Sample Essay on Private & Public Responses to Homelessness in America

Private and Public Responses to Homelessness in America

Homelessness is among the leading social problem among the American community. Although statistic shows that the number of homeless people in the US has been declining, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness admits that homelessness is a persistent and complex problem (Briggs et al., 2013). Despite the extensive anti-homelessness campaigns run by both private and public entities over the past decades, over 3.5 million Americans still experience homelessness each year (Foscarinis, 2011). According to the State of Homelessness in America report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 610,000 people were homeless in the year 2013 (Perl et al., 2014). Although the 2013 report indicates an improvement of 4% from 2012, Perl and others lament that the number of homeless children increased by 10 percent (2014). Further, the plights of homeless individuals in the US streets have continued to increase. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness illustrates, it is becoming more difficult for homeless to access necessities, such as clean water, sanitation, and medical attention. Nevertheless, how does the American community respond to the challenge of homelessness? The following is a look at the private and public responses to the menace of homelessness in America.

Law and Law Enforcers

Despite their efforts to maintain law and order amidst the challenge of increased homelessness, the US law enforcers have faced much criticism on their insensitivity to the plight of homeless Americans. To begin with, the law has, for a long time, criminalized homelessness and other activities that are undertaken as a result of being homeless. For example, various states have outlawed panhandling, sleeping or even loitering in public places. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, some of the individuals are forced into such activities by a circumstance (Will, 2012). For example, they sleep in walkways because they do not have elsewhere to sleep. They also beg in the street for lack of an alternative source of income. Criminalizing such activities is, therefore, inhuman and violates the natural human rights.

While it may be reasonable to prohibit idling in public places as a way of fighting crime, law enforcers have gone further to restrict settlement of homeless people in encampments. According to the National Coalition for Homeless, some cities even regulate the temporary settlement of homeless individuals in tents by churches and non-governmental organizations (2014). States authorities also discourage other interested parties from giving support to homeless individuals, arguing that it will encourage homelessness (Philipps, 2012). In 2009, for example, Gainesville, Florida drew the public attention when it proposed to enforce an ordinance that would constrain the amount of food distributed to the homeless by the social service providers (Ross, 2011). Often, city police carries out random bouts where they confiscate personal belongings of the city dwellers. These measures are meant to reduce the number of homeless individuals loitering in the city to protect the city’s status quo.

In addition to criminalization of homelessness in the US, homeless individuals have often complained of discrimination by the law enforcers. According the National Alliance to End Homelessness organization, homeless persons are not only discriminated by the society, but also by the local authorities. A survey by the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2013 revealed that over 60% of the homeless people experience discrimination at the hands of the authority (Briggs et al., 2013). This has resulted in several instances of incarceration among the homeless population since they are rarely given a just hearing. As Foscarinis (2011) explains, being homeless in the US pre-disposes one to being arrested and jailed as the police works towards evacuating homeless city in the streets.

The law enforcers’ response to the problem of homelessness has been tainted for being short term and inefficient. According to Will (2012), criminalizing homelessness and the consequent incarceration of the homeless individual is a retributive form of justice. The problem of homelessness in the US, however, requires a more restorative measure. For instance, inhibiting one from sleeping in the streets without providing them with an alternative place to sleep only disturbs the peace of that person. Instead, the law enforcers should address the root cause as why the person is homeless. For example, the police should only sweep at the homeless people who loiter on the street despite having been provided with alternative shelter and source of income. State authorities should join hands with various organizations that aim at providing affordable housing rather than spending resources on forcing homeless individuals to vacate to undefined locations.

The US Federal Government

The US government’s determination to curb homelessness gained prominence in the 1980s, notwithstanding that certain anti-homelessness programs had been launched earlier. For example, the Runaway and Homeless Youth program, an initiative that intended to compliment the Juvenile justice system, were in place as early as 1974 (Perl et al., 2014). Its scope was reserved for children and teenagers. Government agencies, however, acknowledged the need to cater for other homeless age groups. They launched the first inclusive program, the Emergency Food and Shelter (EFS) program in 1983 (perl et al., 2014). Since its inception, EFS program has continued to provide food and shelter to chronically homeless individual for the last two decades. Today, the US government channels over $4 billion into anti-homelessness programs (United State Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2013)

Following the success of EFS program, the US congress continued to enact similar programs that aimed at uplifting the lives of homeless Americans. In 1987, for example, the congress endorsed the Stewart McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which proposed several programs designed to reduce the predicaments of homeless individuals (Perl et al., 2014). The Stewart McKinney Act was later renamed to McKinney-Vento Act, following the death of its two authors McKinney and Bruce Vento. The programs that were approved under the McKinney-Vento Act were to be implemented under different government bodies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Labor (DOL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education (ED).

Department of Housing and Urban Development (DHUD) Initiated Programs

The contribution of the DHUD in the fight against homelessness is defined in the McKinney-Vento Act. The US Congress enacted the Homeless Assistance Grants, a program under which the DHUD would provide housing for homeless persons, including the youth, families, and chronically homeless. Today, the Homeless Assistance Grants kitty is subdivided into different sub-categories. For instance, a homeless person may benefit from Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG), Continuum of Care Grant (COCG) or Rural Housing Stability Grant (RHSG). Just like the name states, the Emergency Solutions are composed of the funds set aside for unforeseen cases. Under this program, funds are distributed to prevent homelessness or provide quick solution to those who suddenly find themselves homeless. For example, it can be used to settle debt for a person who is about to lose a house. On the other hand, Continuum Care and Rural Housing Stability Grants are distributed to local governments for long-term and regular projects.

