When my sister and I were about seven or eight years old our parents took us on vacation to Washington D.C. over the course of the trip I gained a number of new experiences and revelations about city life that I hadn’t previously known: it was the first (and still the only) time I’ve ever traveled by airplane, it was the first time I had ever seen a city that big with that many people, and when I first realized the expense of cab fare and how little I really cared about walking to see every monument in our nation’s capital. Though one of the most memorable and impacting observations and realizations that made on that trip, that I had never before seen or been aware of, were the homeless people living on the streets; not only in Washington D.C., but in cities all over the country.
As a kid it really bothered and saddened me to see people hunched on the corners of buildings and along sidewalks, bundled-up in ragged clothing and rattling cups and dishes filled with loose change. Prior to visiting Washington D.C. the only other places that I had been (that I can wholly recall) was Fort Worth, Texas, where I was born, and Auburn, where my family and I moved to when I was about five and still currently reside. Therefore, I had never seen a homeless person or really given any consideration to the idea that not everyone can provide for themselves or be provided for by someone else. I had no concept of the different possible reasons that led to those people ending up in such a position; all I knew was that they had no home and no money and for a kid, or for me at least, this can be pretty upsetting. I wanted to give change to every person I saw pan-handling on the street until my father quickly pointed out that it isn’t possible to help everyone by giving them a few lousy cents and by doing so is ultimately of little or no help to them in the long-run (it could be spent on drugs or alcohol).
The confusion or misunderstanding that I had about homelessness as a child was: why they were homeless? Why didn’t they get jobs if they had no money or place to live? If there were no jobs or homes in the city where they were living why didn’t they move to a smaller city or town like Auburn where there seemingly aren’t any homeless people? Of course things aren’t as cut and dry in the real world as they are from a child’s perspective of life and solving a problem like homelessness can be the result of a multitude of factors that led there and isn’t necessarily as simple as finding a job or a place to live.
There are a number of reasons that homelessness is most common among larger cities. The most obvious reason being that there are more people in bigger cities, more people to house (or not), more jobs to be lost, more people to bum money from, so on and so forth. Another reason larger cities have a higher homeless population is because there is greater/better access to food programs, homeless shelters, and also more job opportunities. Although homelessness is most commonly associated and is predominately concentrated around bigger cities and urban areas, there is what is known as “rural homelessness” which is distinct from being homeless in the city. The difference between being homeless in the city and a rural environment are the living conditions (space); for example someone who is homeless in the city may live in an alley of a street or under a bridge, whereas, someone who is homeless in rural areas may live in a car or a trailer.
As a child I assumed that a person who was homeless had simply lost his/her job and as a result lost everything. Clearly that’s not the case and as we know now people who are homeless have ended up that because of reasons that are out of their control such as mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction; two major contributing factors to the homeless population. Results of a study done in Los Angeles by Paul Koegel and M. Audrey Burnam  stated that “62.9% of those individuals in the inner-city homeless sample at some point in their lives met criteria for alcoholism. While 15.3% experienced symptoms of alcoholism within two weeks of the interview”. Also an article in the New York Times written by David Bird  stated that the issue of homelessness in New York City was, “even worse with the state’s program of discharging many patients from mental institutions into communities”. A great example of mental illness leading to homelessness is a book by Steve Lopez titled The Soloistwhich was made into a feature film of the same name; it is the true story of a brilliant musician Nathaniel Ayers who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and becomes homeless.
1. Rural Homelessness: Published by the National Coalition for the Homeless, July 2009 http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/rural.html
2.Alcoholism Among Homeless Adults in the Inner City of Los Angeles: Paul Koegel, PhD, M. Audrey Burnam, PhD http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?volume=45&issue=11&page=1011
3. Poverty in New York: The Homeless: David Bird, The New York Times: March 8, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition socialstratification.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/poverty_in_new_york.doc