Homelessness

No one knows precisely how many homeless people there are in the United States, but estimates range from 250,000 to 2.5 million or more. Many people are homeless for a time—living in their cars, in tents, in the hills, on the beach, or in makeshift shelters—until they find more standard lodging. Others wander the streets, making their "rounds" by day, sleeping in alleyways, on buses and trains, on lawns, or even on the sidewalk at night. They may panhandle and sort through dumpsters and garbage cans for something to eat or otherwise use. Even those who migrate to warmer climes may seek temporary relief from the elements in a homeless shelter, especially when the weather is cold or wet, or when hunger and fear drive them there. Life on the streets can be quite stressful and very risky, so homeless people who wish to survive must remain ever-vigilant and canny.

A substantial percentage of homeless Americans, an estimated 25-30%, are over age 60 (Cohen, Teresi, Holmes, & Roth, 1988). Homelessness is, however, no respecter of age, and many teenagers and young adults live in the streets. Among the homeless are alcoholics, substance abusers, ex-mental patients, battered women, hustlers of all kinds, and other people who are down on their luck. In addition to both sexes (more men than women), all ethnic groups and educational levels are represented among the homeless population. Many have lost their jobs and cannot find employment or affordable housing, and many have simply stopped looking.

Federal, state, and local governments have programs for the homeless, but these programs are admittedly inadequate. Due to the scarcity of shelters in many cities, the homeless spend their lives in the streets, perhaps showing up for a free meal at Thanksgiving or Christmas but otherwise remaining fairly invisible to busy passersby. It is noteworthy that even those who are fortunate enough to find shelter and perhaps a semipermanent place to live confess to feeling a certain camaraderie with other street people. Thus, it may not be surprising to find that, like certain tribal or aboriginal groups who have been provided with more conventional shelter and sustenance, some homeless people who have "come in from the cold" sooner or later "go on walkabout" again.

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