of the more extreme provisions of the criminal law, namely two years servitude and branding with a "V" as the penalty for the first offense and death for the second.
Homelessness emerged as a national issue in the 1870s. There are no national figures documenting the homeless demography at this time. Jacob Riis wrote about, documented, and photographed the poor and destitute, although not specifically the homeless, in New York City tenements in the late 19th century. His ground-breaking book, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, raised public awareness of living conditions in the slums, causing some changes in building codes and some social conditions.
The growing movement toward social concern sparked the development of rescue missions, such as America's first rescue mission, the New York City Rescue Mission, founded in 1872 by Jerry and Maria McAuley. In smaller towns, there were hobos, who temporarily lived near train tracks and hopped onto trains to various destinations. Especially following the American Civil War, a large number of homeless men formed part of a counterculture known as "hobohemia" all over America.
During this time, many towns and cities had an area which contained the homeless. In New York City, for example, there was an area known as "the Bowery." Rescue missions offering "soup, soap, and salvation", a phrase introduced by The Salvation Army, sprang up along the Bowery thoroughfare, including the oldest one, The Bowery Mission. The mission was founded in 1879 by the Rev. and Mrs. A.G. Ruliffson.
The Great Depression of the 1930s caused a devastating epidemic of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. There were two million homeless people migrating across the United States. Many lived in shantytowns they called "Hoovervilles" deriding the President they blamed for the Depression. Residents lived in shacks and begged for food or went to soup kitchens. Authorities did not officially recognize these Hoovervilles and occasionally removed the occupants for technically trespassing on private lands, but they were frequently tolerated out of necessity.
The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was a pre-disposing factor in setting the stage for homelessness in the United States. Long term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals into Single Room Occupancies and sent to community health centers for treatment and follow-up. It never quite worked out properly and this population largely was found living in the streets soon thereafter with no sustainable support system. In the United States, during the late 1970s, the deinstitutionalization of patients from state psychiatric hospitals was a precipitating factor which seeded the homeless population, especially in urban areas such as New York City.
The number of homeless people grew in the 1980s, as housing and social service cuts increased and the economy deteriorated. The United States government determined that somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 Americans were then homeless. There were some U.S. federal initiatives that aimed to help, end and prevent homelessness, however, there were no designated homeless-related programs in the Office of Management and Budget.
The History of the United States (1980–1991) illustrates that this was a time when there was economic distress, high unemployment, and was the period when chronic homelessness became a societal problem. In 1980, federal funds accounted for 22% of big city budgets, but by 1989 the similar aid composed only 6% of urban revenue (part of a larger 60% decrease in federal spending to support local governments). It is largely (although not exclusively) in these urban areas that homelessness became widespread and reached unprecedented numbers. Most notable were cuts to federal low-income housing programs. An advocacy group claims that Congress halved the budget for public housing and Section 8 (the government's housing voucher subsidization program) and that between the years of 1980 and 1989 HUD's budget authority was reduced from $74 billion to $19 billion. Such alleged changes is claimed to have resulted in an inadequate supply of affordable housing to meet the growing demand of low-income populations. In 1970 there were 300,000 more low-cost rental units (6.5 million) than low-income renter households (6.2 million). By 1985, the advocacy group claimed that the number of low-cost units had fallen to 5.6 million, and the number of low-income renter households had grown to 8.9 million, a disparity of 3.3 million units
In response to the ensuing homelessness crisis of the 1980s, concerned citizens across the country[who?] demanded that the federal government provide assistance. After many years of advocacy and numerous revisions, President Reagan signed into law the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987—this remains the only piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of homeless people. The McKinney-Vento Act paved the way for service providers in the coming years. During the 1990s homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other supportive services sprouted up in cities and towns across the nation. However, despite these efforts and the dramatic economic growth marked by this decade, homeless numbers remained stubbornly high. It became increasingly apparent that simply providing services to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness (i.e. shelter beds, hot meals, psychiatric counseling, etc.), although needed, were not successful at solving the root causes of homelessness. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH),a federal agency contained in the Executive Branch, was established in 1987 as a requirement of the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987.
