Minorities and Homelessness in the United States and Europe: A Comparative Analysis

By Carmen Radu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 12 | pg. 1/12 |


This study asks the question of why minorities are so overrepresented among the homeless, with a focus on the United States and Europe in a comparative perspective. I combine Charles Tilly’s theoretical model on how to challenge durable inequality with the human rights approach, and argue that only a human rights approach that addresses the full spectrum of rights can challenge durable inequality and overcome the problem of minority overrepresentation among the homeless, by challenging the structures of social exclusion. This research adds to the growing literature that focuses specifically on minority pathways into homelessness, and challenges traditional literature on homelessness, which does not address the racialization of the issue and minority overrepresentation. For the United States, I used an ethnographic approach and conducted interviews with the homeless, and for Europe, I largely used Council of Europe reports to assess the situation of minorities in the specific countries.

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In the policy and academic debate on homelessness, four main explanations for homelessness emerge. First, an early yet still lingering view is that homelessness is caused by individual-level factors, whereby individuals become homeless because of something wrong with them on a psychiatric or psychosocial level. The second view is that homelessness is caused and sustained by structural-level factors that are economic in nature, poverty driven by neoliberalism. These two views explain risk of homelessness but do not sufficiently explain the overrepresentation of minorities among the homeless in particular.

The third explanation looks at immigration law as a source of marginalization and explains why undocumented peoples are overrepresented among the homeless. However, this explanation does not account for why non-immigrants are overrepresented among people who are homeless, as in the case of black British citizens, Roma EU citizens, blacks in the U.S., or French citizens of African descent in France. The fourth and best explanation is the relational sociological approach developed by Charles Tilly. Tilly argues that exploitation rests on the construction of unequal categories. Categorical inequality is then sustained by three other mechanisms: emulation, adaptation, and opportunity hoarding (Tilly 1999, 1-41).

I argue that minorities are overrepresented among the homeless because the exploitative relationship established during slavery and colonialism depended on the construction of categorical boundaries. These boundaries have become durable and continue to limit or deny certain groups access to resources such as equal jobs, wages, and housing. When structural inequality and homelessness increase, these minority groups suffer the worst. The human rights approach to the issue of homelessness is similar to that of Tilly in that it treats civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as inextricably linked. The human rights approach can challenge durable inequality by challenging exploitative relationships, improving overall quality of life for disadvantaged groups.

Personal Failings and Individual-level Explanations

There is a long and entrenched history of viewing homelessness as caused by individual faults. In the late 19th century, the philosophy of Social Darwinism predominated among English scholars who impacted English laws on homelessness. This view held that the lack of resources should be interpreted as laziness. In discussing Capitalism and the protestant work ethic, Max Weber considered laziness a sin. Adam Smith believed welfare laws interfered with the natural ways of the market. Thomas Malthus believed that aid to such “inferior” members of society interfered with natural population control and natural selection (Axelson et al 1988, 463-465). Individual-level explanations resurfaced when homeless numbers rose in the 1970s and early 1980s; the discourse then focused on personal fault and misfortune (Hooper 1991, 19-23). Researchers sought to understand the rationality of the decision to live on the streets (Hooper 1991, 19-23).

Bessant et al. critique that these older discourses of “deviance” and “social pathology” continue today via “risk talk.” They argue that the focus on risk reduction, risk management, and risk indicators reflects the predominant framework whereby homelessness, for example, is constituted by people who are pushed over the edge into homelessness due to individual-level factors such as drugs, alcohol, or mental illness (Bessant et al. 2003, 4). For example, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on its website states that while structural factors like the unequal distribution of income and lack of affordable housing cause homelessness, vulnerabilities such as addictions, mental illness, domestic violence, medical conditions, and lack of education or job skills determine who is at higher risk; there is no explanation discussed as to why people of color are more vulnerable (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012).

Early accounts placed the percentage of homeless that suffer from mental illness in the United States at 90, as found in studies conducted by Bassuk, Rubin & Lauriat (Rosenheck et al. 1988, 16). Some scholars such as Koegel, Burnam & Baumohl also identified the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill as the major cause for the surge in homelessness in the United States (Rosenheck et al. 1988, 16). Deinstitutionalization occurred in the 1950s and 1960s; the number of mentally ill in hospitals was approximately 600,000 in 1955, dropping to approximately 125,000 in 1982 (Hope & Young 1986, 167). There was a belief that the use of antipsychotic drugs and community involvement would better serve the mentally ill. Scholars argued that many actually ended up homeless because community planning and resources were never allocated to these needs (Hope & Young 1986, 168-169).

Duffield challenged the view that most homeless suffer from mental illness due to the deinstitutionalization phenomenon on the basis that the surge in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s (Duffield 2001, 204). Glasser also argued that actual research has been unable to prove whether mental illness precedes homelessness, as in some cases, “acting crazy” may be an adaptation to life on the streets, which is dehumanizing (Glasser 1994, 30-31). Furthermore, the most recent data suggests that only 26% of homeless people have mental illnesses (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011) discounting this trait as a predominant causal factor in homelessness.

Some scholars such as Bahr, Caplow, and Wiseman argued that alcoholism and substance abuse have a causal role (Rosenheck et al. 1988, 16). Along similar lines, Brent stated that alcohol abuse was three times higher than in the general U.S. population, and argued that a complex interaction forms a relationship between alcohol abuse and economic dislocation (Brent 1990, 123-124). Brent cites Vaillant, who argued that chronic use of alcohol causes such severe personality disorders that participation in the middle class is inhibited; he argued that severe alcoholism causes low social class (Brent 1990, 127).

Duffield challenged this view as well, arguing that homelessness cannot be explained by addiction disorders alone, and that rather it was the increasing competition for scarce low income housing along with tough conditions for receiving housing in the U.S. that cut off those with disabilities and disorders from receiving housing (Duffield 2001, 204). The most recent data shows that those with substance abuse issues comprise 35% of the homeless population (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011), making this factor significant but not necessarily causal. Therefore, individual-level explanations have a strong history among social scientists, but others have come to challenge this view. For the purposes of this research, this framework does not explain why minorities are overrepresented among the homeless.

Biologists have not been able to define race in a way that mutually excludes members of a supposed race from others. Rather, differences are merely aesthetic or phenotypical; societies have given meaning to these differences and have hierarchically arranged them through social, political, economic, and ideological processes (Calavita 2005, 144-145). Racial construction takes place based on “amateur biology” whereby differences in skin color and other characteristics serve as markers or visible cues to intrinsic differences (Calavita 2005, 145-146). Racism is the systematic subordination and domination by one group over another, justified by the latter’s perceived inferiority due to different phenotypical characteristics (Calavita 2005, 152).

Unless one adheres to racist beliefs that some races have diminished capabilities or work ethic, the individual-level framework is not helpful, and a more structural approach is needed. The main criticism of the individual-level explanations came from scholars arguing that the literature did not take into consideration structural socioeconomic factors that were occurring in the late 1970s and 1980s.

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