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University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: July 4, 2004
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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Whose Fault Is It?
An Examination of the Individual and Structural
Causes of Homelessness

By Kimberly Winslow
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: Original URL

Since the 1970s, homelessness has increased at alarming rates. In the early 1980s, the most accurate estimate for the total homeless population in the United States was three million (Takahashi 1996: 293). In the late 1990s, the homeless population was approximately 26 million (Takahashi 1996: 293). The homeless population has not only grown considerably during the past three decades, but it has also dispersed beyond the inner city (Takahashi 1996: 291).

Studies have struggled with attempts to learn more about this vulnerable population. Policies were put in place by the government to set up shelters to provide food and lodgings for the homeless. However, the current system of shelters and services provided to the homeless are highly privatized and organization is decentralized. Funding issues arise in every city trying to deal with this societal problem, restricting the services available.

For the purpose of this study, homelessness is defined as an individual’s or family’s lack of housing on any given night, or multiple days spent without shelter (either on the streets or in emergency shelters). Research regarding the causes of homelessness is split between two theories. One theory is that individual’s personal problems cause them to be unable to keep housing, leading them to lives on the streets. The other theory is that societal, structural causes are at work. A multitude of research has been done in support of each theory.

This study is designed to examine both the individual and structural causes of homelessness and determine how they interact to create the homeless problem of today. Defining problems in the current system of aid to homeless people is necessary in discovering why portions of the population, after getting off the streets, become homeless again. Homelessness appears to be caused mostly by structural forces, but is also influenced by individuals’ personal problems.

Literature Review

In order to completely understand the causes of homelessness, it is first necessary to understand the characteristics of individuals within this population. The homeless population is very diverse in its characteristics and needs. The homeless population of today has different characteristics than the homeless did at the beginning of the 20th century (Takahashi 1996: 292). The “new” homeless population is “younger, better educated, more often consisting of women and families, with significant proportions of veterans and greater numbers of racial minorities than in the past” (Takahashi 1996: 292).

It is necessary to do away with some of the false myths about the homeless. A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that homeless people are not a fixed population that are all homeless for long periods of time (Myths 2000:2). Contrary to popular belief, the homeless population is diverse and is made up of families, and individual men and women. In fact, thirty-eight percent of urban homeless are families (Myths 2000:2). The length of homelessness also varies considerably. There are three categories of homeless: transitionally homeless (one single episode <58 days of homelessness), episodically homeless (four to five episodes up to 265 days of homelessness), and chronically homeless (usually two episodes with a total of 650 days of homelessness) (Myths 2000:2).

Another myth about the homeless is that they are all mentally ill or substance abusers. About 40% of homeless people are alcohol or substance abusers, as compared with 10% in the general population (Myths 2000:3). Around a quarter of the homeless are mentally ill, and about 15% are both mentally ill and substance abusers (Myths 2000: 2). Therefore, approximately 65% of the homeless have a mental illness or substance abuse problem, with a 15% overlap. The high prevalence of substance about among the homeless population will be discussed later. It is notable that this leaves 45% of the homeless population that is not afflicted with one of these conditions.

Elliott & Krivo argue that although many researchers have blamed homelessness on individuals’ personal problems (such as those cited above), structural factors are necessary for the even the most vulnerable populations to become homeless (1991:114). Although the most commonly cited structural factors in contemporary literature point toward lack of low-income housing, high poverty rates, poor economic conditions, and the lack of community health care facilities (1991:114), Elliott and Krivo also include concentrations of minorities and female-headed families and insufficient mental health care as factors (1991:113).

Demonstrating how complex the issue of homelessness is, studies sometimes do not agree on their findings. Kay Young McChesney’s data somewhat contradict Elliott and Krivo’s. McChesney noted that there are three major problems at the individual level associated with homelessness: psychiatric disability, substance abuse, and a jail or prison history (1995:435). She found, however, that psychiatric disability and prison time do not greatly affect the likelihood of a family becoming homeless (1995:441).