Over the past decades, the availability and quality of data on homelessness has improved considerably, due, in part, to initiatives by the United States government. Since 2007, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued an Annual Homeless Assessment Report, which revealed the number of individuals and families that were homeless, both sheltered and unsheltered. In 2009, There were about 643,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons nationwide. About two-thirds of those stayed in emergency shelters or used transitional housing programs, with the remaining living on the street in abandoned buildings or other areas not meant for human habitation. About 1.56 million people, or about 0.5% of the U.S. population, used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009. Around 44% of homeless people were employed.
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the most common demographic features of all sheltered homeless people are: male, members of minority groups, older than age 31, and alone. More than 40 percent of sheltered homeless people have a disability. At the same time, sizable segments of the sheltered homeless population are white, non-Hispanic (38 percent), children (20 percent), or part of multi-person households (33 percent). Approximately 68 percent of the 1.6 million sheltered homeless people were homeless as individuals and 32 percent were persons in families.
In 2008 more than 66 percent of all sheltered homeless people were located in principal cities, with 32 percent located in suburban or rural jurisdictions. About 40 percent of people entering an emergency shelter or transitional housing program during 2008 came from another homeless situation (sheltered or unsheltered), 40 percent came from a housed situation (in their own or someone else's home), and the remaining 20 percent were split between institutional settings or other situations such as hotels or motels. Most people had relatively short lengths of stay in emergency shelters: 60 percent stayed less than a month, and a 33 percent stayed a week or less.
"In 2004 the United States Conference of Mayors... surveyed the mayors of major cities on the extent and causes of urban homelessness and most of the mayors named the lack of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness.... The next three causes identified by mayors, in rank order, were mental illness or the lack of needed services, substance abuse and lack of needed services, and low-paying jobs. The lowest ranking cause, cited by five mayors, was prisoner reentry. Other causes cited were unemployment, domestic violence, and poverty."
In response to the Great Recession in the United States, President Obama signed several pieces of legislation that addressed the homelessness crisis. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 addressed homelessness prevention, in which he allocated an additional $1.5 billion to HUD for the "Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP)." The purpose of HPRP was to assist individuals and families who are otherwise healthy and not chronically homeless in escaping homelessness or preventing homelessness of the vulnerable population. On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act into Public Law (Public Law 111-22 or "PL 111-22"), reauthorizing HUD's Homeless Assistance programs. It was part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009. The HEARTH act allows for the prevention of homelessness, rapid re-housing, consolidation of housing programs, and new homeless categories.
In the first year of the new decade, the Federal government launched of Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. Opening Doors is a publication of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which worked with all Federal agencies and many state and local stakeholders on its creation and vision, setting a ten-year path for the nation on preventing and ending all types of homelessness. This Plan was presented to the President and Congress in a White House Ceremony on June 22, 2010.
According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency shelter in 270 U.S. cities increased 13 percent in 2001 and 25 percent in 2005. 22 percent of those requesting emergency shelter were turned away.
Into 2016, homelessness is considered an epidemic in several American cities. "Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and seven of the 15 City Council members announced they would declare a state of emergency and try to find $100 million to cure what has become a municipal curse." Homelessness in New York City has tripled since January 2000, from approximately 20,000 people using provided nightly shelter services to more than 60,000 in January 2015. These counts do not include those persons who choose to stay away from shelter providers.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledges four categories of people who qualify as legally homeless: (1) those who are currently homeless, (2) those who will become homeless in the imminent future, (3) certain youths and families with children who suffer from home instability caused by a hardship, and (4) those who suffer from home instability caused by domestic violence.
According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. (1994), a person is considered homeless if they "lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and ... has a primary nighttime 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." Human Rights Watch (2010) identified emancipated teenagers in California as a new homeless population.
