Why is Homelessness a Police Problem?

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By: Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

While it is nearly impossible to obtain an accurate count of the number of homeless people in the United States, one merely has to visit any reasonable sized community to encounter homeless people. Available research on the homeless population indicates that the problem homelessness in America has been growing in magnitude for several decades. One of the best estimates of the number of homeless people was done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which found that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of which are children, experience some form of homelessness in any given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2009; National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006; 2009). This is about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Additionally, at least 700 homeless people die in the U.S. every year because of hyperthermia alone (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2013).

The “homeless” are a diverse group of people and do not constitute a single group or a single social problem. About 39 percent of the homeless are children, 17 percent are single women, and 33 percent are families with children. While almost all homeless people are poor, many are employed. Poverty and a lack of adequate shelter seem to be the only two binding thread that unites the homeless population. The growing number of homeless people is attributed to several deliberate public policy decisions:

  • In the U.S. there is a “shortage” of affordable housing. In the past few decades there has been a substantial decrease in the amount of federal spending for subsidized housing, and the trend continues. Likewise the great recession, ironically attributed to predatory mortgage lending and housing speculation, has forced many people from their homes and rental prices have risen dramatically pushing many people to the streets;
  • The wholesale depopulation of the nation’s mental hospitals and decreased spending on public health care services contributed to the growth of the homeless population. When non-dangerous mental patients were de-institutionalized, many of them ended up on the streets. The misguided liberal notion of mainstreaming the seriously mentally ill coupled with the conservative lust for cost savings and shrinking social programs resulted in thousands of people being pushed out onto the streets. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that there are more than a million homeless people who are in need of mental health services;
  • The cumulative effects of cuts to a variety of federal programs have resulted in many people becoming homeless. As the political right pushes government to cut back on spending, recent changes in the welfare, food stamp and unemployment insurance systems have added to the ranks of the homeless;
  • Outsourcing of jobs, international “free trade” agreements, and hefty tax cuts for the rich and influential have all contributed to high level of unemployment. Unemployment and underemployment are still at historically high levels with less skilled workers remaining jobless or underemployed;
  • Congress has not allowed the minimum wage to kept pace with the cost of living. While the stock market is at an all time high and U.S. corporations set on vast stockpiles of stagnate cash, unskilled jobs pay at the bottom of the pay scale. The wage minimum makes it impossible for many families to afford any kind of housing; and
  • The waves of returning veterans coming back from more than a decade of wars, many of whom suffer from mental illness, PTSP, substance abuse and chronic alcoholism contribute to the ranks of the homeless.

While the “problems” that contribute to homelessness are varied, the “causes” of homelessness are very simple—a lack of caring by political leaders and poor public policy. A shortage of affordable housing is no accident, depopulation of the nation’s mental hospitals was a deliberate bi-partisan cost saving measure, and political “leaders” voted on changes to the welfare, food stamp and unemployment insurance systems. The level of spending on mental health care for veterans and workers’ minimum wages are determined not by chance, but by that great “deliberative” political body—the Congress. None of the conditions that give rise to unprecedented levels of homelessness came about by accident, nor are they natural or inevitable social conditions; they are calculated political decisions. Political leaders simply do not have the interest or fortitude to address the issue of homelessness in America. Far too often when our so-called leaders do not have the fortitude to make the right decisions or when they make decisions based on their own political interests, they call upon the criminal law and the police to deal with the consequences of their poor public policy.


National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2011). Facts on Trauma and Homeless Children. http://www.nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/promising_practices/Facts_on_Trauma_and_Homeless_Children.pdf. Accessed 31.05.11.
National Coalition for the Homeless (2013). The Advocate, January 24, 2013, p. 1.
National Coalition for the Homeless. (2006). Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA. Washington, DC: National Coalition for the Homeless.
National Coalition for the Homeless. (2009). How Many People Experience Homelessness? Washington, DC: National Coalition for the Homeless.
National Coalition for the Homeless. (2010). Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: America’s Growing Tide of Violence. Washington, DC: National Coalition for the Homeless.
National Coalition of State Juvenile Justice Advisory Groups. (1992). Myths and Realities: Meeting the Challenge of Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders. Washington, DC:Author.
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (January 2009). Homelessness in the United States and the Human Right to Housing.

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