People that do not exhibit these problems are categorized as “situationally homeless” because of a lack of job skills, lack of education, and other factors (1995:435). This population of homeless individuals includes the 45% mentioned above. They are influenced more by societal factors, such as the economic structure, than by individual circumstances.

Families with specific circumstances are at higher risk for becoming homeless. Families with high risk include: single-mother headed families, minority families, those with young head-of-households, substance abusers, and victims of childhood assault or foster care (1995:441). Also listed are battered women or sexually assaulted women, pregnant women or women who have recently given birth, and anyone who lacks social support (1995:441).

However, McChesney also acknowledges that structural forces are at work that influence families’ likelihood of becoming homeless, such as: high rates of poverty; decreases in affordable housing; and concentrations of poverty and residential segregation in specific locations (1995:441-42). The decrease in low-income housing within the last three decades is attributed to three causes: “gentrification and urban renewal, demolition of single-room occupancy hotels, and the conversion of low-rent units into luxury apartments and condominiums” (Takahashi 1996: 294).

Related to these structural causes is a recent finding that higher availability of low cost housing and greater spending on mental health care facilities have the greatest effect in reducing the current homeless population (Eliott & Krivo 1991:122). However, the NLCHP found that prevention is the most effective way of dealing with homelessness and is the most inexpensive, using a long-term perspective (Housing 2000:1). Weinreb & Buckner agree that prevention is important because it not only saves money in the long-term, but it also prevents people from going through the suffering of living on the streets (1993:407).

Until something is done to increase the availability of low-cost housing, the shortage causes people to spend greater percentages of their income on somewhere to live. Higher rents put many individuals and families in jeopardy of losing housing. Short-term rent assistance is found useful to families that are falling behind on their rent, who may become homeless because of an inability to pay bills (Housing 2000:1). The NLCHP found that in some instances, only one month of rent assistance was necessary to get the family back on track (Housing 2000:1). Policies, such as rent-assistance for those in need, require government backing in order to be effective. Weinreb and Buckner discuss the problems with the current federal policies on homelessness. They found that Public Law 100-177 (Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987) “lacks a coherent national strategy, leadership, and the appropriate national resources to sufficiently battle the current homelessness problem” (1993:401).

Current programs are run by private organizations and do not coordinate with each other. Efforts to aid the homeless are sporadic and unorganized. (Weinreb & Buckner 1993:403). What is needed is one policy that makes services constant for homeless people (1993:406). Emergency shelters are the most common for of aid provided to the homeless (1993:401). However, it is often the case that the services provided don’t necessarily help people return to permanent housing (1993:401). Rather than solving the problem, emergency shelters provide short-term remedies (food and temporary housing) to the homeless (1993:401).

The staff at most emergency shelters is under-qualified for providing help to individuals and families with problems (such as substance abuse, mental illness, battering, and medical problems) (Weinreb & Buckner 1993:404). Additionally, the homeless people that are in the worst positions are often not allowed entrance into emergency shelters (for reasons including lack of space and inability to deal appropriately with the problems listed above) (1993:405). Because emergency shelters make up the majority of help given to homeless persons, these drawbacks have huge effects. Without the appropriate services, homeless families and individuals remain homeless longer and are more likely to have another homeless episode after they finally find housing (1993:407).

Again, it becomes evident that prevention is an essential way to reduce homelessness. Keeping individuals out of shelters for one month is shown to save up to $375, while keeping a family of three or four persons out of shelters can save at least $675 to $1,500 (Housing 2000:1).


The myths about the homeless population, as well as the achievement ideology, lead to victim blaming in the popular view of homelessness. According to the achievement ideology, anyone can succeed if they put in time and effort. However, this assumes equality of opportunity for everyone and does not take structural barriers into account. The focus on individual causes of homelessness as characteristics of a specific population, such as alcoholism and unemployment, cause barriers in giving aid to the homeless. It leads to a phenomenon called “blaming the victim,” which means that society feels that it is the individual’s own fault the he/she is in the situation and that it is therefore they should not receive any help.