Programs by the Department of Labor (DOL)

The US federal government, under the Department of Labor runs various anti-homelessness programs. The Department of labor targets to end chronic homelessness through increasing employability of the homeless individual. Programs, such as the Homeless Veterans Reintegration (HVR), which is administered in collaboration with the department of Veteran Affairs, aims at reinstating the homeless veterans back to the economic mainstream. According to the study by Philipps (2012), unemployment and lack of stable income source is among the leading causes of homelessness. The congress, therefore, sought to address this leading cause of homelessness by empowering the Department of Labor under the McKinney-Vento Act. DOL equips the homeless youths with skills that are relevant in today’s job market, through training programs. It also provides them with employment and volunteer opportunities in the government institutions. Recently, the Department of Labor began to collaborate with private entities in providing job placements to homeless veterans.

 Programs by the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA)

The department of Veteran affairs is committed to end homelessness among the troopers. As Perl and others illustrates, this department is committed and projects to end veteran homelessness by 2015(2014). Other than housing the veterans, the DVA ensures that the US veterans can access affordable health care services. They provide both physical and psychiatric medical exams before settling them in permanent houses. As O’Campo and others explains, most of the homeless veterans served the country in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2009). On exiting the military service, such troops are rendered homeless as they try to fit in an already overcrowded job market. Most of them are unable to handle the frustrations of being homeless and jobless. They, therefore, fall into drug and substance abuse while others struggle with mental illness. Under the Veteran Affairs’ programs, such as Health Care for Homeless Veterans (HCHV), Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) and Homeless Veteran supported Employment (HVSEP) program, such frustrated veterans are assisted to return to the standard human lifestyle.

The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)

The US government’s response to the challenge of homelessness is organized and coordinated by the USICH, an independent federal body within the executive branch of government. USICH membership consists of delegates from the government departments that are directly involved in the fight against homelessness. For instance, the current council chairperson works in the department of Housing and urban Development while the vice chair works in the Department of Labor (Perl et al., 2014). The USICH is responsible for strategizing and proposing the necessary actions to be taken to curb homelessness. In 2010, for example, the council presented the nation’s first comprehensive plan to tackle homelessness. The plan, Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness 2010 outlines the country’s intended actions and the projected results for a period of 10years (Perl et al., 2014). However, various stakeholders express their concern with the report due to its lack of stipulation in proposed actions and the corresponding costs.


Community’s Response

While addressing homelessness is largely left to government and other private agency, every individual has a role to play in assisting the homeless community. For instance, several philanthropic Americans have instigated programs that provide home and basic necessities to the homeless. Various groups, such as Volunteers of America are made up of people who offer to engage the homeless and perhaps take them into their houses. Unfortunately, the majority of the Americans looks down upon the homeless and stigmatizes homelessness. As O’campo and others found out, homeless people are often viewed as being mentally incapable or lazy (2009). They are also associated with criminal activities. This stigmatization makes it hard for the homeless individuals to sustain their lives since they are turned down while seeking public assistance or job opportunities.

There are other interested groups amongst the general community that endeavors to support the homeless individuals. These include the non-governmental social services agencies, religious and charitable organizations, human rights activists, and the media. The social services agencies and the religion-oriented organizations, for example, mobilize funds to assist the needy in the society, including the homeless. Another important group in assisting the homeless is the human rights activists. These are groups of people who go out of their way to lobby the government into addressing homelessness. They deliver their message through public demonstrations and filing suits in law courts on behalf of the homeless. On the other hand, the media act as the voice of the homeless through spreading their cries. By publishing the difficulties in being homeless, the media contribute in persuading the government as well as the public into alleviating homelessness. According to Ross (2011), the media’s coverage of the predicaments persevered in homeless encampments goes a long way in influencing the public’s perception of the homeless.

What Needs to Be Done

Although the government and the public have undertaken various programs to end homelessness, there are typical measures that need to be addressed for a long lasting solution. Most of the above listed responses are more concerned with the people who are already homeless and dwelling on the streets. For example, most of the city police are only interested in removing the homeless people from the streets without caring where they will go. However, this paper holds that an amicable solution would be attained if more resources were to be channeled into preventing homelessness. The stakeholders should identify and address the possible causes of homelessness, such as domestic violence, drunkenness, and mental illness. Anti-homelessness programs should be all round, that is, they should include every aspect of human life, including health, economic, and social stability.

In conclusion, the American’s response to the challenge of homelessness is good. Although much needs to be done in terms of educating the law enforcers and the public on how to treat a genuine homeless person, the US government seems to be committed in its effort. Today, various Magistrate and District courts have voided several of the laws that criminalize homelessness. One can anticipate that the coming generation will enjoy the fruits of today’s effort to eradicate homelessness. If the governments implement its current strategic plan, then the generation that comes 30 years from now will applaud the today’s efforts since there will be no homeless American.


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