Social Problem Comparison: Homelessness Essay

The term “homeless” , “homeless individual” or “homeless person” includes: (1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and (2) an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is— (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill); (B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (The United States Code). It happens to individuals, as well as to families, of all different nationalities and backgrounds (Jeanty).

In the previous years, there are virtually no recorded instances of families living in public places particularly in New York because the city has a legal obligation to shelter any individual or family who claims to be homeless and requests such shelter (Filer). However, homelessness today has been framed as a structural phenomenon that appears countless in the news and other arenas of public discourse (Hilgartner). We people, must be alarmed that even one of the richer states in the U.S., Los Angeles, is now labeled as the This is the capital of homelessness in America” (Archibold). This issue should be considered as a social problem since many people consider homelessness a serious problem with structural roots. According to a survey, the data leave little doubt that the problem is now regarded as a major issue (Lee et al.).

The question of how serious is the problem of homelessness may be easy to answer for those who advocate homeless individuals and families–so long as any one person is homeless, the problem is great and deserves attention. (Tomptsett et al.)

Causes of Homelessness

A medical explanation that has grown popularity in recent years regards homelessness an outcome of untreated mental illness (Bassuk). Homelessness is also said to be resulting from a variety of structural forces, including a shortage of affordable housing and changes in the economy and in social service policy such as deinstitutionalization, shrinkage of the welfare “safety net”, etc. (Lee et al.). Another factor,as indicated by a 1998 government study, shows that In the case of twenty-two percent of single mothers with children left their previous residence because of domestic violence issues (Jeanty). As put forth by Andrew Cuomo, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development , the homeless problem is not just a housing issue but a mental-health issue, a domestic-violence issue and an economic issue. The homeless label covers a plethora of problems (Filer).

In New York, there are two main causes, such as the tight and expensive housing market and a greater than average fraction of New York residents may have characteristics (such as poverty or being single heads of households) that increase the risk of becoming homeless. There are also two major, related contributors to homelessness: poverty and female-headed families. Both of these are somewhat more common in New York than in other cities (Filer).

Public’s View of Homelessness

People’s religious and political values may shape their thoughts about the causes of homelessness. The public believes that the poverty is the main cause of homelessness. There are others who thought that mental illness is an outcome and not an antecendent of life on the streets (Lee et al.). Other factors such as laziness and personal choice, are less frequently perceived as important causes. Substance abuse is also cited quite often (Lee et al.). Based on the study made by (Lee et al.), most of the respondents think a majority of the homeless are men instead of women. In Columbia and Buffalo, many of the respondents agreed that many are homeless because of housing eviction or foreclosure and unemployment is a major cause of it (Lee et al.). The wider survey made by (Mae), 48 of Americans indicated that the lack of affordable housing is the major cause contributing to homelessness, and 45 believe home foreclosures are a major factor. For some, the lack of a supportive network of friends and family was shown to be a factor. With no supporting network, the crisis event (could be a health problem, abuse, or financial- was all it took to tip the scales. As a result, for these people, homelessness, became the only option (Jeanty). A popular belief that the warm climate drew the homeless from other places was countered by the responses from some of the homeless in greater Los Angeles who said that they were living there before they lost shelter (Archibold).

The beliefs of the people about homelessness will depend in part upon their position in society, as defined by a series of social statuses. As analyzed by Lee et al, they recognized that people’s religious and political values may influence their causal beliefs. What one believes about the causes of homelessness also derives from whether – and how – one has been exposed to the problem (Lee et al.).

For the people of Columbia, majority believe that the problem has worsened in the US during the past five years (Lee et al.) And what is worse is that the large majority of the public (91 ) are of the opinion that homelessness can never be totally eliminated and that there will always be some people who remain homeless. Approximately one in ten are optimistic saying homelessness can be eliminated. Adults in the eight cities surveyed concur (ranging from 82 in LA to 91 in Denver) that there will always be some people who remain homeless (Mae).

Sociological View of Homelessness

Sociologically, there are actually three categories under which one might fall: (1)Transitional, or those who’ve undergone one incident of homelessness that lasted under 59 days; (2) Episodic or those who’ve had 4 to 5 incidents that total less than 266 days and (3) Chronic or those who’ve had 2 incidents totaling 650 days or more. There are two prevailing theories on the causes of homelessness. One theory attributes the cause to society-based conditions within an individual’s circumstances or structural forces (Jeanty). These would include shortage of affordable housing and changes in the economy (a decline in the limited-skill jobs) and in social service policy (deinstitutionalization, shrinkage of the welfare “safety net”, etc. (Lee et al) and these factors really play a great role if not a greater role in determining pathways from poverty to homelessness. To address these structural causes, social policies may become increasingly vital (Tomptsett). The other theory views personal problems as the cause like laziness, excessive substance abuse, and poor money management skills which can lead to homelessness (Jeanty). For sociologists, the likelihood of someone becoming homeless depends on circumstances that include both societal-based causes, and personal problems. When certain societal structures are present, personal problems are curable, making destitution a last resort, rather than an only resort (Jeanty).However, for many homeless advocates, they believe that too little attention is being paid to an important contributing factor–the gentrification of inner-city real estate, which has all but eliminated low-cost housing in recent years (Morse).