I disagree with McChesney’s (1995) argument that psychiatric disability, substance abuse, and a jail or prison history are strong causes of homelessness. Psychiatric disability should not necessarily lead one to become homeless. With mental hospitalization and/or outpatient clinics, the mentally ill should be able to remain housed.

Substance abuse is not as widespread as is the common belief. About sixty percent of the homeless population does not have a substance addiction (Myths 2000:3). Although substance abuse does not cause homelessness for all individuals who are on the streets, it may be an important factor for some. When combined with other structural problems, substance abuse could cause an individual or family to struggle to make ends meet, which may lead to homelessness. Jail or prison time as a cause to homelessness does not seem to directly cause individuals to become homeless. However, the disenfranchisement of repetitive offenders from the societal norms may lead individuals to have other problems such as unemployment that could cause homelessness.

McChesney (1995) also noted that in addition to the mental illness, alcoholism, and jail time, other individual factors put people at high risk to become homeless. These characteristics include: single-mother headed families, minority families, those with young head-of-households, and victims of childhood assault or foster care are at high risk of becoming homeless (1995). It is important to know the factors that put individuals and families at risk, in order to help prevent them from becoming homeless. Although the individual perspective on the cause of homelessness is compelling, it does not fully explain the causes of homelessness. I agree with Elliott & Krivo’s argument that structural factors are necessary for the even the most vulnerable populations to become homeless. Structural problems such as lack of low-income housing, loss of moderate-income unskilled jobs (due to de-industrialization), and inadequate mental health facilities are cited as causing some people to end up on the streets.

Not included in most of the literature on structural causes are the effects of recent welfare reform. Welfare was cut by thirty-one percent nationwide between 1993 and 1997 (Schofield 1999: 67). For individuals and families with the lowest incomes, welfare cuts and reforms in the 1990s made it even more difficult for working families to pay for housing.

Structural and individual factors are both at work in causing homelessness. Independently of each other, these factors can put people at high risk of ending up on the streets. People are immersed within the structured set-up of our society, and therefore cannot be free of influence from structural factors. I would hypothesize that when individual and structural factors that influence individuals and families are combined, their likelihood of becoming homeless is significantly increased. For example, one family could be influenced by individual factors such as having a single mother, and by structural factors such as de-industrialization/globalization. Figure 1 demonstrates how these factors interact to increase the likelihood that a single-mother family becomes homeless.

De-industrialization and globalization occur at the societal level, but influence the lives of the citizens of this country every day. Because manufacturing jobs are being moved to other countries, our economy is now based on services (Global Village 1/25/00). The first tier of service jobs are well paid, have good job security, and have good benefits, but the second tier of service jobs pay minimum wage and have no benefits or job security (Global Village 1/25/00). In addition, there are fewer job opportunities in the second tier of service labor (MacLeod 1995:161). For the poor, low wages and little job security mixes with a decrease in low-income housing units, making it even more difficult to maintain housing and pay all the bills.

Being a single mother in this situation makes it even more difficult. There is only one paycheck coming in, and the mother has to balance childcare with working. As a female, the wage gap has an influence in the earning potential of the individual. Then there are the costs of children that need to be considered. These factors also influence the woman’s ability to pay bills and keep housing.

With all these factors combining, each with its own influence on the family’s ability to pay its bills, a single mother would be at a high risk of ending up on the streets. This is one example of how structural and individual causes of homelessness combine. There are other factors, individual and structural, that combine in the same fashion to put people at risk of losing housing.

After having explained how individual and structural factors cause people to lose housing and become homeless, it is important to examine how the system of aid given to the homeless also exacerbates the problem. Inefficient help given to those who are already homeless may cause individuals and families to either remain homeless longer or have recurring episodes of homelessness (Weinreb & Buckner 1993). For this reason, problems within the current system of aid should be considered structural causes of homelessness. Reoccurrences of homelessness and prolonged homelessness are caused in part by the decentralization of help given to the homeless through dependence on private organizations, the focus of help mainly on emergency shelters, and ineffective services to help the homeless find and keep independent living.

