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  Definitional problems make it difficult to achieve accurate counts of homeless populations. Historically, the homeless in industrialized societies have tended to be single, white, middle-aged men, often alcoholics, who have elected voluntarily to dissociate themselves from society. During the last three decades, this group has been joined and numerically overwhelmed by the deinstitutionalized mentally disabled, those who have never been institutionalized, substance abusers, women and children (the former often victims of domestic abuse), racial and ethnic minorities, runaway and \'throw-away\' youth, and war veterans. The demographics of the homeless population provide some indication of how complex the causes of homelessness have become.

Most operational definitions characterize homelessness as the absence of a place where one can sleep and receive mail. But researchers increasingly emphasize the loss of support networks and progressive social disaffiliation that are typical of the descent into homelessness (cf. alienation; anomie). People who become homeless in industrialized societies often pass through an extended sequence of deteriorating circumstances involving, for example, first a move to cheaper rental accommodation, then doubling up with friends and family, and a shift into temporary housing in a hostel or shelter, before ultimately ending up on the street.

The factors causing the enormous increase of \'new\' homelessness vary according to national and regional contexts. Nevertheless, most western industrialized nations have experienced: (a) a massive economic restructuring, associated with deindustrialization and the rise of post-Fordism, that caused recession and significant long-term unemployment; (b) a dismantling of the welfare state that reduced levels of, and eligibility for, public assistance at a time when demand for such assistance was sky-rocketing; and (c) a collapse of government-supported affordable housing programmes (including public housing). These broad trends created a class of \'proto-homeless\' — economically and residentially marginalized individuals and families only one or two pay cheques away from the street. At the same time, the availability of alcohol, crack cocaine, and other relatively cheap and highly addictive drugs contributed to the incidence of proto-homelessness.

The rise in the number of homeless people and the withdrawal of welfare-state services produced a number of interrelated consequences: (a) the extensive growth of a not-for-profit service and advocacy sector known as the shadow state; (b) while the growing numbers of homeless people tended initially to raise public concerns and sympathy, current evidence suggests there is an increasing unwillingness to accept the proximate presence of homeless people and services designed to assist them (the NIMBY phenomenon); (c) community intolerance is often expressed through the enactment of local ordinances that outlaw the behaviours of homeless people, including panhandling and sleeping/sitting in public places, and have the effect of channelling growing numbers of homeless people into the criminal justice system; (d) homeless individuals and service providers have been pushed into zones of dependence, or \'ghettoes\' of service-dependent people (see also skid row). The consequent spatial concentration is often a result of deliberate efforts at containment. In the zone of dependence, homeless people often build street-based social networks that (for better or worse) substitute for earlier home-based networks. Service agencies may also benefit from agglomeration economies that derive from the proximity of other service providers in the zone of dependence.

The complexity of homelessness as a social process, plus the growing diversity of homeless populations, has meant that any single policy response to homelessness is unlikely to achieve instant, substantial change. The prevalence of dual, even triple diagnoses (homelessness plus psychiatric illness, substance abuse, physical illness or disability) only highlights the shortcomings of single-issue treatment programmes. Getting off the streets permanently may require access to a continuum of housing-, work-, and service-related opportunities, including emergency shelter and services as well as long-term supported housing. In the absence of an integrated network of assistance, many people may move from streets to temporary accommodation and back again, in an on-going cycle of homelessness.

In developing countries, homelessness on a large scale has emerged as one consequence of rapid urban development (cf. urbanization). Large numbers of rural-urban migrants and an expanding urban population have been unable to gain access to formal employment and shelter within the formal housing sector. A widespread response to this crisis of poverty and homelessness has been the growth of squatter settlements and shanty towns, which develop on vacant land within and around cities and comprise a dense patchwork of shelters assembled from available materials. Some estimates suggest that more than 40 per cent of the urban populations of developing countries now live in these informal settlements. Their populations face many challenges including health and sanitation, and outside pressure for clearance and redevelopment. Residents and non-governmental organizations have focused on, among other things, improving the physical infrastructure of settlements, facilitating access to health care and education, and political empowerment. (See also squatting.) (MJD)

Suggested Reading Dear, M. and Wolch, J. 1987: Landscapes of despair: from deinstitutionalization to homelessness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Wolch, J. and Dear, M. 1993: Malign Neglect: Homelessness in an American City. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.



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