This review takes stock of contemporary social science research on homelessness. Research on homelessness in the 1980s has been prompted by the increased numbers and visibility of homeless persons including men, women, and families, as well as young people without families. Most empirical research employs a working definition of homelessness as the condition of those people who are without a permanent place to live. However, a wide range in perspectives differ over what homelessness is. In part, this reflects recognition of some the dynamics of homelessness that include intermittent movement in and out of homeless situations. But it also reflects changes in social values over what constitutes adequate housing. Research shows that the population of homeless persons is diverse, although most homeless persons are young and single. Many have severe chronic problems including mental illness, alcoholism, physical disabilities, and poor health. A significant number have criminal histories. Many were raised in foster care situations. All suffer from economic deprivation, and many have experienced long-term unemployment. Considerable disagreement exists over the number of homeless persons, in part because the scarcity of resources to address this problem politicizes the debate. There is also strong disagreement over the root causes of homelessness.

Debate over the causes of homelessness is caught up in whether the focus of research should be on structural forces that permit homelessness to occur or the immediate reasons why people become homeless. Research now suggests that the extreme situation of homelessness may be more accurately portrayed as the result of the convergence of many factors that drive this phenomenon, including housing market dynamics, housing and welfare policy, economic restructuring and the labor market, and personal disabilities. Policies designed to ameliorate homelessness have been inadequate to stem the tidal forces that produce such severe destitution, and this trend is likely to continue. Future important directions include addressing the role of employment and social ties in producing homelessness, comparing the economic and social situation of homeless and non-homeless persons, evaluating programs designed to aid homeless persons, and developing international comparisons of homelessness.

Keyword(s): employmenthousingpolicypovertywelfare

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  • Article Type: Review Article
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