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Over the Edge

Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s

Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Over the Edge
    Book Description:

    Often described as an emergency, homelessness in America is becoming a chronic condition that reflects an overall decline in the nation's standard of living and the general state of the economy. This is the disturbing conclusion drawn by Martha Burt inOver the Edge, a timely book that takes a clear-eyed look at the astonishing surge in the homeless population during the 1980s.

    Assembling and analyzing data from 147 U.S. cities, Burt documents the increase in homelessness and proposes a comprehensive explanation of its causes, incorporating economic, personal, and policy determinants. Her unique research answers many provocative questions: Why did homelessness continue to spiral even after economic conditions improved in 1983? Why is it significantly greater in cities with both high poverty ratesandhigh per capita income? What can be done about the problem?

    Burt points to the significant catalysts of homelessness-the decline of manufacturing jobs in the inner city, the increased cost of living, the tight rental housing market, diminished household income, and reductions in public benefit programs-all of which exert pressures on the more vulnerable of the extremely poor. She looks at the special problems facing the homeless, including the growing number of mentally ill and chemically dependent individuals, and explains why certain groups-minorities and low-skilled men, single men and women, and families headed by women-are at greatest risk of becoming homeless. Burt's analysis reveals that homelessness arises from no single factor, but is instead perpetuated by pivotal interactions between external social and economic conditions and personal vulnerabilities.

    From an understanding of these interactions,Over the Edgebuilds lucid, realistic recommendations for policymakers struggling to alleviate a situation of grave consequence for our entire society.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-099-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. PART ONE Changing Conditions

    • CHAPTER ONE Introduction
      (pp. 3-10)

      During the recession of 1981–1982, emergency shelters and soup kitchens began reporting a greatly increased demand for their services, reflecting the effects of high unemployment, a rising cost of living, and a retrenchment in government programs that cushioned earlier economic downturns. Even when economic conditions improved after 1983, homelessness seemed to continue growing. The size of the homeless population was estimated at 250,000 to 350,000 for 1984 (Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1984) and 500,000 to 600,000 for 1987 (Burt and Cohen, 1989a). A comparison of these estimates yields an annual rate of increase of about 22 percent...

    • CHAPTER TWO Who Are the Homeless?
      (pp. 11-30)

      What kinds of people become homeless? With some understanding of the characteristics of the current homeless population, we will be better able to investigate the causes of the problem. That is, if most homeless people were poor renters before they became homeless, it will make sense to focus on rental rather than ownership housing as we examine changes in housing. If most homeless families are headed by women, our examination of income and benefits will focus on changes that affect this type of household most. If most homeless people are single low-skilled young men, we will look for housing, labor...

    • CHAPTER THREE Housing Availability
      (pp. 31-56)

      Both analysts and advocates have frequently attributed the growth of homelessness in the United States during the 1980s to problems with the housing market (Hartman, 1986; Hombs and Snyder, 1982; Hopper and Hamberg, 1986; Rossi, 1989; Wright and Lam, 1987). Reference is often made to the lack of affordable housing, and the federal government is blamed for reducing housing expenditures. An association between housing cost or availability and homelessness has been shown in a few studies based on the sample of cities and midrange estimates of homelessness developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in its 1984 study...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Changes in Poverty and Household Income
      (pp. 57-81)

      Homeless persons are extremely poor. In the Urban Institute’s 1987 national interview study of homeless users of soup kitchens and shelters, homeless single men reported a mean income of $143 for the preceding thirty days; single women reported $183; and homeless women with children reported $300 to cover a typical household with a mother and two children. These figures translate to an annual income of about $2,000 for a one-person household (about one-third of the federal poverty level), or $3,600 for a family of three (40 percent of the poverty level) (Burt and Cohen, 1989a, 1989b). Single-city studies of the...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Changes in Income Support Programs
      (pp. 82-106)

      Many homeless people have struggled to maintain an economic position that allows them to afford housing, until some final crisis precipitates an episode of homelessness. They may borrow money, leave bills unpaid, double up with other family members or with friends, split up a household (e.g., leaving older children with relatives), leave town to look for work, and use free services such as soup kitchens or health clinics to stretch their resources. Research indicates that currently homeless people have tried most or all of these approaches while they still had homes. Even with all of these strategies, however, they may...

