THE U.S. AND CANADIAN EXPERIENCE
12 September 2000
HISTORY OF HOMELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES
AND "NEW" HOMELESSNESS
STRUCTURAL ASPECTS OF HOMELESSNESS
A. The Decline of
Affordable Housing Stock
Rent Control and Other Regulatory Constraints on Housing Markets
1. Rent Controls
Other Regulatory Constraints
C. The Disappearance
of the Casual Labour Market
E. The Crack Cocaine Epidemic
AND POVERTY THE CANADIAN EXPERIENCE
HOMELESSNESS IN CANADA TODAY
THE U.S. AND CANADIAN EXPERIENCE
Although homelessness is a persistent manifestation
of urban poverty, in recent years it has become the focus of increased
attention by politicians, social scientists, urban planners and activists.
What are the forces that promote homelessness and why this sudden interest
This paper will attempt
to identify the root causes of homelessness by comparing the U.S. and
Canadian experiences, especially from the perspective of prominent Canadian
and U.S. experts on homelessness and housing. It will suggest several
of the influences that may have contributed to the rise of homelessness
and brought it into current prominence. Differences between the characteristics
of earlier and contemporary homeless populations will also be described.
A BRIEF HISTORY
OF HOMELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES
Throughout U.S. history,
the population has contained a sizeable segment of homeless persons. During
colonial times, the homeless and destitute received very little sympathy
and were sometimes driven out of towns and villages or shunted from community
to community, lest they become a serious burden on the relief rolls.
At the end of the U.S. Civil
War, released war veterans joined migrant workers to swell the homeless
population. Migrant groups of hoboes drifted from town to town in search
of shelter and employment. Like homeless people today, they were often
treated with suspicion and distrust. Public policy, where any existed,
often consisted of warning them to leave town or putting them temporarily
The consequences of such
societal attitudes were severe, given the absence in those days of a "safety
net" to protect families against unemployment. In the nineteenth
century, the loss of a job or the death or incapacitation of the
households wage earner introduced a real risk of destitution.
Peter Rossi(1) notes that communities
made a distinction between local homelessness, where families and individuals
known to the community fell upon hard times, and transient homelessness,
usually involving single persons believed to be homeless as a result of
their irresponsible lifestyle. Unattached homeless individuals attracted
scorn, while destitute families received more sympathetic treatment.
In the late nineteenth century,
homelessness became institutionalized and concentrated in the poorer sections
of industrial cities, known as Skid Row. These areas with their
collection of cheap hotels, religious missions and flop houses
were integral components of the urban economy, providing cheap, unskilled
manual labour to factories, lumber mills and railroad yards.
The Skid Row population
continued to grow until the early decades of the twentieth century, when
mechanization of industrial processes particularly in earth moving
and materials handling reduced the demand for unskilled labour,
leaving the Skid Row population without a market for its services.
The Great Depression in
the 1930s saw the collapse of economic activity and a substantial jump
in unemployment, which lasted for more than a decade and at one point
affected 25% of the workforce.(2) Many were compelled to leave their homes and communities
in search of job opportunities elsewhere; as a result, the number of the
homeless swelled. Attempts were made to enumerate its size during the
Depression years: according to these estimates, the homeless population
ranged between 200,000 to more than 1.5 million individuals. Rossi
notes that this figure is very similar to contemporary estimates of todays
homeless (between 350,000 and several million).(3)
The U.S. population was smaller then, however, so the homeless population
represented a larger fraction of the total population than it does today.
Urban centres acted as magnets
to people seeking employment. Many cities were swamped as a result of
this migration, and poorer neighbourhoods saw their populations grow substantially.
Because the homeless were often too numerous to be properly housed, authorities
had to resort to various types of emergency housing, sometimes even jails.
Some cities simply moved the homeless into camps in rural areas; many
transients themselves built improvised shanty-towns on the outskirts of
During the Second World
War, as the homeless were absorbed into the armed forces and war industries,
the problem virtually disappeared. In certain quarters there were fears
that economic stagnation would return by the end of the war, and with
it unemployment and homelessness. However, the accumulated private savings,
the rapid conversion of military industries into civilian production,
and a pent-up demand for private goods and services led to a post-war
economic boom that kept the rates of unemployment and homelessness very
In the following decades,
Skid Row areas with their collection of establishments and businesses
catering to a poor and aging population slowly contracted, and
their role in a modern urbanized economy became progressively marginalized.
Many social scientists believed that these areas would eventually disappear
completely from the urban landscape.
In the late 1950s, academic
interest in Skid Row areas and their inhabitants resumed as the renewal
of city centres compelled many urban planners and municipal authorities
to confront the problems of older and poorer neighbourhoods. The focus
was on finding out as much as possible about Skid Row areas and how their
populations would fare once the areas were demolished to make way for
During the late 1950s and
1960s, many attempts were made to estimate the size of the homeless population
in various urban centres. Rossi mentions a 1963 study by Donald Bogue(4)
which used 1958 census data to count some 12,000 homeless persons in Chicago
alone; he estimated that approximately 200,000 homeless, mostly elderly
men, lived in the 41 largest U.S. cities. Another study done in 1960
by Bahr and Caplow(5) listed about 8,000 homeless men living in New Yorks
Bowery, and 30,000 additional homeless persons living elsewhere in the
city. Another homeless count(6) listed 2,000 homeless persons in Philadelphia.(7)
Despite the economic expansion
of the period, homelessness persisted. As Rossi stated:
Skid Rows may well have been dying out; indeed, given the advanced age
of the residual Skid Row population, the impending demise of Skid Row
was widely and confidently predicted. But it was obvious that the final
death throes would be neither merciful nor swift.(8)
In the 1950s, the notion
of homelessness differed considerably from the one used today. At that
time, homelessness implied more the lack of support, whereas today the
term implies deprivation of shelter. In fact, most of the homeless men
in Bogues study had stable shelter of one sort or another. Four-fifths
rented windowless cubicles in flophouse hotels on a daily (or nightly)
basis. These cubicles were small, partitioned spaces sometimes just large
enough to accommodate a cot. The remaining fifth lived in private rooms
in inexpensive single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels or in mission dormitories.
According to Bogue, only a small minority of homeless men actually lived
on the street. Other studies made the same observation.
