The case of six women evicted from the homeless shelter of the House of Hope a few days ago has brought our attention back to homelessness problem in Savannah. Savannah is not alone dealing with the problem of homelessness. Homelessness has been a significant social problem in American cities since the early 1980s. It has proven to be an intractable and highly visible social problem. Over two decades, many scholars and policymakers argued over the ways of eradicating the homelessness problem. In the late 1980s, policymakers had expected that they could end the homelessness problem quickly. The programs and services to eradicate homelessness problems were expanded considerably, but the number of homeless has yet to decrease.
From the January 2007 homeless census, Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless reported 659 people lived beneath overpasses, in the woods and in abandoned cars. In addition, Savannah's about 400 homeless shelters beds were at capacity. They also reported that over 4,000 people seek homeless services in Savannah in a year.
Homeless people are not a homogenous population. In the early 1980s, homeless people typically were pictured as single men on skid row. Such stereotypes of homelessness have changed in the past two decades. The homeless population now includes more women and families with young children. According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), homeless families account for 34 percent of homeless population. Most of the homeless families are single women with children.
There are many studies indicating the differences among subpopulations of homeless people. The NSHAPC study reveals that the reasons for becoming homeless for homeless families differ from those for homeless singles. The most frequently given reason for becoming homeless for homeless families and for homeless single women is “couldn’t pay rent;” while the top reason for homeless single men was “lost job or job ended.” Other important reasons indicated by homeless families are “landlord made client leave” and “problem with residence or area where residence is located.” These reasons are not among the top four reasons for homeless singles. On the other hand, two of the top four reasons for homeless singles (“was drinking” and “was doing drugs”) are not among the top four reasons for homeless families.
Homelessness studies found that homeless families were more likely than homeless individuals to be in a first homeless spell lasting less than six months. Homeless families are more likely to use shelters or transitional housing and less likely to have spent any time in places not meant for habitation than homeless individuals. Homeless families were also reported to have higher median income than homeless individuals. Homeless women with children received significantly more public assistance funds during their lifetime than did homeless single women.
Other studies also reveal that homeless singles are more likely to have alcohol and substance abuse problems than homeless families. Homeless families are also less likely to have mental illness than single adults. Approximately a quarter of homeless singles have experienced mental hospitalization. On the other hand, adult family members had rates of prior mental hospitalization of less than ten percent.
There is also a relationship between domestic violence and homelessness. The 2000 U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that domestic violence as one of the primary causes of homeless families. The NSHAPC study reveals that two of the top four reasons for becoming homeless for women are “I or my children were abused, beaten, and/or I was afraid of the violence in the household.” These reasons are not among the top four reasons for both homeless men with children and homeless single men.
Other than history of domestic violence, gender perspective on homelessness presents considerable differences between homeless men and homeless women in many respects. Dozens of studies on homeless women and homeless men show that the two homeless types differ in reasons of becoming homeless, perceived needs, the length of homelessness period, the occurrence of alcohol, drug and mental health problem, family and social relationship, health risk and physical symptom, legal involvement and work history.
The understanding of these differences is quite important to better address the complexity of homelessness problem. Each subpopulation of homeless people has distinctive characteristics that distinguish it from others. Homelessness policy should not lump different homeless subpopulations together. Homelessness policy should take into account the heterogeneity of the homeless population to effectively prevent and address different homeless subpopulations.
(This post also appeared at The Savannah Tribune on August 22, 2007)