First, specific facilities and locations do not coordinate between each other in order to create a comprehensive strategy for combating homelessness. Each location and organization has different strategies for helping the homeless (Weinreb & Buckner 1993). Variance in the programs is sometimes caused by differing beliefs on the factors that cause homelessness. Public Law 100-177 did not appropriate enough monetary resources or leadership to come up with a centralized, coherent strategy of aid (Weinreb & Buckner 1993).

I believe that the focus of aid on emergency shelters only temporarily gets people off of the streets. Emergency shelter is the most common aid given to the homeless (Weinreb & Buckner 1993). However, shelters have limited resources. Emergency shelters often do not have the time, money, or experienced staff to help homeless people with what are sometimes very complex issues that prevent them from living independently (Weinreb & Buckner 1993). In fact, the name “emergency shelter” implies that this form of aid is focused on temporarily relieving an emergency situation. For this reason, they provide the homeless with a place to stay and food to eat, but they do not provide them with help in actually gaining and keeping their own housing. Inadequate help in gaining shelter also leads many persons to have a recurring bout of homelessness in the future. A small percentage of aid to the homeless is spent in helping individuals and families make the transition from homelessness to independent housing. Services are needed to help people find housing, save money for rent, and obtain the skills necessary to keep housing after moving in.

The current system of aid to the homeless is focused on a short-term solution. The homeless population in the United States is increasing. Homelessness is not a temporary problem and therefore, long-term goals for the elimination of homelessness are necessary. As proven by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, assistance based on a long-term view is cheaper and is also more effective in helping the homeless gain and keep shelter.


Understanding the characteristics of the homeless, as well as the factors that cause people to lose shelter are essential in providing help to this population. In review, there are many myths about homeless people that give false impressions as to what causes individuals and families to end up on the streets. There are both individual and structural factors that cause homelessness. The emphasis of this research was how individual and structural causes combine.

This research includes new perspectives on the causes of homelessness. For instance, in trying to define the causes of homelessness, researchers have polarized the arguments to pit one theory against the other. Yet, in order to obtain a complete picture of the causes of homelessness and the interactions of each factor, it is necessary to combine these two theories. For this reason, I chose to combine the structural and individual factors.

In addition, this research also brings up a new point of view about aid given to the homeless. Help given to the poor is usually not something that is listed among the causes of homelessness. It is usually discussed as a separate issue that occurs after the person(s) is/are homeless. However, I have shown that inefficiencies within the current system of aid can be considered a structural cause of homelessness.

The new information presented in this research will hopefully be used for the planning of new ways of giving aid to the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. By identifying the causes of homelessness, and how the individual and structural factors interact, it is possible to construct a program of aid that focuses on the root causes of the problem. The ultimate goal is to eliminate homelessness altogether.


  • Elliot, Marta and Lauren J. Krivo. 1991. “Structural Determinants of Homelessness in the United States.” Social Problems 38:113-131.
  • Global Village or Global Pillage? Video produced by the Preamble Center World Economy Project (
  • “Housing Options.” National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (March 28, 2000).
  • MacLeod, Jay. 1995. Ain’t No Makin’ It. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • McChesney, Kay Young. 1995. “A Review of the Empirical Literature on Contemporary Urban Homeless Families.” The Social Service Review 69:429-460. “Myths and Facts about Homelessness.” National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (March 29, 2000).
  • Schofield, Rosalie Faulkner. 1999. “New Poverty: Families in Postmodern Society.” Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal 16:67-71.
  • Takahashi, Lois M. 1996. “A Decade of Understanding Homelessness in the USA: From Characterization to Representation.” Progress in Human Geography 20:291-310.
  • Weinreb, Linda and John C. Buckner. 1993. “Homeless Families: Program Responses and Public Policies.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 63:400-409.

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