The studies were also remarkably
similar in their other findings. They described the Skid Row population
as very homogeneous, consisting mostly of white men whose median age was
50. Of these men, one-quarter were Social Security pensioners stretching
their meagre benefits by renting the cheapest accommodation available.
Another one-quarter suffered from chronic alcoholism. The remaining half
of the Skid Row population was composed of the physically disabled (20%),
chronically mentally ill persons (20%), and those suffering from what
was then called "social maladjustment" (10%).
With the exception of the
pensioners, most Skid Row residents earned their living through menial
low-paid employment. Those without work could find shelter and food in
municipal shelters and mission dormitories, considered to be the least
desirable forms of housing.
Finally, Bogues study
noted the social isolation of Skid Row inhabitants. Virtually all of the
men were unmarried and most had never been married. Though many had families,
the study noted that the ties of kinship were very tenuous. Some claimed
to have friends but these relationships were very superficial.
Other studies confirmed
that the Skid Row population was characterized by:
poverty, arising from unemployment or sporadic employment, chronically
low earnings and low levels of government assistance;
arising from advanced age, alcoholism, and physical or mental illness;
and tenuous ties to family and kin, with few and no friends.(9)
Many social scientists noted
the disappearance of the casual labour market and the end of the economic
function of Skid Row along with the progressive mechanization of low-skilled
jobs. However, Skid Row areas did not disappear altogether, as many academics
had predicted. In most cities, smaller versions of them grew up near areas
with SRO hotels and rooming houses.
In the late 1960s and early
1970s, many U.S. cities underwent considerable physical transformation
and renewal in which much of the older and cheaper housing stock was being
torn down or converted into more profitable structures/uses such as office
buildings and parking lots. At the same time, the U.S. federal government
passed legislation improving the amount and coverage of social security
benefits for the elderly and the physically and mentally handicapped.
These expanded benefits, together with the provision of subsidized public
housing, enabled some of the Skid Row population to move into more adequate
In the 1980s and 1990s,
important modifications to the urban economy, housing markets, public
policy, and demographic trends acted to transform the nature and characteristics
of homelessness as described in the preceding section of this paper. Rossi
has identified the differences and similarities in the old and new homeless
The most striking difference
is the visibility and number of the homeless today. No longer confined
to poor neighbourhoods, people living and sleeping on the street or in
public places such as bus terminals and railroad stations have become
a commonplace sight in most cities. In the past, the "homeless"
managed in one way or another to find nightly shelter; the new homeless
clearly suffer more severely from housing deprivation.
Another difference is that
todays homeless population is on average considerably younger and
more varied in terms of gender and ethnic representation. In Bogues
1958 study of the homeless in Chicago, women accounted for about 3% of
Skid Row residents. In a 1985-1986 study carried out in the same city,
women made up almost one-quarter of the homeless population, a statistic
confirmed by other recent surveys.
The racial composition of
the homeless has also changed considerably over time, from being predominantly
white 82% on Chicagos old Skid Row to being more racially
mixed. Among the new homeless, racial and ethnic minorities are heavily
represented. In one study of Chicago, 54% of the homeless were black.
In most cities, other ethnic minorities principally Hispanics and
Native Americans are also represented disproportionately among
the homeless, with the precise ethnic mix apparently determined by the
ethnic composition of the local poor.
In the past, most Skid Row
inhabitants (other than pensioners) could find enough sporadic employment
to give them enough income to secure some kind of accommodation. However,
the new homeless are largely unemployed (97%, according to one study),
and much poorer as a result.
In spite of all these differences
between the old and new homeless populations, the similarities are even
more striking. Both groups demonstrate extreme poverty, intermittent and
unpredictable income (if any), inability to afford stable and adequate
housing, a high percentage of mental and/or physical disabilities, and
a higher likelihood of alcoholism and drug abuse.
Finally, Rossi makes an
interesting comparison between the homeless and those who are extremely
poor but domiciled. Although some estimates of the total number of homeless
people barely exceed one million individuals, the number of the poor stands
at around 35 million; thus, the number of poor exceeds the number of homeless
by a very wide margin.
In attempting to explain
this finding, Rossi goes on to define what he calls the extremely poor:
those whose household annual income is equal to or less than the median
income of poverty households (52% of the official U.S. poverty level).
In 1980, the U.S. federal government defined the poverty line as $8,414
per year; the extremely poor family of four had an annual income of $4,396,
or $3 per person per day. According to this criterion, the number of the
extremely poor was around 17 million in 1980 still far more than
the number of the homeless. The question, according to Rossi, is not why
there were so many homeless people, but rather why there were so few,
compared to the number of the extremely poor, whose financial situation
is so similar.
Using the 1984 survey of
General Assistance (GA) recipients as a database, Rossi compares the extremely
poor with the homeless. The GA is a welfare program for poor people who
are not eligible for such support programs as Social Security, Assistance
for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), or any other disability program.
GA recipients must be able-bodied, single adults whose annual income does
not exceed $1,800 and who possess no significant assets. He notes that
the GA clientele and the homeless were socio-economically very similar
except that the overwhelming majority of GA beneficiaries (92%) lived
in conventional housing and in households, usually with their parents.
Of the third who lived alone, more than half were receiving financial
support from friends or family.
Thus, the principal difference
between the homeless and the vast majority of the extremely poor GA recipients
is that the latter either live with family or can rely on financial support
from friends or relatives.
above results make it apparent that the network of kith and kin is the
last line of defence against homelessness; the homeless, in turn, are
apparently those for whom this network has been destroyed in a process
no doubt strongly tied to disabilities such as alcoholism or mental
ASPECTS OF HOMELESSNESS
Of the many possible reasons
for the recent rise in homelessness, the most often cited are: the decline
of affordable housing stock; rent controls and other regulatory constraints
on housing markets; the decline in the casual labour market; deinstitutionalization;
and the crack cocaine epidemic.
