The Homeless: On the Street, on the Road

by Majorie Hope and James Young

Marjorie Hope and James Young are associate professors of sociology at Wilmington College in Ohio. Their books include The South African Churches in a Revolutionary Situation and The Faces of Homelessness.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 18, 1984, p. 48. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Shelters are not the real answer to homelessness in the richest and most powerful country in the world. They are a Band-Aid on wounds whose source lies in the very structure of our society.

In August, starting from our home in Ohio. we drove our sultry, un-air-conditioned, ten-year-old Buick west, searching out the homeless and talking with shelter providers who act as their advocates. We had already spent time in the East working on a book about the homeless. Now we wanted to meet their counterparts in the Midwest and Far West. We listened to them on streets, under bridges, beside boxcars, in shelters, parks, Travelers Aid offices, their own dilapidated autos and ours. As we talked with shelter providers, we also became involved in debates over responsibility of the church and of the state for care of the homeless.

Who are they? Unlike the skid-row “derelicts” who seemed to be the typical homeless in the ‘60s, the street people today embrace the whole gamut of humanity: the “new poor,” the mentally disabled, evicted families, elderly single people, hoboes, alcoholics, drug addicts, abused spouses, abused young people and cast-off children. Everywhere we were told that their numbers were growing, even in summer, and that the increase in the number of single women and of families was of special concern.

How did they get to the streets? Not surprisingly, loss of jobs is the primary factor. Another precipitating cause is loss of social benefits. Many mentally and physically disabled people who once qualified for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) have been declared ineligible. Hundreds of thousands of “working poor” families who received supplemental Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) have been eliminated from the rolls or have had their benefits drastically cut. Sixteen-year-olds in AFDC families are now excluded from the budget if they drop out of school. Hence many leave home in order to ease the burden on their families. Food stamps, Medicaid and nutritional and social services have been cut, so that many people must dip into resources reserved for housing.

Alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence are other causes. They can hardly be separated from economic factors. Unemployed husbands unaccustomed to spending full days with boisterous children have been taking out their frustration on their families. Domestic violence has been on the rise everywhere.

Between 40 and 70 per cent of the homeless in various American cities are mentally disabled. Most are victims of the nationwide policy of deinstitutionalization that has dominated the mental-health field since the mid-’60s. The rationale is that patients belong in communities, and that with psychotropic drugs, patients’ behavior can be controlled through regular visits to neighborhood mental-health centers. The reality is that most of the centers envisioned were never built. Thousands of patients have been discharged without a plan providing for outpatient treatment, or even for housing and SSI benefits. Many ex-patients wandering the streets do not know their rights, and cannot navigate the welfare system.

One of the most widespread causes of homelessness is displacement. As downtown areas are “gentrified,” as convention centers rise to puncture the skyline, families dwelling in cheap apartments or disabled single people living on Supplemental Security Income in single-room occupancy hotels are shoved out. Rarely does the city take responsibility to find them housing. In the absence of a meaningful federal housing program, their only alternatives are paying for housing that can easily cost over 50 per cent of their income, begging for space on the floor of a relative’s crowded apartment -- or wandering the streets.

Yet if one talks to those who must call the street “home,” one discovers that their stories are never simple. Rarely does a single cause account for a homeless person’s situation. We remember, for instance, a thin, blond Ohio woman with hunted eyes and a twitching mouth. A widow with three children, Janice had had a part-time clerical job paying minimum wage; her total earned income then was $215 a month. Until 1982, through a complex system of employment “disregards” designed to provide an incentive to work, she had also received a supplement of $237 from AFDC. When the employment “disregards” were cut, leaving her with only the mandatory work deduction of $50 (intended to make up for taxes, transportation and lunches), she was left with an income of only $377 ($150 above the maximum AFDC payment in Ohio for a family of four). From this she had to pay $220 in rent. Two months later she was evicted. After spending three nights in a craterlike abandoned building, she and the children found asylum in a temporary shelter. But the stress of the situation, compounded by the heritage of abuse she had suffered in childhood, took their toll. As her employers put it, Janice began acting “peculiar.” They decided to include her in layoffs. Today she and her children are separated; they live in a foster home, she in a shelter. While Janice is getting therapy, she has not found a job. Her depression has scarcely changed. The shelter may soon close for lack of funds.

Most of the homeless on the road might be classified as “new poor.” In reality, there are two categories of new poor, we discovered: members of the middle class and those who always were marginally poor, but more recently have plunged into destitution.

All the wandering jobless to whom we offered a ride belonged to the second group. These “flew poor” had always had insecure jobs as waiters, gardeners, maintenance men, nonunionized factory hands, assistant mechanics, assistant carpenters, assistant electricians --  and other assistants. “I can do anything,” we heard over and over. But unlike the tinkers of another era, these people had no societal status. Marginal though they were, our car companions held “middle-class values”: they were clean, neat and polite; they even refused offers of food. With bravado, they spoke of the next job. Most of them disliked sleeping in missions or shelters, which they associated with “bums.” Instead, they slept under the stars, in bus stations, at truck stops, or -- when they had a few dollars -- in run-down hotels. From time to time, they used missions for showers, or as a last ditch. Always they made a careful distinction between themselves and hoboes. They would rather risk the dangers of being robbed by a motorist or being jailed for hitchhiking than the perils of being jammed together with the rough riders of the rails.