Homeless veterans are persons who have served in the armed forces who are homeless or living without access to secure and appropriate accommodation. There were an estimated 57,849 homeless veterans estimated in the United States during January 2013; or 12 percent of all homeless adults. Just under 8 percent of homeless U.S. veterans are female. Texas, California and Florida have the highest numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth under the age of 18; comprising 58% of the total homeless under 18 youth population 
Throughout the 21st Century, homeless service providers and the Federal government have been able to reduce chronic homelessness and homelessness among Veterans with targeted efforts and interagency cooperation on initiatives like the HUD-VASH program.
The number of homeless children in the US grew from 1.2 million in 2007 to 1.6 million in 2010. The United States defines homelessness per McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act.[definition needed]The number of homeless children reached record highs in 2011, 2012, and 2013 at about three times their number in 1983. An "estimated two million [youth] run away from or are forced out of their homes each year" in the United States. The difference in these numbers can be attributed to the temporary nature of street children in the United States, unlike the more permanent state in developing countries.
Street children in the United States tend to stay in the state, 83% do not leave their state of origin. If they leave, street children are likely to end up in large cities, notably New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. Street children are predominantly Caucasian and female in the United States, and 42% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).
The United States government has been making efforts since the late 1970s to accommodate this section of the population. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1978 made funding available for shelters and funded the National Runaway Switchboard. Other efforts include the Child Abuse and Treatment Act of 1974, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. There has also been a decline of arrest rates in street youth, dropping in 30,000 arrests from 1998 to 2007. Instead, the authorities are referring homeless youth to state-run social service agencies.
The homeless college youth accounts for over one million of the young homeless population. According to the Free Application Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, in 2013, over 58,000 students identified as homeless on their application. "The federal government defines these unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) as individuals who do not have "fixed, regular and adequate" housing and who are "not in the physical custody of a parent or adult." The McKinney Vento Act is considered the key piece of federal legislation pertaining to educational support for homeless children and teens. The causes of homelessness varies from student to student. There are two types of homeless college students: 1. students that are homeless upon entering college and 2. students who become homeless during college. For the youth that become homeless upon entering college, this situation represents the students that are having trouble sustaining housing due to job loss of their parent or guardian, the lack of a parent or guardian or because youth has been asked to leave the home or decided to runaway. The reasons for a college youth to become homeless while attending college are as follows: unable to sustain the financial expenses for housing and food. Secondly, by having the financial support given by family revoked. Fortunately, there are programs available at state colleges and universities that provide students with the necessary resources to obtain financial and housing stability and sustainability. There are also organizations such as the National Association For The Education Of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) that advocate for a higher education so the children and youth can fulfil their dreams. Another innovative model that can be of great help to college students experiencing homelessness is Single Stop USA, which operates in community colleges to help connect low-income students to the resources they need, including housing, to not only stay in school but to excel
Research shows that a disproportionate amount of homeless youth in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or LGBT. Researchers suggest that this is primarily a result of hostility or abuse from the youth's families leading to eviction or running away. In addition, LGBT youth are often at greater risk for certain dangers while homeless, including being the victims of crime, risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, and mental health concerns. LGBT homeless youth experience limited access to emergency housing options that affirm their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and according to a Note for the Family Court Review recommending policies regarding such housing options, as many as fifty percent of LGBT youth in emergency housing programs may be physically assaulted, a proportion further exacerbated at large shelters that house two hundred or more youth. In addition, homeless youth emergency housing programs may lead to the denial of services to LGBT youth under the religious aspects of this orientation of the individuals.
The 2000s saw a new population of those experiencing homelessness: families with children. While an emerging problem at the beginning of the decade, the problem continued to persist through 2010. At the close of the decade the trend continued unabated, with the number of individuals in homeless families increasing from 431,541 in 2007 to 535,447 in 2009.
The homeless community of the United States is aided by governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Homeless individuals report a lack of affordable housing as the number one reason for becoming homeless. Many non-profit organizations are in operation to serve this need—for example, the National Low Income Housing Coalition—but most lack the funding necessary to create enough housing. Several proposed policy measures are designed to secure such funding, such as the National Housing Trust Fund, but these have not been signed into law.
