Homelessness in the United States

Public and Private Responses to the Problem of Homelessness

Since the late 1970s, homelessness in the United States has been one of the main political and social issues. A lack of housing, unemployment, substance abuse, and mental health issues all contribute to the rise of homelessness. Unfortunately, the United States has one of highest rates in the number of homeless people among the developed nations. Furthermore, in large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, the problem is almost endemic. Despite the fact that the United States has ratified a number of human rights treaties which aim to reduce homelessness and prohibit legal actions that criminalize homeless people, such treaties are not directly enforced by the U.S. courts. Due to such “self-executing laws”, homeless people often experience unjust violations of human rights, such as access to secure housing, the right to liberty and security, the right to education, the right to freedom from discrimination, and many others. Consequently, the problem of homelessness demands more effective social policies, as well as more comprehensive public services. Therefore, the paper seeks to discuss a broad range of public and private responses to the problem of homelessness in the USA, their consequences, justness and ethics.

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Public and private responses to the problem of homelessness are the programs and actions of governmental and non-governmental organizations, legal actions, laws, individual behaviors, and state policies aimed to deal with the problem of homelessness.

As a matter of fact, homelessness in the United States is in many ways aided from non-governmental and governmental organizations. Non-governmental organizations assist the homeless by providing financial and physical aid. The National Alliance to End Homelessness is one of the organizations which speak on behalf of the homeless calling for the policy changes due to the problem of homelessness. The following policies and programs acknowledge the fact of homelessness, prevent further growth, and provide help to them (Baumohl, 1996).

In order to assist the homeless, many programs have incorporated a number of housing programs for their clients. There are two types of housing programs in the USA which are provided for the homeless – transitional and permanent. The transitional housing programs are aimed to help families, and individuals find housing as quickly as possible. Such programs assist the homeless for a fixed amount of time until they are able to get housing on their own. The permanent housing programs provide people with an opportunity to increase their welfare by providing permanent housing conditions along with intensive supportive service. This type of program is more effective for a number of homeless people with physical or mental impairments, often coupled with alcohol or drug use issues. Furthermore, there are some charitable foundations and organized shelters which offer permanent housing for the homeless (Wright, 2009).

However, without supportive services, most of the programs are ineffective and are not enough to end homelessness. For example, people who suffer from alcohol abuse need substance abuse recovery programs which they cannot access without special supportive services. Therefore, to a number of homeless Americans with physical and mental impairments, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse, only long-term permanent housing along with supportive services can be successful.

In the United States, government started sending funding to homeless people only in 1980, but in 1984, the first shelters were built to feed and accommodate them. However, 70% of the shelter required the homeless to attend religious ceremonies and allowed spend only couple of nights there. Nowadays, it would be considered a violation of human rights as not all of the homeless could access the food and accommodation due to religious preferences (Baumohl, 1996).

In the 1987, the problem of homelessness became almost uncontrollable, and the McKinney-Vento Act was passed into law by President Reagan. It was the first federal law that provided federal money for the homeless shelter programs. However, it provided little protection and aid for the homeless children in the sphere of public education.


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In 2001, the No Child Left behind Act initiated the new program to prohibit states that receive McKinney-Vento aid from segregating the homeless from the non-homeless students, except for the short periods of time for safety and health emergencies or in order to provide special, temporary, and supplementary services (Feldman, 2002).

In 2002, the Chronic Homelessness Initiative was established by the Bush Administration, which was aimed to end chronic homelessness by 2012. However, in 2003, the Interagency Council on Homelessness re-engaged pursuing the President’s plan. Consequently, the goal was not achieved by 2012 since today homelessness is still taking place in the USA.

On May 20, 2009, new President Barack Obama passed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act. This act reauthorized and amended the McKinney-Vento Act with new substantial changes. It consolidated the competitive grant programs, created the Rural Housing Stability Program, changed the definition of chronic homelessness and homelessness, and increased prevention resources, as well as emphasis on performance (Murphy & Tobin, 2011).

Except for the programs which give financial and physical aid to the homeless, the United States has signed many international treaties, many of which prohibit actions of the homeless living in public spaces. In fact, one of the most popular public policies applied to the homeless is criminalizing the homelessness. However, not providing housing and aid to the homeless is also considered a human rights violation. These rights are also protected by many international human rights laws and treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Therefore, the problem of criminalization of homelessness seems rather controversial in terms of human rights, ethics, and justice (Wright, 2009).

Many scholars state that the adoption of policies and laws that are punishing the homeless rather than addressing the causes of homelessness is ineffective. Punishing people for engagement in innocent behavior, such as sitting on the sidewalk, sleeping in public, or begging will not decrease the occurrence of such activities and segregate homeless people from public spaces while they have no place to sit or sleep. With not sufficient resources for services and shelters for homeless people, imposing cruel punishment for such unavoidable activities is not only unjust – it is inhumane (Baumohl, 1996).

