Vulnerable Populations: Homeless People

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Vulnerable Populations: Homeless people

Vulnerable Populations


People living and begging on the streets have become a familiar sight in many U.S. cities, where panhandling on street corners and sleeping on grates have become more and more common. Yet most experts agree that widespread homelessness has existed in the U.S. only since the 1970s, and really bad homelessness only since the 1980s. Since the 1990s, some homeless advocates and government officials have tried to eradicate the most visible and persistent form of homelessness, what experts refer to as the problem of the chronically homeless (Bates & Toro, 1999).

It gets defined that a chronically homeless person as one with a disabling condition that can be physical or mental, or someone with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, and who has been homeless for at least a year or three times within the past three years. Chronically homeless people tend to be the most visible segment of the homeless population. They also tend to be older than other homeless people, and outreach workers consider them the hardest to remove from the streets (Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991).


Homelessness is not new in the U.S. Vagrants, hoboes, beggars and tramps, most of whom had no recognizable home, have been part of the American scene and American myth since the country's beginnings. Most trappers, hunters, scouts, explorers and cowboys were unmarried loners, forever on the move, isolated from families and friends, and dependent on the temporary companionship of other loners. Vagrants in the years following the Civil War included wounded war veterans, displaced rural families and unemployed residents of the rapidly industrializing big cities. During that period, charities, religious groups and local governments were the main sources of services for the poor, unemployed and homeless (Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991).

However, things changed during the Depression in the early 1930s. So serious were the economic and social hardships facing the country that the federal government under President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to take a more active role in Americans' lives. Double-digit unemployment, widespread hunger and roads clogged with homeless families overwhelmed the traditional sources of help. Bread lines, soup kitchens and shantytowns were evidence of the need for drastic action. Roosevelt began pushing through Congress the so-called New Deal, a collection of government-sponsored programs to fight homelessness, unemployment and poverty (Shinn & Bassuk, 2004).

Moreover, the economic upswing fueled by World War II in the 1940s sharply reduced the homeless population. As the economy continued strong in the 1950s, homelessness became associated primarily with alcoholic or mentally ill men in urban slums. The roots of modern homelessness stemmed from policy shifts in the early 1960s toward a "community-based" approach to mental illness. Mental-health centers in neighborhoods replaced the large, isolated state-operated hospitals and asylums for the mentally ill (Shinn & Bassuk, 2004).

However, at the beginning of the 1980s, the problem of homelessness seemed to explode across the nation. Americans were confronted with unforgettable images in newspapers and on television of people sleeping on subway grates in Washington, ...
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