Skip to main content

Social Problems: Homelessness in the United States

Bill is a freelance writer who has written for a variety of platforms.

Homelessness is a major problem in the US.

Homelessness is a major problem in the US.

Do You See Them?

Do you see them? Can you see them? Will you see them?

They are seemingly everywhere and yet they are the invisible people. They have become so common as to become a part of the landscape, of no more importance than the wall of a building they lean against, or the freeway overpass that serves as their bedroom ceiling.

They can certainly see you, sidestepping around them as you head off for a shopping excursion, or driving by them as they stand on a street corner with sign in hand. They are the unwashed, the disheveled, the forgotten people of the United States, where all men are created equal but some just aren’t too lucky, right?

Do you see them? Can you see them? Will you see them?

They span the entire spectrum of the population; white, black, Indian and Hispanic; men, women, and children. No race or creed is exempt; homelessness is an equal opportunity social issue, and it is alive and well in every major city in the United States.

Do you see them? Can you see them? Will you see them?

The numbers are staggering, especially considering this is considered the richest and most powerful nation on Earth.

The unseen in America

The unseen in America

The Cold, Hard Numbers

  • In a given year, as many as 3.5 million people are homeless in the United States, or approximately 1% of the entire population.
  • During any given week, as many as 842,000 people are homeless. The numbers will never be accurate due to the difficulty of finding all the homeless, a shifting population that is never in one place long enough to count.
  • The fastest growing segment of the homeless population are families with children, which make up for 23% of the homeless population. 51.3% are single males, 24.7% are single females, and 5% are minors unaccompanied by adults. 39% of the total homeless population are children under the age of 18.
  • 49% are African American, 35% Caucasian, 13% Hispanic, 2% Native American, and 1% are Asian.
  • 22% of the homeless have serious mental illnesses; 30% have substance abuse issues; 46% have chronic health problems, and 58% have trouble finding enough food to eat.
  • 38% have less than a high school diploma, 34% have a high school diploma, and 28% have more than a high school diploma.
  • As many as 43% are veterans of the Armed Forces!

Causes of Homelessness

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the leading causes of homelessness are as follows:

  • The change in the mental health systems since the 1950s, a shift towards “community-based” treatment of mentally ill rather than long-term commitment to institution.
  • Redevelopment and gentrification of neighborhoods in cities, demolishing low-income neighborhoods.
  • The economic crises of the 1970s and the current economic recession
  • The failure of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide effective mental health care for veterans.
  • Natural disasters.
  • Women and children who flee domestic violence.
  • Foreclosure of homes.
  • Evictions from apartments.
  • Difficulty of released prisoners to find gainful employment.

Do you see them? Can you see them? Will you see them?

Do you see them?

Do you see them?

Reflections From Olympia, Washington

Olympia is the capitol city of the State of Washington, with approximately 47,000 citizens. It sits on the Interstate 5 corridor, 20 miles south of a major army/air force combined base, one hour south of Seattle and 90 minutes north of Portland, Oregon.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

Government is obviously the number one employer in this city, and in many ways Olympia is just your average American city. It has an interesting mix of people, two universities, average unemployment figures, and decent public schools. The surrounding area is filled with natural beauty with majestic mountains rising to the east and northwest, lakes and rivers aplenty, and an inland sea brushing up against Olympia’s shoreline.

It is practically impossible not to see the homeless in Olympia. At every major intersection they are there, holding their signs, asking for food or money. Walk the streets of downtown and you will definitely see them, sleeping on the sidewalks, walking the alleyways, finding shelter in the city library, and occasionally asking for handouts. Their tents can be found in vacant lots or nearby forests; their shopping carts, filled with all their earthly possessions, sit in parking lots or behind stores.

For the most part they are polite and extremely gracious when given food or spare change; they have become a permanent part of the social landscape of Olympia, and if one word could describe the attitude of Olympia’s citizens towards the homeless, that word would be tolerated.

Several years ago I taught at a school down in Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. When I first moved to Beaverton, I was confused at first; I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was missing. It took me several weeks to realize that there were no homeless there. I finally inquired about it and I was told that Beaverton in effect “zoned out” the homeless with a zero tolerance decree by the city officials. It turned out that the homeless were considered “bad for business” and presented a negative image for Beaverton. Heaven forbid...bad for business!

Zoned out human beings? Zero tolerance of homelessness and suffering?

Do you see them? Can you see them? Will you see them?

An Open Letter to Mike

The other night a homeless man (we will call him Mike) died on the streets of Olympia. He was found under some newspapers on a park bench and had died during the night when the September temperatures had dropped to an unseasonable 36 degrees. Perhaps he died of exposure; perhaps malnutrition, or AIDS, or any of a dozen other possible causes. Most surely he died alone, without family, without any means of contacting family if they do exist. His shopping cart was next to the bench, and all of his worldly possessions, the sum total of his life, were in that cart...a couple blankets...a thin cotton sweater...a roll of duct tape and his sign...”Homeless, need food or change…can you help me?”

I find myself needing to write a letter to Mike; nobody saw him while he lived; maybe this letter will help you all see him now.

Dear Mike,

I’m sorry! I still find it hard to believe that deaths like yours happen in the richest nation on Earth. I still find it hard to believe that a veteran who served his country could die in such a fashion. I still find it hard to believe that there are people among us who are neither seen nor heard. It would be inconceivable to me if I did not witness it with my eyes daily.

I’m sorry your country was not there for you the way you were there for your country. I’m sorry that the promises given to every citizen did not apply to you. I’m sorry that trade agreements and foreign aid were more important than your well-being.

I’m sorry that by ignoring you we all share in the blame for your death. “There but for the grace of God...” Well, here I am, healthy, happy, and loved, whether it be because of God or some random roll of the cosmic dice. I live, you die, and life goes on, right?

Maybe I’ve been a naïve fool, Mike, but I believed those words about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Hell, Mike, you fought in the army defending those words. So what went wrong? How does this happen? You are dead my friend, but I need answers

Rest in peace now, Mike! I, for one, will not forget you!

Bill Holland

How Does This Happen?

I struggle with that question daily! I want to know how this happens in the United States of America. I want to know how people become invisible to the rest of us. I want to know how people are asked to serve their country but the country is not required to serve the people. I want to know why the playing field isn’t level for everyone.

I want to know how sex slavery happens in this country. I want to know how abuse happens in this country. I want to know how poverty and homelessness happen in this country.

Evidently we cannot count on the government taking care of its citizens. Evidently we cannot count on the corporations feeling any civic responsibility to those who line their pockets with cash. I can, however, count on myself, and others like me, who have compassion and empathy for those who suffer.

And so that’s where it starts...with me! In all honesty, I wish it did not start with me. I would love it if the government would handle all of this so I could blithely go about my day not thinking about social problems. Unfortunately, that’s how this whole mess started in the first place. 300 million people blithely going about their day, paying little or no attention to the suffering and injustice all around them, and trusting that the government would handle the situation.

The funny thing is that the government is blithely going about the business of big business and hoping that we will handle the problem on a local level.

And so it starts with me!

Do you see them? Can you see them? Will you see them?

I was one of them at one time, back in 1989. Was I worth caring about? Was I worth seeing? Was I worth saving?

One Success Story

Was I worth saving?

Was I worth saving?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Bill Holland

Related Articles