The two main types of housing programs provided for homeless people are transitional and permanent housing. Transitional housing programs are operated with one goal in mind – to help individuals and families obtain permanent housing as quickly as possible. Transitional housing programs assist homeless for a fixed amount of time or until they are able to obtain housing on their own and function successfully in the community, or whichever comes first.
Some shelters and associated charitable foundations have bought buildings and real estate to develop into permanent housing for the homeless in lieu of transitional Housing.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Administration have a special Section 8 housing voucher program called VASH (Veterans Administration Supported Housing), or HUD-VASH, which gives out a certain number of Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers to eligible homeless and otherwise vulnerable US armed forces veterans. The HUD-VASH program has been successful in housing many homeless veterans.
Housing First has met with success since its initial implementations in 2009 by providing relatively no strings-attached housing to homeless people with substance abuse problems or mental health issues. Housing First allows homeless men and women to be taken directly off the street into private community-based apartments, without requiring treatment first. This allows the homeless to return to some sense of normalcy, from which it is believed that they are better-poised to tackle their addictions or sicknesses. The relapse rate through these types of programs is lower than that of conventional homeless programs.
Housing First was initiated by the federal government's Interagency Council on Homelessness. It asks cities to come up with a plan to end chronic homelessness under the assumption that if homeless people are given independent housing immediately with some social and financial support, then there will be reduced needs for emergency homeless shelters.
Homeless individuals report mental illness as being the number three reason for becoming or staying homeless. Such illnesses are often closely linked with the fourth reason—substance abuse—and therefore it is generally accepted that both of these issues should be treated simultaneously. Although many medical, psychiatric, and counseling services exist to address these needs, it is commonly believed that without the support of reliable and stable housing such treatments remain ineffective. Furthermore, in the absence of a universal health-care plan, many of those in need cannot afford such services. Proposed legislation such as the Bringing America Home Act are intended to provide comprehensive treatment for many homeless mental and substance abuse patients.
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There are several policies dealing with homelessness. In 1980 the government decided to start sending funding to the homeless, but it was not until 1984 that shelters were built to accommodate and feed them. As it was shown though seventy percent required the homeless to attend a religious ceremony and spend only a couple of nights there. In the 1987 McKinney Act the problem with homelessness became known as a huge social problem. Later on, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110) amended the program explicitly to prohibit states that receive McKinney-Vento funds from segregating homeless students from non-homeless students, except for short periods of time for health and safety emergencies or to provide temporary, special, supplementary services. The Chronic Homelessness Initiative. The George W. Bush Administration established a national goal of ending chronic homelessness in ten years, by 2012. The idea of a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness began as a part of a 10-year plan to end homelessness in general adopted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) in 2000. The following year, then-Secretary Martinez announced HUD's commitment to ending chronic homelessness at the NAEH annual conference. In 2002, as a part of his FY2003 budget, President Bush made "ending chronic homelessness in the next decade a top objective." The bi-partisan, congressionally mandated, Millennial Housing Commission, in its Report to Congress in 2002, included ending chronic homelessness in 10 years among its principal recommendations. By 2003, the Interagency Council on Homelessness had been re-engaged and charged with pursuing the President's 10-year plan. The Administration has recently undertaken some collaborative efforts to reach its goal of ending chronic homelessness in 10 years. On October 1, 2003, the Administration announced the award of over $48 million in grants aimed at serving the needs of the chronically homeless through two initiatives. The "Ending Chronic Homelessness through Employment and Housing" initiative was a collaborative grant offered jointly by HUD and the Department of Labor (DOL). The initiative offered $10 million from HUD and $3.5 million from DOL to help the chronically homeless in five communities gain access to employment and permanent housing. Section 8 is the core housing program that helps extremely low-income families accommodate the gap between their incomes below 30 percent of the median income for each community. The government assists homeless families by awarding grants and vouchers. Vouchers are available to the families who are most needy and they are used to pay for housing found in the private market. Currently there are policy changes in who receives vouchers and there will be a reduction in the amount of vouchers granted to the homeless population.
