Homelessness Today

Freedigitalphotos.net, Photo by Serge Bertasius Photography.

We all have had some kind of encounter with the homeless. Maybe your experience was similar to my early experience with them. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We didn’t see the homeless on street corners or benches. If we wanted to see the homeless we went on a field trip, or an excursion. It was a zoo or museum exhibit type experience. I remember as a teen taking a trip from Milwaukee to Chicago to tour the Pacific Garden Mission and interact with actual homeless people. It was not until I was out of college and put myself in a position to interact with the homeless in a meaningful way on a daily basis that I really began to understand who these individuals were and why they were there. Even now, as I look at recently collected information I am forced to consider that some ways of helping the homeless that don’t make sense to me actually seem to work.

Part 1

Let’s start out by looking at who the homeless are. I know when I think of the homeless I think of the single mother with a duck row of children. Statistics say homeless people fall into slightly different categories. According to the most recent data from the US Department of housing and urban development [1]  Most homeless people are individuals (63%, or 362, 163 people). Families constituted 37% of the homeless population or 216, 261 people, almost a quarter of the homes population are children. If you want to get to know who homeless people are you also need to acquaint yourself with chronic homelessness. These are the people most of us think of as homeless; those whose full time job is living life without permanent shelter. HUD defines these individuals and families as those “with disabilities who have either been continuously homeless for a year or more or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.” [1] These are also the people that governments want most to address. Chronic homeless individuals account for about 15% or 84,291 of the homeless population, while chronically homeless families account for about 3%, or 15,143 of the total homeless population. One group that possesses their own number in the homeless population is veterans. In the most recent count veterans were 9% of the homes population or 49,933 individuals. Another population to consider are unaccompanied children, who account for almost 8% of the homeless population or 45, 205 people.

I found it interesting that HUD reaches these numbers by taking a nation wide count of the homeless every other year on a single night in January. Some Organizations count more frequently, but they aren’t required to. [2] This article talks in detail about how the nation counts their homeless. [3]

Based on these numbers the majority of the homeless won’t be homeless long. Among the homeless there are subgroups that are very concerning, like the unaccompanied children. Some homeless groups seem to point to issues in society, like how we treat our veterans, and prior to that what happens to America’s troops that lead such a percent of them to become homeless. So who should we concentrate on helping, and in what way? When looking at these individual groups it would seem that the needs of the military would differ pretty greatly from the needs of a 17 year old who was let loose into the world too soon.

Part 2

Many people and organizations have dived in to the problem, leaving us with a legacy of approaches that both individuals and the homeless understand. Lets look at what is being done and what we know or don’t know about how well these things work.

1. Giving money or other items to homeless panhandlers: First, let me clarify that one can’t assume that “panhandler” and “homeless” go hand in hand. A generous person walking down the street can’t know what kind of situation the man or woman behind that cardboard “God Bless” is from. Which turns out to be a big part of the problem one runs into when choosing to give money or socks to a person you don’t know. One of the most recent bits of research done on panhandlers was a survey conducted in San Francisco in March of 2013. This article from the SFGate [4] gives a good summary of what can be learned from that research.  One thing I think about when I read that “94%” of the homeless population interviewed uses the money for food and “44%” of the population interviewed uses it for drugs and alcohol, is that the homeless people being interviewed did not know the interviewers and were given $5 to participate in the interview. I don’t know if this skewed results but it could have. I think this highlights how much is truly unknown when people participate in this type of interaction. This is the zone where people who have done the footwork to have a relationship with the homeless have a distinct advantage. James Winans, Head of Development at New York’s Bowery Mission, recommends asking the individual panhandler you are interested in helping what they need and why “To find out what someone needs takes time and that’s a higher level of sacrifice,”Winan’s says, “But I think it’s actually more effective. If people are willing to put themselves out there to panhandle, they’re usually willing to tell you about why they’re doing it.” [5] . Whether or not you choose to give to a panhandler is a choice that most people who work with the homeless respect as an individual call. Interestingly, in all of this discussion about whether your gift to a panhandler will be used for good or ill, I find very little if any discussion about if that donation will actually get the panhandler off the corner and into housing and employment. As we begin to look at these big problems I think we can understand that giving a person one handout one day may be uplifting for both parties in the moment, but will not address most of the complex issues that keep panhandlers in the trenches year after year. For those solutions we need to look further.