Hoboes represent only a small fraction of the homeless, although their numbers appear to be growing. Those we met projected the same romantic image of themselves that the public seems to hold. “We’re antiestablishment,” the “grand duke of the hoboes” told us in Denver  “We need to be free, and we like excitement. Passengers never see or feel what we do on top of a boxcar, as the train speeds through deserts and mountains.”

Yet most hoboes also work, if sporadically: they pick fruit, wash dishes, take maintenance jobs. They also sell their blood. Some admit that if they could do it all over again, they’d choose a job and a home. Indeed, the rallying cry at the hobo convention in Portland, Oregon, this summer was a demand that the government furnish jobs.

One of the biggest hassles for the homeless on the road as well as those on city streets is struggling with an inequitable, irrational welfare system. Although AFDC is a national program, the ratio between federal and state contributions varies from state to State. Thus, in New York, a mother and three children could receive as much as $297 plus $253 worth of food stamps and a housing allowance of up to $218. In Ohio, the same family would receive $327 and $253 worth of food stamps, but no housing allowance. Few states pay for housing. In the Supplemental Security Income program, designed to support the indigent blind, disabled and aged, the federal government pays a minimum “floor” (now $304 monthly for an individual with zero income) and allows states to add to that sum. Most do not.

General Relief (also known as General Assistance) is the lowest category of all. Its Overt purpose is to help singles and childless couples under 65 whose unemployment benefits have run out, or who were never eligible in the first place. Its covert purpose seems to be to exclude the “undeserving poor” from “handouts,” for it is based on the implicit assumption that chronically unemployed people who are neither disabled nor aged are able to find work. The federal government contributes nothing to General Relief. Hence it varies from state to state, and even from county to county. In out Ohio county, the OR recipient gets $116 monthly (to pay for rent and all personal expenses), together with $76 worth of food stamps. In San Francisco, his or her counterpart receives $248 plus food stamps. In many states GR does not even exist. Reno, Nevada, for example, derives millions of dollars in revenue from casinos and slot machines, but provides no GR program. Nor does it maintain a public shelter. The penniless transient is eligible for a limited stay in one of two missions -- plus free directions to California.

Those wandering jobless who do make it to states with GR find that their hopes for a bit of security are illusory. Although San Francisco offers $248 a month, the average rent in a fleabag hotel is $220. Jobs are extremely hard to find. Eventually many “new poor” join the ranks of the chronically homeless.

The hard-core chronically homeless are the mentally disabled and young people (especially blacks) who have never had a real job and possess no marketable skills. While many of the latter become addicted to alcohol or narcotics, it is usually their idleness and hopelessness that lead to abuse, and thence to the vicious cycle of joblessness/homelessness/Substance abuse.

For the mentally disabled, in particular, survival hangs on tenuous threads. In the tight housing situation, SRO hotels discriminate against them because they are seen as strange, lice-ridden and noisy. When SSI checks fail to arrive on time, many are unable to muster their forces for a trip to the welfare office. Those few domiciled in foster homes frequently are so neglected, or even mistreated, that it is little wonder that some leave and take to “sleeping rough.”

Life on the streets is compounded of fear, frustration and boredom. Fear of freezing to death, or of torrential rains that can be as bone-penetrating as the cold. Fear of younger homeless men who prey on old men and on women. Among teen-agers, fear that authorities will pick them up and send them back to the unhappy situation from which they are running away. For almost all of the homeless, fear of the police.

Frustration hounds those who line up at welfare offices, only to be told that they haven’t filled in the 14th sheet of a 15-sheet form, or that the worker can’t answer their questions. (In our informal survey, almost never did a welfare worker know the regulations or the standard of benefits in another department.) It hounds those who stand in line for an hour or more, sometimes in the rain or snow, to get a meal in a soup kitchen. It dogs those who spend their days hunting for an unpoliced spot to put their heads down to sleep, or a place where they can defecate in private. Perhaps nothing destroys one’s dignity more than having to relieve oneself in an alley.

Boredom: What does one do with a day that seems to stretch out infinitely before one? Only a few cities have drop-in centers where one can retreat from the elements, shower, wash clothes and watch television. Passersby seem to look through one. Companions are often too exhausted to talk. A sense of worth disintegrates. Even if one has never drunk before, one drinks now, in order to be able to absorb a little more cold and discomfort and harassment, to soften the edges of hopelessness. One drinks to feel that one is somebody.

Basically there are four types of shelters: missions, church-affiliated centers, public shelters, and those supported by some combination of church, public and private funds.

The shelters vary enormously. Some are so bad that it is not surprising that a few of the homeless(a minority) prefer the streets. Other shelters are true havens. The larger ones are more apt to be dirty and dangerous. A few have only one toilet for a hundred or more men. Most close their doors tight at 6:00 or 7:00 A.M. The rationale is that everyone should be out looking for work (even the aged, and the physically and mentally disabled). The larger the shelter, the more regimentation.