Sociologists (Toro & McDonnell) found that younger and female respondents were more generally sympathetic regarding the homeless population, and were more aware of related structural factors. Public opinion is linked to changes in social policy. Phelan et al. found that those who are better educated may express greater tolerance for homeless people, but less support for economic aid for them while (Lee et al.) noted that increased education predicted less support for a personal deficiency model of homelessness.

Apparently, the main difference between the view or presentation of the homelessness issue by the sociology and media is that the depiction of the media of the said issue would hinge on what appeals more to its readers, viewers and etc. The sociological approach gives point more on the structural forces as a greater cause of the homelessness.

Media’s View/Presentation of Homelessness

Unlike in the sociological approach that the main belief is that homelessness is caused by structural forces, the media presents it otherwise. Images created by the media such as old white men, the mentally ill and runaway youth, alcoholic or a drug addict compose the public images of homelessness. (Penner & Penner) argued that due to the structure editorial cartoons show, a simplified version of the causes and composition of the homeless are formed within the minds of its readers. Also, a lot of newspapers practice sensationalism which affects how newspapers and other media choose to portray homelessness (Madden). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, media attention to homelessness dropped dramatically. News stories suggested that Americans had once been sympathetic to the plight of homeless people but that, after years of over-attention, they were now tired of reading and hearing about the issue (Buck et al.). It even lead to a notion that homeless are increasingly aggressive, violent and bad for business, which lead to at least 24 cities that are now conducting nightly “police sweeps” of their streets (Morseet al.).

Although the extent to which the public’s thoughts on homelessness have been shaped by the media is difficult to determine (Lee et al), it appears that portrayals of the issue of homelessness may reflect the motivation of the media to publicize “new news” rather than the “old news” of ongoing social concerns (Buck et al). This lead media establishments to take negative stance in portraying homelessness since negative news would sell better than positive. The media’s treatment to homelessness is enough to override the dominant ideology which may alter public images in the process (Lee et al.).

Media’s Ability to Change Public Perception of Homelessness

As the public evaluates their values concerning a given social issue such as homelessness, media coverage of other issues may indirectly lead to changes in public opinion. Inaccurate media portrayal regarding homelessness like the portrayal of the concept of “compassion fatigue (Tomptsett et al.) may result to change in public opinion. If this could be lessened by the media, the public’s perception of making their own way to lessen the number of people suffering from homelessness can be changed instead.

The media’s coverage of a social issue may shape public opinion by framing the issue in a certain light, and by creating an illusion of popular consensus that leads individuals to reassess their personal views (Behr & Iyengar).

Because of the sometimes wrong media portrayals, the formation of misconceptions regarding homelessness cannot thereby be avoided. In some ways, how we view the homeless population can affect our ability to understand what causes are at work. Many view homelessness as a lifestyle peopled with substance abusers, and mentally ill individuals, when in fact these are just a portion of the group. The structural factors are the more persuasive ones like single mothers with children, and people with minimal job skills make-up nearly fifty percent of the homeless population (Jeanty).

The influence of economic trends on public opinion as shown by the media, may be more a function of perceptions of available resources for assisting the poor or homeless, rather than the indirect effects of respondents’ personal economic comfort. (Tomptsett et al). While public opinion trends appear gradual overall, in times of crisis, opinion may shift more abruptly.


According to the sociological studies, homelessness is caused by 2 main forces: (1) the structural forces (e.g. Low income, shortage of affordable housing and changes in the economy (a decline in the limited-skill jobs) and in social service policy (deinstitutionalization, shrinkage of the welfare “safety net”, etc. and (2) personal problems (e.g. alcoholism, drug addiction, laziness, old-age and etc.). However, for sociologists, the greater cause of such sociological problem is the structural forces and this should be the basis of the government agencies in addressing the issue.

On the other side, the media often portrays homelessness by showing old white men, the mentally ill and runaway youth, alcoholic or a drug addict. Problems such as the happening of the crimes and violence due to the rampant loitering of homeless individuals who are alcoholic or drug addicts or mentally ills appeal more to the public and this forces the media to sell these kinds of stories. The problem here is that when policymakers do not have relevant public opinion data readily available, they may rely on the said kinds of information like the inaccurate depiction of the homelessness by the media (Tomptsett et al) as their benchmark. If this is the case, there is a possibility that the real cause of the issue is not addressed properly by the policy makers (e.g. Congress) since the media are not at some instances do not give the accurate and pertinent facts or data for careful perusal of the policy makers. And in the end, the actions and efforts of the policy makers and the concerned government agencies and non-governmental organizations might be for naught.


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