Public libraries can and often do significantly assist with the issues represented by homelessness. In many communities, the library is the only facility that offers free computer and internet access in their community, resources often necessary for job applications. They also provide resources to do research into healthcare, and to help better their education.
The news article and video entitled, "SF library offers Social Services to Homeless," speaks about the step of the San Francisco library having a full-time social worker at the library to reduce and help homeless patrons. It mentions that Leah Esguerra, who is a psychiatric social worker, has a usual routine which is done by making her rounds to different homeless patrons and greeting them to see if she could help them. She offers help in different forms that could range from linking patrons with services or providing them with mental health counseling. She also supervises a 12-week vocational program that culminates in gainful employment in the library for the formerly homeless (Knight, 2010). The changes have garnered positive results from all patrons. Since this service started, staff at the library stated that they have noticed a drop in inappropriate behavior.
The San Jose University Library became one of the first academic libraries to pay attention to the needs of the homeless and implement changes to better serve this population. In 2007, the merged University Library and Public Library made the choice to be proactive in reaching out. Collaborations with nonprofit organizations in the area culminated in computer classes being taught, as well as nutrition classes, family literacy programs, and book discussion groups. After eighteen months, the library staff felt they still were not doing enough and "analyzed program participation trends supplemented by observation and anecdotes" in order to better understand the information needs of the homeless. When it was understood that these needs are complex, additional customer service training was provided to all staff who were interested. Once the staff more fully understood the needs of the homeless, it was determined that many programs in place already would be helpful to the homeless with a few minor adjustments. Programs were tailored to meet these needs. Additional changes implemented included temporary computer passes and generous in-house reading space to counteract the policies in place that may prevent the homeless from obtaining a library card. New York Public Library offers services to those homeless residing in shelters.
The Dallas Public Library started "Coffee and Conversation" which is part of their Homeless Engagement Initiative. The staff hopes these bimonthly events between staff and homeless patrons will help them better serve the homeless population in Dallas. They also sponsor Street View podcast, a library produced podcast featuring the stories and experiences of the city's homeless population. Guests often include social service providers.
In May 1991, Richard Kreimer, a homeless man in Morristown, N.J. sued the local public library and the Town of Morristown for kicking him out of the library after other patrons complained about his disruptive behavior and pungent body odor. He later won the case and settled for $250,000.
Homelessness has a tremendous effect on a child's education. Education of homeless youth is thought to be essential in breaking the cycle of poverty. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act mandates equal opportunity to a free public education to homeless students. This act is supposed to break down the barriers homeless students have to receiving an education. These barriers include residency restriction, medical record verification, and transportation issues. Once a student surpasses these barriers, they are still subject to the stigma of being homeless, and the humiliation they feel because of their situation. Some families do not report their homelessness, while others are unaware of the opportunities available to them. Many report that maintaining a stable school environment helps the students because it's the only thing that remains normal. Many homeless students fall behind their peers in school due to behavioral disorders, and lack of attendance in school.
Since the housing market fall out there has been a rise in the number of homeless students. NAEHCY or the National Association for the Education of Homeless for Children and Youth, has reported a 99% increase in homeless students within a three-month period (San Diego).
Of 1,636 schools, 330 reported no increase, 847 reported an increase of half, and 459 reported an increase of 25% or more. Due to underfunding many school districts are struggling to provide the necessary services to support homeless students, as mandated in the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act, such as rising transportation needs and the greater range and usefulness of services.
One of the biggest challenges our district faces is providing transportation to students who are experiencing homelessness. There are few approaches that our district can utilize to provide transportation for these students. Our city has only one taxi cab service and no public bus system. Our cab company is small and simply cannot fulfill all of our transportation requests. When it's possible, we add students to existing bus routes or set up a contractual agreement with the student's parent/guardian. However, there have been many situations where none of these options have worked. Another challenge our district faces is providing proper outer-wear for students who are homeless. Being that we live in central Wisconsin and have long, cold winters, all students need proper outerwear to go outside. Proper outerwear includes snow boots, hat, mittens, snow pants, and a winter jacket that has a working zipper or buttons on it. This expense adds up quickly and is hard to provide to the increasing number of homeless students.
