The first thing I see most mornings as I stumble sleepily from the subway to begin my jaunt to work are homeless people sitting in the station with outstretched cups, right at the top of the escalator.
Near my office in downtown Washington, D.C., homeless people are a common sight. They seem to fit into every nook and cranny of the area buildings. They sleep at night in the doorways of businesses, usually with makeshift tents constructed using newspaper and cardboard.
I don't work in a downtrodden neighborhood. My office is just off K Street. The White House is only a few blocks away. Homeless people sit just feet away from people sipping their coffee at sidewalk cafés. Sometimes they glare and mutter, but often the homeless and the coffee-sippers seem oblivious to each other.
Lawyers and lobbyists dressed in expensive suits step over homeless people lying in the streets, their wingtips inches from "I'm hungry" signs. One woman sits on the corner wearing a newspaper hat. It looks like something you'd do to amuse your children, but she's likely protecting herself from the heat.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that there were more than 630,000 homeless people in the United States in 2012. I bet the number is far bigger.
I have no consistent policy in dealing with the homeless. I've given them money, taken them to stores and restaurants, prayed with them, and talked to them. I like to buy the Street Sense newspapers sold by homeless vendors in Washington. In Boston, a similar paper is called Spare Change.
But I've also hustled by the homeless as if they did not exist. In fact, that's what I do most often.
For whatever reason, I've never given money to the people at the Metro. I usually avert my gaze. It's no consolation to people who are hungry and suffering, I know, but I do feel guilty about it. I often wonder if the more skilled panhandlers can sense that.
One night I felt compelled to walk with a homeless man to an ATM, where I withdrew $60 in cash for him. I did this alone in the dark despite him candidly telling me he had just been released from prison for stabbing someone.
That confession was actually what convinced me to give him money. He had laid out a specific set of needs the funds would meet. His honesty about his rap sheet made me decide to trust he'd use the money wisely.
The homeless can be particular. When I worked in northern Virginia, I used to give money to a homeless man named Terry. He liked to use the money to get barbecue sandwiches. I ran into him not long ago. I told Terry I wasn't going to be in the neighborhood much, but reminded him that my church prepares meals for the homeless on Fridays.
Terry said he'd go if that's what I thought he should do, but he didn't care for the food there. He also didn't like the atmosphere.
I once took a homeless man named Tim to a restaurant to get something to eat. He ordered 24 chicken wings with three different kinds of sauces. After placing the order, he asked, "Is that cool?" I was expecting he'd get a hamburger, but I wasn't going to begrudge him his buffalo wings.
I've had tougher encounters, too, including with a gentleman who politely tells me he hopes I choke on my next meal each time I walk by. I don't take it personally — I get off easier than most other passersby.
But I've also had some moving experiences. "You know how I am going to pay you back?" one mentally disabled young man asked earnestly. "Someday, when I have money, I am going to help somebody else." The printed word cannot convey the simple sincerity he radiated.
There are a million excuses to pass the homeless by, many of them valid. I use them all almost every day. For many of these people, struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, I could empty out my bank account and at best help them only temporarily.
In other cases, the assistance could be counterproductive or even foolish. Many will use any cash they get to buy drugs or booze. Others may lie about their circumstances.
Yet even when I convince myself to keep walking, I can't block out these verses from Matthew: "Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'"
"And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'"
Every panhandler I help could be a scam artist. But each one I pass by could be Jesus.
Homelessness emerged as a major social problem in the early 1980s, and since then a plethora of edited works has appeared, providing an overview of the problem and solutions. This section includes works that look at the different dimensions of homelessness. Lee, et al. 2010 provides a summary and citations of key social science research studies. For a more detailed description of the different dimensions and faces of homelessness, Levinson 2004 and McNamara 2008 are useful resources. Dennis, et al. 2007 is an update of research on homelessness. The contributors to McNamara 2008 include noted scholars, policymakers, and advocates. Wright, et al. 1998 can be used as a textbook for college-level classes on homelessness.
Dennis, Deborah, Gretchen Locke, and Jill Khadduri, eds. 2007. Toward understanding homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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This publication is a compendium of twelve articles presented at the second National Symposium on Homelessness Research in 2007. In addition to housing, health, and human services, which were the main focus of the first symposium in 1998, the compendium includes papers on employment, veterans, and the criminal justice system—topics that are regarded as critical to understanding the complexity of homelessness in the 21st century.
Lee, Barrett A., Kimberly A. Tyler, and James D. Wright. 2010. The new homelessness revisited. Annual Review of Sociology 36:501–521.
DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-115940E-mail Citation »
This is a useful review of the academic literature on homelessness. Topics include (a) conceptual questions surrounding homelessness; (b) homeless population size, composition, and distribution; (c) homeless people’s life chances; (d) coping strategies employed to meet basic needs; (e) explanations for homelessness; (f) public views and media coverage; and (g) actions taken to address homelessness. The bibliography contains exemplary works in the field. Available online for purchase or by subscription.
Levinson, David, ed. 2004. Encyclopedia of homelessness. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
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This reference tool covers a comprehensive range of topics, including causes of homelessness; historical perspectives; housing, health, and lifestyle issues; policy; and homeless service systems. It features two volumes with 155 extended essays, providing reviews of the extant literature on homelessness. Other useful resources include a bibliography of autobiographical and fictional accounts of homelessness, a filmography on homelessness, and a directory of street newspapers.
McNamara, Robert H., ed. 2008. Homelessness in America. 3 vols. Westport, CT: Praeger.
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This three-volume set constitutes a comprehensive overview of the faces of (Volume 1), causes of (Volume 2), and solutions to (Volume 3) homelessness. Taken together, the thirty-four chapters included in the volumes provide a valuable resource for understanding homelessness as a multifaceted social problem in terms of its demographics, its linkage to other complex social issues, and the diverse strategies proposed for its solution.
Wright, James D., Beth A. Rubin, and Joel A. Devine. 1998. Beside the golden door: Policy, politics, and the homeless. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
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This book covers various dimensions of homelessness, including the demographics of homeless people, poverty, family estrangement, mental illness and substance abuse, drug and alcohol treatment, and physical health. The authors applied both a structural view and an individual vulnerability view on homelessness. In addition, the book examines rural and European homelessness as well as street children in North America and Latin America.