Taking this seminar on homelessness has really opened my eyes to the wider situation surrounding the issue of homelessness. I have been exposed to homelessness my whole life. By this I mean that I have seen homeless people from time to time but have always considered the problem to be their personal one. I have never contemplated how our society, economy and government as a whole is connected to the issue of homelessness. This seminar opened my eyes to how much larger the issue of homelessness really is. This in turn made me aware of how ignorant I am of what is going on in my own society.

I have definitely always thought of homelessness as a chronic problem that will always face our society. As a result, I’ve never really thought about “ending homelessness”. This seminar taught me that there are actually cycles of homelessness and the one we are currently in is the result of various economic and structural problems. One of the earliest roots of homelessness is the Civil War when the “Hobo culture” was introduced for the first time. One of the next large contributors was the Great Depression when a whole new group of people were added to the itinerate work force. The end of WWII resulted in a positive turn for many as the G.I. Bill prevented a repeat of the after affects of the Civil War. A huge middle class was created and the suburbs grew.

Beginning with Reagan’s crushing of the air-controllers strike, the labor movement came to an end around the same time that the idea of ‘urban renewal’ began. This resulted in a lot of cheap, affordable housing being torn down in order for new office buildings and parking lots to be built. Most cheap housing disappeared; a commodity which is almost impossible to reintroduce into a market. Another contributing factor was deinstitutionalization which resulted in a most mental institutions being closed which resulted in a huge mentally ill population ending up on the street. The economy also shifted to a more service based economy in which the salaries of non-college graduates drastically decreased. The government disinvested in public housing and the social services safety net was also attacked.

After learning that there are actually roots to the current homelessness problem, this class also taught me to look critically at plans for change such as the Ten Year Plan. The general idea behind this plan is great: the stop ‘managing homelessness’ but to instead actually work to change it. The Ten Year Plan’s support for affordable housing is great as it will hopefully change our society for just dumping all the people who we don’t want to deal with into the hands of shelters. However, the challenge is partly to actually to have this plan treat the roots of homelessness not just the symptoms, the most obvious one naturally being their lack of housing. This challenge parallels the other challenge facing programs to end homelessness and that is to change them from being local projects to being a national concern.

The individuality of homelessness experiences has really stood out to me in this class. One of our guest lectures discussed how the definition of homelessness is different for everyone. That for some people being homeless is a lack of community. This happens when people move into temporary housing and lose the network of friends that they had while they lived on the streets. Our guest lecturer also mentioned how due to past traumatic experiences, some people just can’t stand the thought of living within four walls. Yet despite all these individual experiences, we generally group all homeless people into one category of people who just haven’t managed to make it in our individualistic society. Through this class I was able to really see that every homeless individual has a unique experience and a unique set of needs.

The susceptibility of so much of our society to homelessness really stuck out to me during one of our guest lectures. Our lecturer broke down the way in which a full-time slightly higher than minimum-wage worker would use her salary if she was a mom with kids. The fact that it is impossible to actually live on this amount of money really stuck out to me. What really has stuck out to me is how easy it is to enter the cycle of homelessness beginning with something as simple as having your car break down and not being able to fix it.
The connection between prisons and homelessness actually appalled me. I have never before considered the fact that prisons could be private institutions that someone is working to make a profit off of. Making a profit off of prisons naturally requires the presence of prisoners. What also left a huge impression was the drastic affect that having one felony will have one your life. Every time I apply for a job or an apartment I just pass over the box that you must check if you have committed a felony. I forget that it really isn’t this simple for many people. One mistake in someone’s past suddenly becomes unforgivable by our society; making simple rights such as a job and a place to live almost unattainable.

It has been exciting to learn more about street newspapers and Real Change in particular. The wide variety in street newspapers worldwide is fascinating. Real Change seems to have come close to finding the balance of a professional paper that people will actually be interested and value reading but that still allows the homeless population to feel connected to it and have a voice in it. Real Change’s open policy to hiring people is so crucial as it gives those that society has decided are unworthy of jobs a second chance to get their lives on a different track again. Real Change’s other goal of creating a grassroots group dedicated to changing homelessness is equally as important. As with any problem, prevention and treatment must exist side by side. Those who are currently homelessness deserve a chance at the comfortable lifestyle that such a huge amount of the American population manages to take for granted. At the same time, efforts must be made on a national and local level to change the economic and political roots of homelessness while finding location specific solutions.