This is especially worrisome since homeless students are 1) 1.5 times more likely to perform below grade level in reading; 2) 1.5 times more likely to perform below grade level in spelling; and 3) 2.5 times more likely to perform below grade level in math. There are a few worries that there will be false reports of homeless students, but mostly it's not an issue.
Various laws have both directly and indirectly criminalized the homeless and people attempting to feed homeless people outdoors. At least 31 cities have criminalized feeding the homeless.
In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized the United States for the criminalization of homelessness, noting that such "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" is in violation of international human rights treaty obligations.
Measures passed "prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws." Violators of such laws typically incur criminal penalties, which result in fines and/or incarceration.
In April 2006 the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that "making it a crime to be homeless by charging them with a crime is in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments." However, on October 15, 2007, the Court vacated its Opinion when, on appeal the parties settled the case out of court.
The City could not expressly criminalize the status of homelessness by making it a crime to be homeless without violating the Eighth Amendment, nor can it criminalize acts that are an integral aspect of that status. Because there is substantial and undisputed evidence that the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles far exceeds the number of available shelter beds at all times, including on the nights of their arrest or citation, Los Angeles has encroached upon Appellants' Eighth Amendment protections by criminalizing the unavoidable act of sitting, lying or sleeping at night while being involuntarily homeless.
… the Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
… By our decision, we in no way dictate to the City that it must provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets of Los Angeles at any time and at any place within the City. All we hold is that, so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds, the City may not enforce section 41.18(d) at all times and places throughout the City against homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public.
On June 19, 2014 the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down a 1983 ordinance in the city of Los Angeles which "bans people from living in cars or recreational vehicles on city streets or in parking lots" as being "unconstitutionally vague ... Unlike other cities, which ban overnight parking or sleeping in vehicles, Los Angeles' law prohibits using cars as 'living quarters; both overnight and 'day-by-day, or otherwise.'"
Homeless rights advocates are pushing for "Right to Rest" bills in several states in 2015, which would overturn laws that target homeless people for sitting, eating, and sleeping in public places.
The past two decades have seen a growing number of violent acts committed upon people experiencing homelessness—the rate of such documented crimes in 2005 was 30% higher than of those in 1999. 75% of all perpetrators are under the age of 25.
In recent years, largely due to the efforts of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and academic researchers, the problem of violence against the homeless has gained national attention. In their report: Hate, Violence, and Death on Mainstreet USA, the NCH reported 386 violent acts committed against homeless persons over the period, among which 155 were lethal. The NCH called those acts hate crimes (they retain the definition of the American Congress). They insist that so called bumfight videos disseminate hate against the homeless and dehumanize them.
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, San Bernardino in conjunction with the NCH found that 155 homeless people were killed by non-homeless people in "hate killings", while 76 people were killed in all the other traditional hate crime homicide categories such as race and religion, combined. The CSHE contends that negative and degrading portrayals of the homeless contribute to a climate where violence takes place.
Various studies and surveys indicate that homeless people have a much higher criminal victimization rate than the non-homeless, but that most incidents never get reported to authorities. A 2007 study found that the number of violent crimes against the homeless is increasing. In 2013 there were 109 attacks on homeless people, a 24 per cent increase on the previous year, according to the NCH. Eighteen people died as a result of the attacks. In July 2014 three boys 15, 16 and 18, were arrested and charged with beating to death two homeless men with bricks and a metal pole in Albuquerque.
A 2011 study led by Dr. Rebecca T. Brown in Boston, Massachusetts conducted by the Institute for Aging Research (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School), Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program found the elderly homeless population had "higher rates of geriatric syndromes, including functional decline, falls, frailty and depression, than seniors in the general population and that many of these conditions may be easily treated if detected". The report was published in the Journal of Geriatric Internal Medicine.
