Homelessness in the City

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”[1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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




Filed under City Cultures

11 responses to “Homelessness in the City

  1. I thought the difference between urban and rural homelessness was the most interesting part of this posting. I had never thought about the different kinds of marginal space that might get used by homeless people in the city vs. the country. Really interesting!

  2. I found this post to be very interesting and gave me new insight to the spaces of homelessness. I could really relate to your reaction of being exposed to homeless people as well. I grew up in the small town of Wetumpka, AL. It’s basically one of those cities that proves all small town stereotypes to be true. I guess you could say it kept most kids fairly sheltered. My home was even outside the “city limits” located smack in the middle of what used to be a miniature horse pasture. This space allowed me to grow up trusting people (probably a little too much and easy), giving most the benefit of the doubt, and seeing that there was nothing wrong with having good intentions for others. Upon my first major city encounter to New York when I was about fifteen, these ideals quickly changed. What a culture shock! Even as a teen it was hard for me to understand why I shouldn’t try to help out the homeless people on the streets of New York. No way they would use MY money to buy alcohol or drugs. Of course they would use it to buy food or another necessity to survive. I can remember it being such a challenge to stare at the sidewalk ignoring the begs for any spare change or small contribution I could give them.

    With that, I thought it was very interesting that you hit on the different spaces of homelessness. With the big culture shock and thinking to myself, “woah, homeless people actually do exist. They’re not just on T.V.” it is easy to see that my small hometown held no homeless people, at least that I can remember. I have often wondered why homelessness occurs more in certain areas than others and I was glad to see that you provided statistics of homeless people and of the spaces it occurs more or less. Like you stated in your post, homelessness can occur due to several different factors including the population. Population is much higher in larger cities, which creates more of a competition among jobs and pay, and making it easier for people to lose their jobs. Larger cities also contain a higher cost of living, making it difficult for many to afford survival, forcing them out onto the streets. These populated spaces make all the difference in homelessness. I also liked that you added the term “rural homelessness” and brought to my attention that homelessness isn’t necessarily the dirty guy on a street corner wearing the only clothes he owns layered on his body, finger-less gloves, and holding a sign that says, “will work for food”. Homelessness doesn’t have a single picture. It can also be located in small cities like my hometown. I had no idea that term of “rural homelessness” even existed until I read this post. Television and movies’ depictions of homelessness has made me ignorant to exactly what being homeless looks like or where it takes place.

    I think it would be neat if you explored this topic even further and were able to connect it with a text from class! I’m sure there are numerous possibilities with all the texts regarding city-life and the different levels of society. When I read this post, I immediately thought of the awe-inspiring movie, “Pursuit of Happiness” starring Will Smith and his son where it follows his character’s struggle to overcome homelessness. Personally, I think it would be a cool connection to tie in that movie somehow, but hey, I could probably find a way to incorporate Will Smith into any discussion. Just a suggestion or two. Really enjoyed your post and I think you have several great ideas working for you here! Great job.

  3. cmb0030

    I think is an absolutely necessary post for this class. I know in class we have talked about the separation between high and low class in the city, we have definitely seen the upper crust in many of the movies and literary works we have studied, but I can’t help but wonder why there has been such an absence of focus on literature and works on the homeless and those people in cities that suffer from food insecurity amongst other things because of the correlation of being homeless.

    I found it really interesting that New York releases many people onto the streets from its mental institutions. I researched it a little and I am absolutely appalled at the commonality of this phenomena! I am from a city here in the great state of Alabama (which, for it’s and my own sake, I will refrain from naming) and apparently in my own sleepy hometown during the 50’s our biggest mental ward shut down and we sent the majority of the inhabitants into the streets.

    I think this would be a very interesting post to turn into a final paper! Great post! Thank you for sharing!

  4. saltysnail27

    I’m not exactly sure why, but this post really hit home for me. I tend to ignore things that make me sad or angry, but this post really opened my eyes. In high school, Bum Fights was a really big thing. I never watched the videos because naturally they made me sad and angry. A lot of people that I went to school with would show up to class and talk about it like it was a pay per view cage match fight between local celebrities. They thought, and honestly believed, that these bums “diserved” this sort of treatment. For some reason they considered them the “untochables” of the American Society. Thank you for posting this. It made me realize that not everything is black and white and that there are deeper causes to things like this. 🙂

  5. auburn22

    I like everyone else feel that I have been very sheltered to homeless people in general. I remember my first trip to Washington D.C. was a real eye-opener in recognizing that there are lots of homeless people out there. Prior to that trip the only homeless people I had ever seen were a couple who beg for food and cash outside of the local Walmart. It’s so sad how inhumanely people treat the homeless, often never giving thought to why they are homeless. Thanks for this post.