A. The Decline of Affordable
As Rossi stated in Without
must remember that homelessness is a housing problem. Homelessness on
the scale seen today is in large part an outcome of the shortage of
inexpensive housing for the poor, a shortage that began in the 1970s,
and has accelerated in the 1980s.(12)
Using the U.S. Census Bureaus
Annual Housing Surveys (AHS), Rossi observed sharp declines in the stock
of affordable housing in many urban centres. For example, between 1977
and 1981, the survey reported declines in the supply of affordable multi-room
housing units (i.e., housing that rents for 40% or less of poverty-level
incomes) ranging from a low of 12% (Baltimore, Maryland) to as high as
58% (Anaheim, California). In 12 large cities surveyed between 1978 and
1983, the supply of inexpensive rental housing available to low-income
families dropped by an average 30%.(13)
The stock of single-room-occupancy
(SRO) units ordinarily rented by low-income single adults declined even
more precipitously. Chicagos Planning Department reported the demolition
or conversion of about 18,000 single-person dwelling units between 1973
and 1984. Seattle, Boston, New York, Nashville, Philadelphia and many
other cities reported the same trend; Los Angeles reported losing more
than 50% of its single-occupancy rental units between 1970 and 1985.
Rossi partly attributes
the decline in affordable housing stock to funding cuts in federal housing
programs that had supported the construction of public housing or provided
housing subsidies to poor households during the 1980s. At the same time,
the number of poor urban households increased by 36%.(14) The combined effects of these two trends
resulted in a severe shortage of affordable rental housing for low-income
The diminishing stock at
the lower end of the urban housing market limits the options available
to low-income households; they must either allocate a greater portion
of their income for housing, leaving less for other necessities, or leave
the housing market altogether.
U.S. sociologist Christopher
Jencks takes a slightly different view.(15)
First, he notes the difficulty of identifying and counting SRO units.
Although the term is typically used for older buildings divided into single
rooms that do not meet a citys current standards for new construction,
the definition varies from city to city and over time. According to Jencks,
in the simplest approach, the U.S. Census data can be used to trace changes
in the supply of single rooms. The best survey on single rooms
the American Housing Survey (AHS), initiated in 1973 suffers from
three major limitations:
not survey many one-room units in any given year;
not cover tenants in hotels patronized mainly by transients staying
there for at least six months; and
it changed the way it counted rooms. From 1973 to 1983, the AHS let
the tenants determine the number of rooms they had; after 1985, the
AHS defined this number, thereby re-classifying one-quarter of the
single-room population into two-room units.
In response to the AHS report
that the number of SRO units declined nationwide between 1973 and 1989
from 1.1 million one-room rental units to about 789,000, Jencks notes
that the number was more or less stable between 1973 and 1983 and between
1985 and 1989. He concludes that the decline observed between 1983 and
1985 was a statistical phantom resulting from problems in counting SROs
and the 1985 changes to the AHS survey design.
Although the number of one-room
units remained more or less stable over the sample period, according to
the Census the population living in them declined appreciably, from 314,000
in 1973 to 162,000 in 1989.
Most SROs were being demolished
in the 1960s and 1970s, but there was still a sufficient supply of these
units for rents to remain stable. Supply of and demand for SROs stayed
mostly in balance during the 1970s. Moreover, both real wages and government
benefits continued to rise until the early 1970s, permitting even irregularly
employed individuals to gain access to better-quality housing and lowering
demand for lower-quality SROs.
Although real wages and
government benefits to the poor stopped rising and the demand for the
lower end of the housing market stopped declining after 1973, homelessness
became visible only during the 1980s. Jencks attributes this lag to the
steadily declining purchasing power of the poor over the same period.
He argues that the shortage of accommodation for the poor resulted not
just from an insufficient supply of cheap rooms, but also from excess
demand driven by the rise of long-term male joblessness and lagging government
benefits for the unemployed. The imbalance between low housing supply
and high demand caused SRO rents to rise faster than the general level
One would have expected
the excess demand for cheap accommodation to be temporary and to have
been absorbed as rising rents and profits provided incentives for entrepreneurs
to increase the supply. Jencks suggests, however, that the prevailing
municipal housing regulations and policies (e.g., rent controls) in many
major cities prevented adjustment to the new market conditions, i.e.,
by building new units or converting conventional housing into cheaper
Once their incomes began
stagnating, a growing proportion of the poor could no longer afford their
existing accommodation, yet they were being deprived of alternative shelter.
The extremely poor either resorted in greater numbers to emergency shelters
or were compelled to live on the streets.
In summary, Jencks does
not believe that the destruction of Skid Row areas provides an adequate
explanation of the rise in homelessness. He concludes from the statistical
evidence that homelessness was the result of increasing poverty and regulatory
constraints imposed on the low-cost housing market in the late 1970s and
Rent Control and Other Regulatory Constraints on Housing Markets
Certain social researchers
attribute homelessness to public policy initiatives and urban housing
regulations. This is an extension of the argument in the section above
that suggests homelessness results from the erosion of the low-cost rental
Housing markets are not
really national in scale but are rather the sum of many regional and local
markets; thus, the municipal regulatory environment can have a tremendous
impact on the kinds and availability of low-cost rental housing. These
regulations can take the form of price ceilings on rental units (rent
controls), restraints on the type of construction permitted (zoning regulations),
or growth control ordinances that limit or prevent certain activities
or businesses from being conducted in order to impose more "orderly"
1. Rent Controls
Usually enacted during periods
of rapid urban expansion when rental housing is scarce, rent controls
are essentially ceilings on the price level or price increases of rental
units. Rents are set below what the market would allow in the absence
Rent control has been in
force in a number of North American cities for many decades. For example,
the City of New York retains rent controls imposed under temporary wartime
price rationing during World War II.
Many U.S. and Canadian cities
adopted rent controls in the 1970s, in response to high inflation. In
1971, the Nixon administration imposed a nationwide system of wage and
price controls, which was later repealed; however, many cities retained
the controls on rents. By the mid-1980s, more than 200 separate municipalities
in the U.S. encompassing about 20% of the population were
living under rent control.(16) In Canada,
a majority of provinces enacted rent controls at the request of the federal
government in October 1975, as part of the federal Anti-Inflation Programme.(17)
Standard supply and demand
theory predicts that any price ceilings, including rent controls, will
produce an excess of demand over supply in other words, an economic
"shortage."(18) Although the stated goal of rent control is to make
rental housing more affordable, its principal result is an overall shortage
of reasonably priced rental units.