Many advocates for the homeless contend that a key difficulty is the social stigma surrounding homelessness. Many associate a lack of a permanent home with a lack of a proper bathroom and limited access to regular grooming. Thus, the homeless become "aesthetically unappealing" to the general public. Research shows that "physically attractive persons are judged more positively than physically unattractive individuals on various traits…reflecting social competence."
In addition to the physical component of stigmatization exists an association of the homeless with mental illness. Many people consider the mentally ill to be irresponsible and childlike and treat them with fear and exclusion, using their mental incapacitation as justification for why they should be left out of communities.
There is anecdotal evidence that many Americans complain about the presence of homeless people, blame them for their situation, and feel that their requests for money or support (usually via begging) are unjustified. In the 1990s, particularly, many observers and media articles spoke of "compassion fatigue" a belief that the public had grown weary of this seemingly intractable problem.
A common misconception persists that many individuals who panhandle are not actually homeless, but actually use pity and compassion to fund their lifestyles, making up to $20 an hour and living luxurious lives. This exception to the rule seems more prevalent due to media attention, but in reality, only a few cases exist.
Public opinion surveys show relatively little support for this view, however. A 1995 paper in the American Journal of Community Psychology concluded that "although the homeless are clearly stigmatized, there is little evidence to suggest that the public has lost compassion and is unwilling to support policies to help homeless people." A Penn State study in 2004 concluded that "familiarity breeds sympathy" and greater support for addressing the problem.
A 2007 survey conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization that helps leaders and their citizens navigate through complex social issues, found that 67 percent of New Yorkers agreed that most homeless people were without shelter because of "circumstances beyond their control," including high housing costs and lack of good and steady employment. More than one-third (36 percent) said they worried about becoming homeless themselves, with 15 percent saying they were "very worried." More interestingly, 90 percent of New Yorkers believed that everyone has a right to shelter, and 68 percent believed that the government is responsible for guaranteeing that right to its citizens. The survey found support for investments in prevention, rental assistance and permanent housing for the homeless.
Public Agenda has also concluded, however, that the public's sympathy has limits. In a 2002 national survey, the organization found 74 percent say the police should leave a homeless person alone if they are not bothering anyone. In contrast, 71 percent say the police should move the homeless if they are keeping customers away from a shopping area and 51 percent say the homeless should be moved if they are driving other people away from a public park.
Completely accurate and comprehensive statistics are difficult to acquire for any social study, but especially so when measuring the ambiguous hidden, and erratic reality of homelessness. All figures given are estimates. In addition, these estimates represent overall national averages; the proportions of specific homeless communities can vary substantially depending on local geography.
Perhaps the most accurate, comprehensive, and current data on homelessness in the United States is reported annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR), released in June of every year since 2007. The AHAR report relies on data from two sources: single-night, point-in-time counts of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations reported on the Continuum of Care applications to HUD; and counts of the sheltered homeless population over a full year provided by a sample of communities based on data in their Management Information Systems (HMIS).
Over the course of the year (October 2009-September 2010), the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report found that 1,593,150 individuals experienced homelessness Most were homeless temporarily. The chronically homeless population (those with repeated episodes or who have been homeless for long periods) decreased from 175,914 in 2005 to 123,833 in 2007.
According to the NCHWIH report:
According to the 2014 NCHWIH report:
According to the 2010 SAMHSA report, among long-term stayers (persons staying six months or more) in emergency shelters in 2008:
According to the 2014 NCHWIH report:
According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:
According to analyses of data from the 1996 NSHAPCxiv:
According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:
According to analyses of data from the 1996 NSHAPCxiv:
According to the 1996 Urban Institute findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (UIHAC) report
According to the 1996 UIHAC report
According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:
According to the 2010 SAMHSA report: Research on shelter use in New York City and Philadelphia concluded that
In New York City
Data from the 1996 NSHAPC show that about 50% of people who were homeless were experiencing their first or second episode of homelessness, which typically lasted a few weeks or months to one year.
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