Criminalization of homelessness can take many forms, such as legislation that makes sleeping, siting, or storing personal staff in a public place illegal in cities; selective enforcement neutral laws, such as open container or loitering laws against the homeless; sweeps of areas where the homeless live, which frequently results in the destruction of property of the homeless, including personal medication and documents; and laws which punish the homeless for begging.

It is asserted that criminalization of the homeless imposes many unnecessary burdens on the state system of criminal justice. When jails and officials heavily rely on law enforcement in order to address issues related to homelessness, it results in many problems within the justice system since most of the issues, especially those concerning substance abuse and mental illnesses can only be effectively handled by service providers. Moreover, police officers are not always adequately trained to effectively respond to the situations when dealing with the homeless. It can be explained by the fact that the criminal justice system has limited opportunities while providing the necessary rehabilitation and treatment, and the jail staff is not able to provide the extra supervision to people with substance abuse or mental disabilities. Furthermore, jails are extremely overcrowded and do not detain serious criminals from non-serious ones (Foscarinis, 1996).

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Therefore, criminalization of homelessness has no long-term benefits to the solution of the problem, nor does it give a decent solution to the public conflicts. Moreover, it is likely to take significantly more costs. For instance, the costs spent for the work of police and jailing individuals are significantly higher that providing the homeless with shelter and other necessary services. Furthermore, imprisoning and punishing the homeless are not able to solve the inner problem, such as poverty, substance abuse, health conditions, etc., when the supportive housing can, in fact, move people out of being homeless.

Anti-homeless policies, ordinances, and behaviors come in several varieties. The laws prohibiting certain behavior common to the homeless people is the first one. As a result of the increase in such ordinances, the homeless and advocates have brought many lawsuits which challenge the constitutionality of such laws. The results of the lawsuits are different, but in general, broad prohibitions on sleeping and panhandling in public, when challenged by the situation when they have no other place to sleep, are extremely vulnerable to legal challenges. Nevertheless, more narrowly drawn policies, such as those forbidding begging in certain areas of the town, are not as vulnerable (Foscarinis, 1996).

Case Responses to Homelessness: Ethical and Justice Approach

Case 1: Implementation of the McKinney-Vento Act of 2001

Implementation and enforcement of the McKinney-Vento Act of 2001 is one of the realms of the United States federal laws in which discussion of a right to shelter ought to be developed. The act essentially provided federal funding for a range of support including transportation, tutoring, and financial assistance in order to ensure the participation of homeless youth and children in secondary and elementary schools. Despite the fact that the Statute was framed around the educational rights of the homeless and did not address or question the fact that they are homeless, it was state recognition of the crisis that existed due to homeless children, as well as the strong ties between the educational underachievement and homelessness. This creates an ethical debate about such interconnections and the need to deal with not only educational hurdles, but the children’s experience of homelessness, as well. Moreover, if the children’s homelessness is not eliminated, it will lead to violation of the distributive justice and its norms of need and equality. Therefore, one cannot but agree that despite the acts’ decent intentions and aims of reducing children homelessness, many more actions should be taken to improve the situation (Murphy & Tobin, 2011).

Case 2: Criminalization of Begging (Heathcott vs. Las Vegas Police Officers, March 3, 1994)

In this case of a public response to the problem of homelessness, a homeless man was convicted by Nevada State Statute which prohibits begging. The district court proved that the law prohibited all ways of begging which were considered constitutionally protected speech. Therefore, the statute was constitutionally overbroad. As the court noted, there was no serious crime posed to the community by peaceful begging, and the conduct that might require regulation, including intimidation, fraud, coercion, assault, and harassment were all covered in different statutes. In this case, one can see that the subjective views of the authors of the Statute were taken into account.

In some communities, it is generally accepted that begging is something to be ashamed of, which negatively affects the community and public. The homeless person who was convicted faced the violation of ethical norms and justice. Such intention of criminalized begging is not a solution to the problem and only increases the gap between the homeless and the non-homeless (Feldman, 2002).

Case 3: “Housing First”

This innovation was pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, who was a member of the Psychiatry Department of the New York University School of Medicine during the 1990s. “Housing First” was designed for those who were chronically homeless, and was premised on the notion that housing is a main human right, and no one should be deprived of it, even if one is alcohol or other substance abuser.

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The program was initiated by the Interagency Council on Homelessness of the federal government. “Housing First” was one of the innovations which essentially succeeded in providing housing to the homeless with mental health issues or substance abuse problems. “Housing First” allowed to take homeless people off the street to the community-based apartments, and required no first treatment of these people. This allowed homeless men and women to return to the sense of normalcy, after which it was believed that they could be better-poised to deal with their sicknesses or addictions. As a matter of fact, the rate of the relapse through such types of programs was considered to be lower than that of the conventional homeless programs (Wright, 2009).