Because the mandated rents
are set below the market rate, a wedge is driven between the quantity
demanded by consumers and the quantity supplied by producers. Consumers
will demand more rental units at the artificially cheaper mandated price.
Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, will be less willing to supply rental
units because of the low return on their investment. In the absence of
alternatives, a portion of the demand will remain unsatisfied.(19)
This is the textbook way
of describing rent controls, or price ceilings. In real life, however,
it is very onerous for governments to control the entire supply of a commodity;
controls or price ceilings are usually applied to a portion of any market.
Depending on the degree to which the authorities are willing to tolerate
it, the uncontrolled portion serves to absorb or mop up the excess demand
resulting from the controlled market, and the uncontrolled market may
be considered legal, semi-legal or illegal.
Unlike the rent for controlled
units, which are set at a mandated level, the rents in the uncontrolled
segment of the market are determined by the interaction of supply and
demand. The unsatisfied demand from the controlled segment will spill
over to the unregulated segment, pushing rent levels even higher as more
tenants compete for the limited unregulated supply and creating a widening
price gap between the controlled and the uncontrolled portion of the market.
The result is a redistribution of income that benefits the tenants living
in controlled units at the expense of tenants whose rents are uncontrolled.
Once controls are imposed,
the tenants in regulated units have a strong incentive to remain there
for as long as possible, even for a lifetime, perhaps in some cases passing
on the tenancy to descendants. In this way, rent controls reduce tenant
turnover and, given the lack of affordable alternatives, further restrict
the supply of housing.
Some rent control regulations
permit landlords to charge higher rents when the original occupants move
out. In order to avoid forced eviction, rent control legislation has often
included strong anti-eviction provisions. The inclusion of this provision,
however, makes it virtually impossible to evict tenants of rent-controlled
units, even if they are delinquent or destructive.
Thus, unable to evict delinquent
tenants and seeing their revenues fall, landlords of rent-controlled buildings
may curtail expenditure on maintenance and let the controlled units deteriorate.
Rent controls thus remove any incentive for entrepreneurs to expand supply
through building new units or maintaining the existing stock (e.g., rental
Although the effects of
rent controls on the quantity and quality of the rental housing supply
are well known and documented, the causal link between homelessness and
rent controls is not as apparent. As Jencks points out: "Even if
rent control really is correlated with homelessness, it does not follow
that one causes the other."(20)
For example, rent controls have been in place for decades in many North
American cities, yet homelessness became more visible only during the
1980s and 1990s.
What can be affirmed, however,
is that rent control has exacerbated the problem of homelessness by restricting
the supply of affordable housing. Those who truly benefit from rent controls
are the tenants who occupied the units at the time rent ceilings were
imposed. The rent for such a unit is very affordable but obtaining a unit
is next to impossible, because existing tenants have the incentive to
maintain occupancy at all costs. Moreover, under a rent control regime,
entrepreneurs have little or no incentive either to provide new housing
or to maintain existing housing. Thus, poor individuals or households
are virtually excluded from the private rental market; they must take
more expensive accommodation they can barely afford, seek other forms
of public shelter, or be forced to live on the streets.
Other Regulatory Constraints
In the past, homeowners
could rent out basements, attics, or spare bedrooms and in this way extend
the supply of low-cost accommodation for individuals. Now, through restrictive
municipal regulations, many cities prevent such practices and permit only
high-priced single-family homes, thereby depriving consumers of cheap
William Tucker argues that
a communitys regulatory regime may be the most critical reason for
the rise of homelessness and has a tremendous impact on the housing supply.
According to him, "Housing shortages are local problems created by
local regulation, which is the work of local municipal governments."(21)
In attempts to overcome
the effects of rent controls, homeowners and landlords often resorted
to demolishing or renovating their rental property or converting it for
higher-value uses such as condominiums or co-operatives. In response,
to prevent a substantial portion of the housing stock from being excluded
from rent controls, local governments often enacted new provisions that
prohibited or restrained these demolitions, renovations or conversions.
As Lawrence B. Smith has
economic consequences of these prohibitions on demolition, conversion,
and major renovations are to reduce the economic value of the rental
units and accelerate the deterioration of buildings by reducing their
value, by constraining and by reducing incentives to maintain their
quality. Controls thus generate behaviour that induces additional regulations
that may exacerbate many of the deleterious consequences of the controls.(22)
Building codes designed
to drive out "undesirable housing" in local jurisdictions have
also prevented or inhibited the building of low-cost housing.
Through regulation, most
cities and towns hold a tight rein on their housing markets. Tucker points
out that suburbs are particularly exclusionary, zoning out everything
but high-priced single-family homes and prohibiting the rental of rooms
In addition, efforts in
the name of "urban renewal," and municipal campaigns to "clean
up downtown," often led to the tearing down of Skid Row areas with
their vast supply of tenements, single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, sub-standard
shelters, and other cheap accommodation.(23) Unfortunately, these urban renewal efforts
were not often accompanied by efforts to provide cheap alternatives to
offset the loss of the rental housing stock.
C. The Disappearance
of the Casual Labour Market
A market for casual labour
is important for unskilled persons who, for various reasons, cannot hold
down a regular full-time job. For example, alcoholics or schizophrenics
may work effectively only on an intermittent basis. The presence of a
casual labour market thus enables marginally skilled persons to have some
income and to pay for some type of shelter.
In the past, poor neighbourhoods
played an integral role in the urban economy by providing local industries
with a ready supply of unskilled labour. According to Rossi, a major factor
in the decline of the Skid Row areas was the disappearance of the casual
labour market. He cites a 1980 study by Barrett Lee, which analyzed the
Skid Row populations in 41 U.S. cities between the 1950s and the 1970s.
This demonstrated that, as the proportion of each citys labour force
employed in the unskilled and service occupations declined, so did the
Skid Row population.
the earlier decade of the analysis, urban employers [who] needed muscle
power to wrestle with cargo apparently put up with the low productivity
of Skid Row men because they could be hired as needed and at low wages.