    • CHAPTER SIX Mental Illness and Chemical Dependency
      (pp. 107-126)

      Since 1980, as we have seen, there have been significant changes in housing, poverty, and public benefits that may well have contributed to the growth of homelessness. With respect to mental illness and chemical dependency among the homeless, however, little has changed. Studies of skid rows, transients, and vagrants going back to the late nineteenth century show roughly comparable proportions of people with alcohol problems. Studies reporting on mental illness date from the 1950s, and show many mentally ill among the homeless (summarized by Rossi, 1989). Although their proportions are somewhat higher today, the mentally ill have always been part...

  6. PART TWO Impact on Homelessness

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Shelter Bed Counts and Homelessness Rates
      (pp. 129-140)

      The analysis of national trends reported in Part One of this book identified a number of factors that appeared likely to have influenced the growth of homelessness in the 1980s. Part Two will assess the association of these factors with changes in homelessness in a sample of American cities. This task required me to select a sample of cities and find a measure of homelessness that would be consistent across cities and over time. I also needed to define appropriate measures of the hypothesized causal factors, measures that would be available for all the cities at both the beginning and...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Constructing the Data Set
      (pp. 141-161)

      Because my goal was to examine changes in the 1980s that might have contributed to homelessness, I sought data sources that could supply parallel indicators for early and late in the decade. With one exception the data were all assembled from published sources, federal government statistical agencies, or other researchers’ analyses of publicly available data (e.g., the 1980 Census, the American Housing Survey). The exception is information about county General Assistance programs in 1981 and 1989, which was obtained by a telephone survey. Where possible the data are at the city level. When city-specific data were not available, county-level data...

    • CHAPTER NINE Causes of Homelessness
      (pp. 162-198)

      Now we may begin to address the question of how our causal model of homelessness predicts differences between U.S. cities in 1989, and changes in homelessness rates within each city from 1981 to 1989. The major hypotheses are diagrammed in Figure 9-1, which translates the general causal model outlined in Chapter 1 into blocks of variables in the data set. (As explained below, the regression analyses used to test this model include only a subset of the variables described in Chapter 8.) Each arrow represents a causal association that has been hypothesized in the literature on homelessness, as reviewed in...

    • CHAPTER TEN Getting the Best Predictions
      (pp. 199-209)

      In Chapter 9 the task was to understand the causes and antecedents of homelessness in the 1980s, using a complex theoretical model. Consequently we included only variables with potential causal influence, and tested the same model for all cities and for several subgroup breaks. Although a slightly different model, or a different selection of variables to represent components of the model, might have resulted in somewhat higher overall levels of explanation (R²s and AR²s), the goal of examining causation made it important to maintain the consistency of the model throughout the analysis.

      Policymakers also have an interest in developing the...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Summary and Recommendations
      (pp. 210-226)

      Asking why homelessness grew so much in the 1980s, we began by hypothesizing that a change in the affordability of rental housing was responsible. Our model of homelessness posited affordability as the relationship between the price of housing and the incomes of households needing housing. Four factors were suggested that might influence the price of housing:

      Government policy focused specifically on housing for low-income households.

      Housing market structure.

      Federal tax policy.

      Federal fiscal and monetary policy (affecting interest rates and the national debt).

      The model also depicted four factors potentially acting on household incomes:

      Social policy affecting public benefit programs....

  7. References
    (pp. 227-237)
  8. Appendix A
    (pp. 238-244)
  9. Appendix B
    (pp. 245-247)
  10. Appendix C
    (pp. 248-254)
  11. Index
    (pp. 255-267)