2. Volunteering in a soup kitchen: This one is tricky. I have found a number of articles from England that seem to vehemently oppose soup kitchens. This article from BBC news titled: “Do Soup Kitchens Help the Homeless?” [6] highlights the battle occurring in England over the topic. Shelters in England are claiming that if homeless people can get a meal in the soup kitchen they prefer to stay on the streets rather than get aid in a shelter. Those who have this opinion are basically equating entering a shelter with the long-term benefit of getting off the street. This article by Jon Kuhrt [7] is based mostly on one person’s opinion, but Kuhrt is experienced with helping homeless people in London. His view toward both giving money to panhandlers and soup kitchens (soup runs in London) is negative.

I also found a radio episode from NPR titled “Beyond Charity: Turning The Soup Kitchen Upside Down” [8]. It talks about the DC Central Kitchen, which is a multi-faceted organization that has gone way beyond merely ladling soup, and delved into job creation and healthy food distribution among those who are low income.

When looking through the internet for statistics on whether soup kitchens contribute to the overall long-term wellbeing of the homeless what pops up are websites of places one can go to volunteer, and how-tos about finding an appropriate place to volunteer. Basically, there are myriad instructions for those of us who have to hand a meal to those who don’t, with apparently no one very interested in what happens to the have-nots after their last coffee refill. While I obviously can’t speak authoritatively on how helpful soup kitchens are because there seems to be no information, I can speak to soup kitchens as being a widespread way for people to participate in an activity of unknown usefulness, and to their desire to actively recruit those who want to serve. It seems to me that what would have greater benefit to those using the soup kitchens and those serving in them are to find out how this piece contributes to positive outcomes for those with the complex need of living off the street. Then maximize those benefits, while cutting down on distractions from them.

3.Supporting local homeless shelters: Homeless shelters appear to be in a better position to address some of the reasons people are homeless in the first place. Once an individual or family enters a shelter the staff has the opportunity to get to know them and their needs and point them in the direction of getting those needs met. Most shelters are first come first served, so how consistent can that relationship be? While the relationships shelters forge with the homeless seem to be a very important part of helping those people improve their lives, it is not understood exactly how much. This NPR episode talks about a homeless man’s experience avoiding shelters and provides some interesting insight into how the homeless community may view them. [9] . Another unfavorable position is taken in this article by Betty Reid Mandell [10] 

One thing to consider when looking at how homeless shelters affect the overall situation for the homeless is to look at how recently shelters have entered the homeless landscape. While one form of homelessness or another has been with America for many generations, [11] Homeless shelters as a way of warehousing homeless people only really became mainstreamed in the 1980’s. When state psychiatric hospitals began closing their doors in the 60’s and 70’s, allowing their patients to escape the institutionalized life they were living, many of these people never did find their place in society. Homeless shelters expanded to accommodate the rush of new people needing shelter. [12]  Today we tend to assume homeless shelters are just a part of life, and they are doing a good service that fills a need. In many ways they are fillings needs, but by their nature shelters were only meant to fill temporary ones. Many shelters have long-term programs for the homeless to help them find housing, childcare and jobs. If these programs are working, however, shouldn’t there be fewer people in the shelters over time? Shouldn’t shelters be disappearing? The question we are left with then, is, what parts of the shelter idea are beneficial to the long-term well-being of the homeless, and which ones are not working?

4.Housing First: This initiative involves prioritizing getting homeless people into permanent housing prior to helping them in any other way. Then, once the homeless are in the housing, the other areas of their life wherein they need help are addressed voluntarily. There are no pre-requisites: no drug testing, no nagging you to get a job, and no one delivering your depression meds to your door. When a homeless person is ready for help, social workers are available. This form of helping the homeless, in contrast to the other forms I have mentioned HAS been researched. For example this article in the Altantic by Alana Semuels [13] gives a run down on the findings.  Proponents of this method are highly of the mindset that this IS the way to end homelessness, and in reality the state of Utah is on the verge of proving it. The state of Utah has decreased their homeless population by 72% over the past nine years based on Their “Comprehensive Report on Homelessness” [14]. . This article from Mother Jones titled “Room For Improvement” [15] . details exactly how Utah pulled out that number and why this system works for them. The idea of housing first is not new, but it seems that many people who are used to the old system of fixing the person and preparing them for housing, still have a hard time accepting it as a viable solution. Proponents of the present system fear putting homeless people into a house no questions asked may leave a wake of the same broken people living dissatisfying lives inside a room rather than on the streets. Research leads us to think that, while not without its flaws, Housing first initiatives give the homeless the boost they need to start dealing with problems they know they have. What do you think?