The advent of forklift tractors and other highly efficient materials-handling
technology meant that casual labourers were no longer cost-effective;
the declining demand for casual labour put the homeless and Skid Row
out of business. The continuing lack of demand for unskilled labour
still contributes to todays homelessness. But there is another
element involved, one that also helps us to understand the declining
average age of homeless persons. The past decade has seen a bulge in
the proportion of persons between the ages of twenty and thirty-five,
a direct outcome of the post-war baby boom. The consequence of this
"excess" of young persons, especially males, was a depressed
earning level for young adults, and an elevated unemployment rate.(24)
Between the mid-1960s and
the mid-1980s, as the earning profiles and employment opportunities for
U.S. workers aged under 35 deteriorated, the numbers of the homeless increased
and their average age declined. These developments in demographic and
labour market trends had serious consequences for the formation of households
and families. The observed rise in recent decades of single-parent households,
particularly those headed by females, partly results from the deterioration
of the economic prospects of young men. In these circumstances, young
men are less willing or able to form households and take on the economic
role of husband and father.
Jencks notes that, although
there is no clear consensus on the root causes of the rise in long-term
joblessness among mature men in the U.S., it is evident that the demand
for unskilled labour fell faster than the supply during the 1970s and
early 1980s. This had two consequences: unskilled workers wages
fell, and the least desirable workers had trouble finding work at any
wage. Both were factors in the increased risk of homelessness among mature
One commonly held view is
that the observed numbers of the homeless rose at the same time as psychiatric
hospitals instituted a policy of "deinstitutionalization," in
which mentally ill patients were released from long-term care.
Although Rossi agrees that
the policy of deinstitutionalization may have contributed to homelessness,
he points out that this initiative started as far back as the late 1940s;
most patients destined to be released from mental hospitals had already
left them when the rise of homelessness began in the early 1980s.
On the other hand, Christopher
Jencks believes that deinstitutionalization, originally intended to improve
the life of mentally ill patients, did have the unexpected effect of increasing
the homeless population. He points out that deinstitutionalization should
not be considered as one policy, but rather as a series of policies; although
each had the goal of reducing the number of residential patients, carrying
out these policies proceeded at varying rates and for different reasons.
In a sense, the policy was intended to move patients from one type of
institution to another, by moving them out of mental hospitals. The aim
was originally to move patients from long-term incarceration to more community-based
The policy was based on
the idea that long-term hospitalization is more harmful than helpful to
mentally handicapped patients. It was thought that many of these people
could be better cared for on an out-patient basis, while patients with
histories of episodic mental illness could be admitted and then released
The first wave of deinstitutionalization
in the U.S. started in the late 1940s and was completed by 1965. By that
time, the population of institutionalized patients had dropped from 513,000
to 475,000.(25) The policy gathered momentum in the 1950s,
with the advent of new psychotropic drugs, which enabled the efficient
treatment of patients suffering from depression and schizophrenia.
during the mid-1960s and early 1970s, when the federal government voted
improved public assistance benefits to former mental hospital patients
in the form of Medicaid, food stamps and other types of income support.
This provided former patients with enough financial means to support themselves,
and helped poor families to provide shelter for and take care of
their disturbed relatives. At this point in time, deinstitutionalization
was still accompanied by certain provisions to take care of these individuals.
The more seriously mentally ill remained in institutions, as did some
patients who had nowhere else to go or whose repeated admission and discharge
incurred too great an administrative or financial burden.
According to Jencks, the
process of deinstitutionalization began to go awry after the mid-1970s,
when social reformers, concerned about the civil rights of mental patients,
succeeded in curtailing the ability of mental health professionals to
commit severely disturbed patients to institutions. Although this may
have improved the quality of life inside the mental hospitals, it reduced
the quality of life outside them. Once they had lost the power to commit
mental patients without their consent, psychiatric institutions began
to release many seriously disturbed patients. Some of these were incapable
of taking care of themselves, or soon alienated themselves from friends
and families who might have given them support. Thus, many of these recently
released and severely disturbed patients found themselves without any
means of shelter or professional care.
Jencks argues that in society
someone has to be held responsible for every individuals actions.
Usually this means that an individual is responsible for his or her own
actions; however, if the individual is incapable of this, society has
to intervene, if necessary by isolating that individual. According to
Jencks, when families are unable or unwilling to take care of family members
who are mentally incompetent and constitute a danger to themselves and
others, mental hospitals should have the power to commit those members.
During the late 1970s and
early 1980s, federal and state governments were encountering greater public
resistance to tax increases; fiscal austerity became the order of the
day. Governments were pressured to find ways to control public expenditures
and urged mental hospitals to trim their budgets. As a consequence, some
psychiatric wards were closed and many chronic mental patients, even those
unwilling to leave, were discharged. According to Jencks, state governments
could have made arrangements to provide their former wards with some form
of shelter but they felt that endowing mental patients with rights included
endowing them with responsibility to fend for themselves. Unfortunately,
the chronically mentally ill are seldom able to assume this responsibility.
The prevailing political
climate was sympathetic to the idea of deinstitutionalization, and especially
to any savings that might result from it. In reality, these expected savings
proved to be elusive. As Jencks points out, "Deinstitutionalization
saves big money only when it is followed by gross neglect. That is why
neglect became common during the 1980s."(26)
Operating mental institutions
is very costly; they must have all the medical, support and administrative
services needed to offer patients continuous treatment, as well as the
staff and facilities to provide custodial care for those who are disruptive
or dangerous. In short, mental hospitals provide three basic but very
expensive services: subsistence, supervision and treatment. All attempts
by state hospital planners to economize by curtailing one or more of these
types of service proved unsuccessful or even counter-productive. In most
cases, they merely shifted the financial burden from one institution to
another, at considerable cost to society.
In the early 1980s, a U.S.
government administration sympathetic to the notion of deinstitutionalization
raised the criteria for receiving federal disability benefits and undertook
a periodic review of eligibility rolls that purged some 300,000 persons
judged to be capable of working. Of these, almost one-third (100,000 persons)
were considered to be mentally ill. According to Jencks, few of the reclassified
persons found work and presumably some became homeless. At the same time,
however, states reduced the adult population in mental hospitals and cut
their own welfare rolls by making their former wards eligible for U.S.
federal assistance. As a result, by the mid-1980s, the federal government
was compelled to reverse its own welfare policy and the disability rolls
grew back to roughly the same levels as had prevailed in the 1980s. Indeed,
the percentage of working-age adults receiving federal benefits for mental
disability was higher at the end of the 1980s than ever before in U.S.