  6. thepurplegg

    I was probably about 8 or 9 the first time I remember seeing homeless people in Washington D.C. I did not understand, either. Psychologically, children do not develop empathy until double digits. Completely understanding that each person has unique and individual experiences does not even happen until later. They not understand life outside of their own circumstances. I learned when I was a teenager that Auburn has a homeless population, just not on every corner like New York City or Washington D.C. It is a horrible idea to contemplate, that it is everywhere. It is not isolated to big cities. Big cities have it worse, much worse, but they are not the only ones with the problem.

  7. aualum12

    The first time I was ever exposed to homelessness was in Washington D.C. as well. Being from a very small town in North Alabama, seeing people hungry and cold on the sidewalks was not part of my everyday life. When I was exposed to the homeless people in D.C. I was overwhelmed by the sympathy I felt.

    Reading this post took me back to that time I spent in D.C. It also forces me to reflect on the feeling of guilt I had. Not being to exposed to homelessness every day makes it easy to sort of sweep the issue under the rug. I remember that I should feel sympathy for those who are at this low point in their lives and be so thankful for the life I live. Thanks for posting this, we all need to be reminded of these issues sometimes!

  8. nam88

    I found this to be really interesting. I’ve been to several large cities in the US and like you have realized that Washington DC has an extreme amount of homeless people. Growing up in a small town I wasn’t exposed to homelessness and the first time I really was in high school the first time I went to Philadelphia. At that age I noticed every single one of them, feeling some form of remorse for them. It wasn’t until after I lived in New York that I became extremely desensitized to them. I think that is in part due to the fact that they became part of my everyday life and the best way for them not to ask for money is to act like they don’t exist. (I know that sounds terrible.)

  9. jester365

    This would be a great post to expand on; the homeless culture has always intrigued me. What people don’t understand is that the majority of homeless people choose to be homeless. Last summer my father-in-law went to Montgomery to buy some tile for a flooring project we were doing. When we got to Montgomery, we saw a man holding a sign that said “Homeless will work for food or money.” We needed some extra help so we decided to enlist the man’s help. What he told us blew my mind and since I heard him say it I’ve never looked at homeless people the same way again. We offered him $10 an hour to help us install the tile and he said by sitting at this particular relight, he routinely makes over $300 day from passersby. I have to say, for a moment I almost considered being homeless myself. This was likely an isolated incident but it changed my mind toward giving money to the homeless. I know that the homeless culture is very eclectic and you could easily write an interesting paper on this topic.

  10. I’m so glad you posted about the homeless because I had a similar experience when I visited Washington D.C. I’ve been to plenty of cities, but since Washington D.C. was the largest, maybe that’s why it’s the only place I’ve really ever seen a significant number of homeless people. My first experience in Washington D.C. was during a high school band trip, and, like your dad told you, my band director told us to disregard the homeless because there really wasn’t much we could do for them, ultimately. However, I could not suppress my amazement at the things I learned about the homeless in Washington D.C. For example, the vents (or whatever they are) on the sidewalks would blow warm air in the winter, making a more comfortable place for the homeless to sleep. This is already something I can’t relate to. Then I learned, as jester365 also pointed out, that many homeless people are homeless by choice, not necessarily because of unfortunate circumstances. Now I really can’t relate to that. But I’m sure there’s a lot of information out there about the homeless culture that would be fascinating to look into.

  11. marximusvance

    I came with my first encounter of homelessness when I was living in Nashville 3 years ago. Every time I went downtown Raggedy men would clamour up to my group and tell us their story, how they were just out of a job and needed just a little bit in order to get the next one, or how they were going to tell us our future with a little payment before. It was strange encounter at first, because they were all well spoken and were very convincing. Maybe they were telling the truth, but I was taught to not give them anything so I walked on in that “blase” way trying my best to hide my inexperience with that outlook. It really was a shock to see a group of them, maybe 5 or 6, sleeping under a bridge with newspapers as blankets dripping wet from the rain.

    There were some odd homeless at Austin TX when I went to the SXSW film festival this year. Apparently they were homeless by choice. They lived off the gird, but ironically got money by being wifi enable hot spots. So….yeah. Wifi enabled homeless in Austin TX. (“Keep Austin weird.)

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