However, the belief that the homeless are given independent housing and social support without the first treatment would be a success was controversial. On the one hand, the supporters of the program stated that in case the program is implemented in every community, there would not be any need for the creation of emergency homeless shelters. On the other hand, there might be many complications to this program since there would be less motivation to substance abusers to get medical help and assistance as they would know they could always get the free housing without any medical cure.

Therefore, in terms of ethics, this program was rather successful for the short-term reduction of the homeless people. However, the program may later appear ineffective and financially consuming.

Case 4: Seattle Case, 1993

In Seattle, Washington, in 1993 an ordinance was enacted to forbid sitting or lying down on a sidewalk, or upon a blanket, stool, chair, etc. between the 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in distinctive areas of the city. Homeless citizens of Seattle alleged the due process and the violation of the First Amendment, but the Ninth Circuit passed the sidewalk ordinance which stated that lying and sitting are not commonly associated with, or integral to expression. Today, any person who lies or sits on the sidewalk violates this ordinance and can be fined $50 or be used and instructed to perform the community service.

On the one hand, this case of public and legal response to homelessness is a demonstration of criminalization of homelessness. On the other hand, however, people lying on the ground during the cold season are more prone to getting new diseases and worsening their health condition. Therefore, this responsive action can be considered just and ethical (Foscarinis, 1996).

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Case 5: “Quality of Life” Ordinances, 1998

In some American cities, certain laws, often mentioned as the “quality of life” ordinances, are also aggressively enforced in conjunction with other direct enforcements of anti-homeless laws and policies. For example, in 1998, 17, 511 “quality of life” citations were issued by the San Francisco Police Department, which mostly related to the majority of homeless people. Moreover, according to advocates, the police office also started taking pictures of homeless men and women, and distributing them to different liquor stores where they forbade selling alcohol to the photographed people, or they would violate an old law which prohibits the sale of alcoholic drinks to “habitual drinkers.” However, due to a strong protest from advocates and homeless people, such practice has been dismissed (Wright, 2009).

This response to homelessness is evidently not ethical and violates human rights to freedom of choice. Moreover, the photographs of the homeless were taken without their consent, which is another violation of human rights. This act would not reduce the number of the homeless but would worsen their mental condition and increase the segregation.

Case 6: “Zoning” the Homeless in Tucson

In Tucson, the city has recently considered a new plan of privatizing the downtown of the city streets and using them to businesses purposes. This could have allowed the city businesses to keep the homeless off the sidewalks. Another effort of keeping homeless people away from the downtown streets was “zoning” the homeless charged with misdemeanors by the local police department. They later released one homeless individual from jail after he confirmed his consent and agreement to stay away from a two-mile square area in the downtown of Tucson. In his lawsuit, the plaintiff argued that “zoning” him from the downtown violated his constitutional rights to travelling. Therefore, the court passed the preliminary injunction which prohibited such restrictions. In this case, one can see the obvious segregation of the business people from the homeless ones, which is not appropriate in a free and democratic society. The “zoning” could bring any decrease in the homelessness, but only benefit the business people (Murphy & Tobin, 2011).


Having analyzed the abovementioned cases of public and private responses to homelessness, one cannot agree that the USA has a lot to develop in terms of providing new and more effective policies to decrease homelessness. Most of the actions taken by the public are temporary and short-term, which would not guarantee the long-term effect to decreasing the number of homeless people. In fact, American society now is failing to provide aid for the basic needs of its vulnerable members. In addition, federal funding for the low-income housing has been significantly reduced over the last years.

Local policymakers must realize the difference between intolerance of the homeless and intolerance of manifestations of this problem. Ultimately, homelessness will only be decreased if policies address their main causes, and not their negative consequences.


Instead of criminalizing homelessness, business groups, city governments, and state officials must work with homeless people and advocates in order to find solutions to prevent and decrease homelessness. Criminalization measures only worsen the situation, making it more difficult for the homeless to move out of homelessness and poverty. Moreover, criminalization of the homeless in the United States often takes unconstitutional, unjust, and unethical actions to the homeless people. Probably, in 30 years or more, todays’ legal actions would be considered unjust or even illegal. This can be supported by the fact that only 50 years ago there was racial segregation in the USA. Nowadays, American society seeks to find the best solutions to the main political and social problems.

Therefore, American cities should put more efforts and resources to affordable housing, homeless services, and shelters. To address the street homelessness, cities should dedicate or adopt more resources to outreach programs. The federal government should also play a key role in encouraging cities and towns to pursue more advanced approaches to homelessness. Poverty programs and federal funding for the homeless should be conditioned on the agreement of local government not to punish homeless people for conduct which is related to their status.


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