According to Jencks, if
the policy of deinstitutionalization and the courts curtailment
of the power of mental health professionals to commit patients had not
occurred, the adult population of state mental hospitals would have stood
at 234,000 in 1990, instead of at 92,000. It follows that 142,000 persons
who under the pre-1975 rules would have been sheltered in mental institutions
were now sleeping somewhere else.
any given night, some of these people were in psychiatric wards of general
hospitals, a few were in private psychiatric hospitals, but many were
in shelters or on the streets.(27)
The Crack Cocaine Epidemic
Before the mid-1980s, alcohol
was the drug of choice for many of the poor, because the other available
forms of oblivion were far more expensive. Alcoholism is still a significant
problem among the homeless; however, Jencks does not think that it offers
a satisfactory explanation of the recent rise in homelessness, because
the proportion of alcohol abuse among the homeless population has remained
more or less stable over time.
Introduced in the mid-1980s,
crack cocaine was much cheaper than alcohol and other "hard"
drugs and offered an intense but short "high." Its low price
and easy availability soon made it the most popular drug of the homeless.
Jencks relies primarily
on urine sample tests to estimate the frequency of crack cocaine use among
the homeless. In 1991, New York City used a large sample of shelter users
for voluntary anonymous urine tests. Of the sample of single adults using
general-purpose shelters, 66% tested positive for cocaine use. Of adults
living in family shelters, only 16% did so. Jencks then compares these
results with New York crime statistics to infer the prevalence of use
of cocaine across the country. In 1990, of men arrested in Manhattan,
65% tested positive for cocaine use. In a similar survey of men arrested
in seven large U.S. cities in 1990, 49% did so.(28) Jencks concludes that the prevalence
of cocaine use is about the same among single adults living in shelters
as among arrested individuals. He suggests that if the result is valid
for metropolitan centres, about half of all individuals using shelters
in New York City during 1991 had used crack cocaine within a few days
of being tested.
a reasonable guess might be that a third of all homeless single adults
use crack fairly regularly. If so, crack is now as big a problem among
the homeless as alcohol.(29)
Jencks believes that use
of crack cocaine may explain why homelessness increased even at a time
when the overall level of unemployment declined.
Although there is no unequivocal
proof of its contribution to homelessness, drug dependency whether
it causes homelessness or is merely the result of it certainly
keeps the homeless on the streets. Increased drug use makes an unskilled
worker even less employable, further reducing disposable income and eroding
the ability to secure shelter. Drug dependency can also alienate friends
and family who might otherwise provide support and shelter, making it
more likely that the individual will become homeless.
Although information on
how the homeless obtain and dispose of their income is very sketchy, Jencks
assumes that many of them would rather spend it by seeking temporary oblivion
through drugs or alcohol than on paying for accommodation in a dangerous
shelter. He estimates that between one-third and two-thirds of the homeless
population may engage in some form of substance abuse.
AND POVERTY THE CANADIAN EXPERIENCE
The Canadian experience
with homelessness closely parallels that of the United Kingdom and the
United States. In the nineteenth century, homelessness was usually regarded
as the result of a failure of character on the part of the homeless individual.
Aid to the destitute was dispensed mostly by private charitable or philanthropic
organizations on an emergency or dire need basis and usually in the form
of food, clothing, heating fuel (wood or coal) rather than cash. It was
felt that if assistance was dispensed too freely it would create dependency
and erode the self-sufficiency of the beneficiary, thereby aggravating
the problem. There was virtually no role for the public sector in the
distribution of aid, although during periods of stagnant economic activity
in Canada, social reformers and public officials would rely on the relocation
of itinerants and the unemployed to unsettled lands in the North and West
of the country.
In the latter part of the
nineteenth century, the combined effects of rapid industrialization, urbanization
and immigration gave rise to greater interest in urban poverty and its
underlying causes and possible cures. Voluntary philanthropic organizations
on both sides of the Atlantic influenced each other and experimented with
model homes for the deserving poor; this activity led to the establishment
of sanitary codes and public health regulations to deal with overcrowded
and unsanitary housing.
Social problems brought
about by uncontrolled immigration to the United States and Canada led
to proposals for settlement housing to facilitate the assimilation of
immigrants. Social unrest resulting from economic depressions and deplorable
housing and working conditions highlighted the need for reforms aimed
at improving public health, housing, and working environments.
Canada after the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1849,
local governments began to assume social welfare responsibilities. From
1870 to 1900 the provinces had a far greater role, principally in establishing
prisons and asylums, but also regulating the work of publicly subsidised
private charities. This system focused on urban areas, mainly older
cores of major cities, where the very poor people and relief institutions
From 1900 to 1930, continued
population growth and rapid industrialization and urbanization led social
reformers to ponder the linkages between industrial growth, urban expansion,
housing, sanitation and public health. Social initiatives designed to
improve the urban populations living and working conditions were
eventually implemented, and social benefits such as workers compensation
were introduced in Quebec (1909) and Ontario (1914).
The years following the
First World War were also marked by social unrest resulting from stagnant
economic activity and rising unemployment. Residential construction had
been put on hold during the war years and the housing stock had deteriorated.
In response, the federal government instituted a modest housing program
to stimulate economic activity and foster employment in the construction
During the 1920s, public
spending on welfare grew by 130% in response to public clamour to improve
the conditions of the poor. However, little thought had been devoted to
housing and public welfare reform.
When the Great Depression
struck Canada, its severity and duration overwhelmed the countrys
political leadership and social institutions. Public policy responses,
if any, were most often uncoordinated, inadequate and ineffective. In
the absence of any organized public welfare system, people in need were
often left to fend for themselves or rely on private charities. During
this period, Canadas Gross National Product dropped by 42% and official
unemployment levels peaked at 26.6% in 1933. Massive job losses occurred
in shipping, manufacturing and railway transportation industries; as well,
agricultural activity stagnated.
There was little response
from the public sector as a result of the social attitudes towards public
relief and the lack of adequate financial resources. Local and provincial
governments were unable to provide much aid because their tax revenues
had declined so precipitously that a number of them had defaulted on their
debts. Moreover, the federal government urged local governments to reduce
Continued economic stagnation
contributed to social unrest and eventually culminated in the Regina Riots
of 1935. In the same year, endemic unemployment, homelessness and the
resulting social dislocation eventually prompted the federal government
to pass the Dominion Housing Act authorizing $20 million in loans
and financing the construction of 4,900 housing units over three years.