  1. US Department of Housing and Urban Development 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to congress, October 2014, Authors: Meghan Henry, Dr. Alvaro Cortes, Azim Shivji, and Katherine Buck, Abt Associates.
  2. National Alliance to End Homelessness http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/snapshot_of_homelessness
  3. How U.S. Cities Count Their Homeless by Rosie Cima Feb 17, 2015 posted on the website Priceonomics http://priceonomics.com/how-us-cities-count-their-homeless/
  4. SFGate, “The city’s panhandlers tell their own stories” By Heather Knight, Updated 5:22 am, Sunday, October 27, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/The-city-s-panhandlers-tell-their-own-stories-4929388.php
  5. “Brother, Should You Spare a Dime? How to Handle a Panhandler” written by Jacob Davidson on Oct. 7, 2014 http://time.com/money/3478359/beggar-panhandler-oklahoma-city-new-car-red-fiat/
  6. “Do Soup Kitchens Help the Homeless?” By Lissa Cook, Last updated December 23, 2007 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7155783.stm
  7. “When Helping the Homeless Doesn’t Help” by Jon Kurht (First published in Third Way magazine, May 2011 http://resistanceandrenewal.net/ethics/when-helping-people-doesnt-help-full-article/
  8. “Beyond Charity: Turning the Soup Kitchen Uspide Down” Hosted by Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, NPR radio “The Salt” radio show September 20, 2014, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/20/349859645/beyond-charity-turning-the-soup-kitchen-upside-down
  9. “Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters” Updated December 6, 20122:04 PM ET, Ari Shapiro, host, David Pirtle, member of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, National Coalition for the Homeless
    James Greene, director, Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission
    Kathy Sibert, executive director, A-SPAN http://www.npr.org/2012/12/06/166666265/why-some-homeless-choose-the-streets-over-shelters
  10. “Homeless Shelters: A Feeble Response to Homelessness” by Betty Reid Mandell, Summer 2007, New Politics, Vol:XI-3 Whole #: 43, http://newpol.org/content/homeless-shelters-feeble-response-homelessness
  11. “The History of Homelessness in America 1640s to present” by Robert Fischer, Plymouth Congregational Church, November 12, 2011, http://www.dceh.org/the-history-of-homelessness-in-america-1640s-to-present/
  12. “Homelessness in the United States”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_the_United_States
  13. “The Best Way to End Homelessness”, by Alana Semuels, July 11, 2015, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/the-best-way-to-end-homelessness/398282/
  14. “Comprehensive Report on Homelessness”, State of Utah 2014, by Jayme Day, Lloyd Pendleton,Michelle Smith, Alex Hartvigsen, Patrick Frost, Ashley Tolman, Tamera Kohler, Karen Quackenbush, http://jobs.utah.gov/housing/scso/documents/homelessness2014.pdf
  15. “Room For Improvement”, by Scott Carrier on Tue. February 17, 2015, Mother Jones, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/02/housing-first-solution-to-homelessness-utah




  1. What has your experience with the homeless been like? Have you looked on from far away, read about them, know some homeless people by name? Based on this experience describe the homeless people you have encountered whether briefly or in detail.
  2. Based on what you know and what you have learned, what do you think the biggest problems are for the homeless? Which populations of homeless are you most concerned about?
  3. How would you rate the possible solutions above as to how effective you think they are and why? What are their pros and cons? Are there any solutions that aren’t represented?
  4. What role do you think governments, non-profits, and individuals can play in helping the homeless get housing and jobs?
  5. What is your solution? Based on who the homeless are, what we know right now about what works and what doesn’t, and your own experience, what would be your 3 or 5 or 10 step plan?
  6. What do you think it would take for our world to eliminate homelessness? What would a world without homelessness look like?

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