This initiative, designed to stimulate employment and economic activity
in the construction trades, was followed by the federal Home Improvement
Plan (1937) and the National Housing Act (1938) which provided
funds to assist people to purchase their homes and for the construction
of low-rent housing.
During the Second World
War, the war effort and the armed forces quickly absorbed the idle workforce.
Unemployment and homelessness practically disappeared as war production
in 1944 the Canadian government appointed Emergency Shelter Administrators
to monitor overcrowded housing markets: migration to these areas was
restricted. Municipalities used federal funding to build temporary shelters
for homeless people which were intended to keep families "warm
[with] sufficient space and essential facilities so that
a good standard of health and morale [was] maintained.(32)
During this period, government
involvement in economic and social spheres became commonplace as a result
of the centralized wartime planning of industrial production, food rationing
and the rise of Keynesian economics in academic circles and among government
policy-makers. One result was a gradual change of attitude towards government
intervention in general which laid the foundation of the modern welfare
state during the post-war period. At this time, many of the components
of the Canadian welfare state were introduced: unemployment insurance
(1941), family allowances (1945), Old Age Security (1952), and the Canadian
Pension Plan (1966).
Although it contained a
number of provisions directed to the working poor, the housing legislation
passed in the late 1940s was primarily designed as a macro-economic stabilization
tool to support employment and activity in the construction industries.
Further, because housing assistance was mostly directed to the middle
classes, it was also a means of gathering political support for the government.
In 1945, the federal government
created the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation or CMHC (renamed
the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1969). The National
Housing Act was amended in 1949 to provide funding to support the
construction of public housing for low-income families, disabled persons
and senior citizens. In 1954, the federal government began insuring mortgage
loans to facilitate home ownership. In 1964, CMHC was authorized to provide
loans to municipal and private non-profit corporations. Starting in 1973,
legislation introduced the notion of "income mix" to avoid large
public housing ghettos. In more recent years, municipal governments have
taken more initiatives to address the shelter and income security needs
of low-income residents. Not until the mid-1980s, however, did municipal
officials acknowledge the growing problem of homelessness.
IN CANADA TODAY
Homelessness and poverty
in Canada continue to parallel the experience of the United States. Unlike
the U.S., however, Canada has only recently attempted to determine the
scale and scope of the problem and to discuss what defines homelessness
and to measure its extent.
How homelessness is defined
is a critical factor in estimating the size of the homeless population.
The narrower or more exclusive the definition, the smaller the estimate
will be, and vice versa.(33) The United Nations uses a very broad definition that
includes two types of individuals:
have no homes and who live outdoors or in emergency shelters or hostels;
homes do not meet basic UN standards of providing adequate protection
from the elements, access to safe water and sanitation, affordable
prices, secure tenure and personal safety, and access to employment,
education and health care.(34)
Canada uses a very similar
concept "core housing need" to measure the adequacy
of housing. To establish whether a household is in "core housing
need" is a two-step process. First, one must determine whether households
suffer from a lack of one or more of the three basic housing needs: adequate
repair, adequate plumbing, and adequate space. Second, it must be asked
if the household has the financial wherewithal to resolve its housing
problems (affordability). A household is defined as being in core need
if it is unable to rent a unit of suitable size and with adequate conditions
in its community without spending more than 30% of its income.
In 1985, the CMHC estimated
the number of Canadian households experiencing one or more housing problems
and the incidence of core housing need among these households. Of a total
population of 8.75 million private households, 33.8% experienced
housing problems of one sort or another. Of those households, 44% met
CMHCs criteria for core need. Of these, 28% owned accommodation
and 61% rented accommodation.
Core need households do
have shelter, although it is inadequate, and thus are not defined as homeless.
Nevertheless, the homeless are most likely to come from the core need
population. These households are in a precarious housing situation and
constitute an "at risk" group; the slightest deterioration in
income or family circumstances may push them towards homelessness. Thus,
the size and circumstances of the core need household can indicate the
potential scale of homelessness.
The population at the lowest
end of the housing spectrum, i.e., people without a fixed address and
with no shelter, are transient and elusive and thus hard to count. The
first serious attempt at enumerating the homeless on a national basis
was carried out on 22 January 1987 by the Canadian Council on Social Development
(CCSD) with the objective of identifying the causes of homelessness and
developing strategies to eliminate the problem.
Enumeration was carried
out through a survey in which agencies that provided temporary or emergency
shelters or services to the homeless were asked to fill out a questionnaire.
Of 472 questionnaires distributed, 283 were completed and returned.(35)
The results placed the nightly shelter capacity at 13,797 available places.
The overall occupancy rate averaged 77%. In total, it was estimated that
259,384 individuals spent at least one night in a shelter in 1986 and
the average length of stay was 19.4 days. The largest group using shelters
were men residing in men-only hostels (61%), followed by women (27.5%)
and children under the age of 15 (ll.5%). The CCSD estimated that the
total homeless population in 1987 varied between 130,000 and 250,000 individuals,
representing between 0.5% to 1.0% of the Canadian population.(36)
The surveys methodology
suggests that the total population of the homeless was probably underestimated.
Only 283 of 472 agencies provided completed questionnaires, a response
rate of only 66%. Moreover, four categories of persons were not covered:
persons who slept in shelters that did not participate in the survey,
including about half the emergency homes for battered women and children
in Canada; (b) persons who that night were out on the streets, sleeping
in abandoned buildings, stairwells, parking garages, and public buildings
or doubled up with friends or acquaintances; (c) persons in detoxification
centres, maternity homes, or other special-needs centres that frequently
assist people who have nowhere to go; and (d) persons sent to hotels
or motels by social-service providers or accommodated in local jails
because no other shelter beds were available.(37)
Many criticized this methodology
as inadequate or ineffective for measuring the homeless population.
A second attempt to count
the number of homeless in the country was carried out by Statistics Canada
in 1991. Using the 1991 Census, Statistics Canada used a survey strategy
very similar to that used by CCSD in 1987 and that had been criticized
as inadequate. Essentially, census enumerators based in 90 soup kitchens
asked the clients where they had spent the previous night. Unlike the
CCSD, Statistics Canada has never published its findings because of the
mediocre quality of the data.
No further attempt has been
made to enumerate the number of homeless individuals on a national basis.
Given the lack of reliable and representative data, the federal government
has instructed its housing agency, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
(CMHC), to make homelessness a research priority. The agency is currently
developing computerized research tools that will standardize the collection
and management of data for admission to services for the homeless.
Only a few provinces have
assembled relatively dependable databases on the homeless. So far, Alberta,
Manitoba and Ontario and their capital cities have taken the initiative
in gathering information on the size of their homeless populations; unfortunately,
every provincial and municipal survey suffers from the same problems as
the two national surveys. However, all confirm the greater variation in
terms of gender, age and ethnic composition of todays homeless population,
compared with that of earlier times.
Homelessness remains a persistent
phenomenon, but its characteristics have changed considerably over the
years. Controversies continue regarding how the homeless should be defined
and their numbers, but the changing composition of the homeless population
is not in doubt. The most striking feature about current homelessness
is its divorce from the urban economy and society.
In the past, people without
shelter residing in the Skid Row areas of the city were rare in the urban
landscape. These areas, with their populations of predominantly white
and elderly men, actually formed an integral part of the urban economy,
supplying a pool of cheap unskilled labour. With the mechanization and
computerization of productive processes, however, Skid Row progressively
lost this economic role. Deprived of even low-paying job opportunities,
the inhabitants of Skid Row found themselves in a progressively precarious
situation with respect to stable shelter.
With the anticipated decline
in the elderly population, improvements in government entitlements, provision
of public housing, and the continuing economic boom, many social scientists
expected to see the gradual decline and eventual disappearance of homelessness.
Circumstances have clouded this rosy scenario, however. The dearth of
affordable housing, the poorly implemented policy of releasing mental
patients, and the crack cocaine epidemic have all contributed to changing
the nature and prevalence of urban homelessness, but it still exists.
Indeed, it has become more visible and widespread and a more severe possibility
for a wider range of individuals.
Although homelessness is
essentially a problem linked to poverty among individuals or families,
the multiplicity of factors involved make it difficult to overcome. No
single strategy will be successful. The search for a solution must address
issues as diverse as the supply of affordable housing, opportunities for
employment, income distribution, mental and physical health, drug addiction,
crime prevention, and law enforcement.
(1) Peter H. Rossi, Without Shelter: Homelessness
in the 1980s, New York: Priority Press Publications, 1989.
(2) Michael Parkin, Economics, Addison-Wesley,
1980, p. 573.
(3) Rossi (1989), p. 7.
(4) Donald Bogue, Skid Row in American Cities, Chicago:
Community and Family Studies Centre, University of Chicago, 1963.
(5) Howard Bahr and Theodore Caplow, Old Men Drunk and
Sober, New York: New York University Press, 1974.
(6) Leonard Blumberg, Thomas Shipley, and Irving Shandler,
Skid Row and its Alternatives, Philadelphia: Temple University
(7) Given the methodological difficulties and opposing
viewpoints involved, it is a very difficult and often controversial exercise
to establish an accurate count of the homeless population (see Lyne Casavants
"Counting the Homeless," Module on Homelessness, PRB 99-1E,
Parliamentary Research Branch, 8 January 1999). Nevertheless, it
is interesting to contrast the above studies with more recent attempts
at enumerating the nationwide homeless population. A 1984 report put the
U.S. homeless population at between 250,000 and 300,000 (U.S. Department
of Housing and Urban Development, "A Report to the Secretary on the
Homeless and Emergency Shelters," Washington, D.C., H.U.D., 1984).
A 1986 study set the nationwide count at 350,000 persons (Richard Freeman
and Brian Hall, "Permanent Homelessness in America," Cambridge,
Massachusetts: National Bureau of Economic Research, August 1986). At
the other end of the spectrum of population estimates, the National Coalition
for the Homeless puts the figure somewhere between 1.5 to 3 million individuals.
(8) Ibid., p. 9.
(9) Ibid., p. 11.
(10) Ibid., pp. 13-29.
(11) Ibid., p. 29.
(12) Ibid., p. 31.
(14) Households whose income is equal to or
below the poverty level.
(15) Christopher Jencks, The Homeless,
Boston: Harvard University Press, 1994.
(16) W. Tucker, "How Rent Control Drives
out Affordable Housing," Cato Policy Analysis, No. 274,
(17) Lawrence B. Smith, Anatomy of a Crisis:
Canadian Housing Policy in the Seventies, Fraser Institute, 1977.
(19) James D. Gwartney and Richard L. Stroup,
Economics: Private and Public Choice, 6th ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1992, pp. 72-73.
(20) Jencks (1994).
(21) W. Tucker, "How Regulations Cause
Homelessness," Public Interest, Winter 1991, Issue 102, p.
(22) Lawrence B. Smith, "Ontario Housing
Policy: the Unlearned Lessons," in Home Remedies: Rethinking Canadian
Housing Policy, C.D. Howe Institute, 1995.
(23) Tucker (1991), p. 78.
(24) Rossi (1989), p. 35.
(25) Jencks (1994), p. 20.
(26) Jencks (1994), p. 34.
(27) Ibid., p. 39.
(28) The cities are: Los Angeles, Chicago,
Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Detroit and Dallas.
(29) Jencks (1994), p. 43.
(30) Gerard Daly, Homeless: Policies, Strategies,
and Lives on the Street, Routledge, 1996, pp. 51-88.
(31) Ibid., p. 57.
(32) Ibid., p. 77.
(33) Lyne Casavant, "Definition of Homelessness"
Module on Homelessness, PRB 99-1E, Ottawa: Parliamentary Research Branch,
(34) Alex Murray, "Homelessness: The
People" in Fallis and Murray, ed., Housing the Homeless and the
Poor: New Partnerships among the Private, Public, and Third Sector,
University of Toronto Press, 1990.
(35) Lyne Casavant, "Counting the Homeless,"
Module on Homelessness, PRB 99-1E, Ottawa: Parliamentary Research Branch,
8 January 1999.
(36) Murray (1990).
(37) Ibid. (1990), p. 21.