The missions themselves vary from city to city. At the 200-bed Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, every new client is confronted with a spiritual counselor whose mission is to save him from perdition. The director holds the men in line by yelling at them, and carries a huge ring of keys, locking himself into his office when talking with visitors, and locking every door shut as he takes them on a room-to-room tour. At the 15-bed Salvation Army mission in Laramie, Wyoming, the young director exacts no penitence. Instead, he cooks dinner for his guests, then sits down at the brightly painted kitchen table to listen to them. Although a few Salvation Army missions still require a sermon for supper, most directors have come to the conclusion that you cannot force religion on others. Most missions, whatever their religious perspective, are apolitical: they are more concerned with individual souls than with the social causes of homelessness.

Church-affiliated shelters tend to be smaller and their atmosphere more familial than their public counterparts. Like a great many missions, some of the shelters run by church groups make a point of managing without any government support.

Only a few Cities (notably New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.) run public shelters. In almost all cases, they have been established only after a protracted struggle with groups of concerned citizens. Public shelters are often located in armories or abandoned schools, and the atmosphere is institutional. Yet in the absence of enough private shelters, they are indispensable.

Actually, many of the public shelters are run by a church group or a council of churches on contract to the city. Another arrangement is for the city to reimburse cheap hotels or private shelters for lodging clients who come to the city’s emergency services. A third example of public/private cooperation is one in which local government contributes block-grant funds or technical assistance to a project directed by church groups.

One such cooperative venture is the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, opened in 1979 through the efforts of the Church Council of Seattle and other groups. Today it is funded by the city (in the form of block-grant money), the county (which supports two mental-health case manager positions), the United Way, churches, businesses and individual donors. The churches provide many volunteers, the backbone of most shelters.

In the center, which is said to receive “the dregs of humanity in Seattle,” 230 people sleep in the two barnlike rooms. At eight o’clock in the evening the men in one room are sleeping or reading on floor mats, while others watch television or play cards with noisy gusto. In one corner, guests drink black coffee and talk. In the other room, a section has been fenced off for older men, most of whom are sleeping. The larger section is reserved for women. Some lie staring up at the ceiling. Some toss fitfully in their sleep. Three groups of women sit in circles on their mats, exchanging experiences.

The program director tells us that the level of violence has dropped drastically, but it has taken a lot of work. “I walk back and forth all night, listening to those who moan or can’t sleep, counseling them. We’ve allowed them to come in at noon -- and they line up long before that, even in summer. They see it as safe, as a refuge from the streets. We don’t have the resources to serve food, only black coffee. But we’ve started women’s groups, referral services, and medical services staffed by volunteers. We’re trying to create a milieu in which people can develop their strengths and discover that they can help others, too.”

A few people in the field maintain that government should assume complete responsibility for the homeless. At the other end of the spectrum is the philosophy represented by the Catholic Worker: all big government is dangerous; caritas emerges not from the tax system but from changing hearts and minds. If every household took in one homeless person, there would be no need for shelters or a welfare system. In any case, to depend on outside resources is hazardous. The best shelters are small, are sponsored by the parish, and reflect that community’s concern. Such refuges are quietly opening all over the country, people in the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality told us.

In reality, most clients and shelter providers -- and even many public officials -- agree that the private and religious sectors can do a better job than the city. Their shelters are less bureaucratic; the staff is motivated by the belief that before God every human being has worth. Moreover, the operating expenses of public shelters generally range from $10 to $20 a day per client; many private church-run facilities run on two dollars a day.

Yet most church-affiliated shelter providers have concluded that they cannot do the job without government assistance. The numbers of homeless continue to grow; the department of Health and Human Services, headed by a Reagan appointee, Richard Schweiker. reported in late November that estimates of homeless persons across the nation have risen from 1.5 million to 2 million. Despite President Reagan’s easy predictions, churches and voluntary groups have never been able to fill the gap caused by federal cuts in social programs. “Our resources are stretched to the limit,” church leaders tell government officials. “But give us funds, buildings, technical aid, and we’ll do the nitty-gritty work.”

Unfortunately, most cities are burdened with heavy financial problems, many of them caused by federal cuts. The federal response is barely perceptible. In December 1982 the House subcommittee on housing and community development held hearings entitled “Homelessness in America.” Shelter providers, homeless people, city officials, governors and clergy presented statistics testifying eloquently to the desperate need. Many practical proposals were presented, including requests for more community development block-grant funds, the use of empty federal buildings, the release of surplus food from federal depositories and relaxation of SSI restrictions. The jobs bill that was finally passed provided only $100 million for both food projects and shelter programs. If one counts 2 million Americans as homeless and another 2 million as hungry, the quotient is $25 per person. The recently passed housing bill did include $60 million for shelter, but nothing for food projects. This is a mere drop in the bucket of need.

Despite these frustrations, cooperative ventures between the public and private sectors are growing. In Cleveland, two shelters for battered women have been staffed by Catholic nuns and professional social workers; support has come from churches, private donations, block grants and a special surcharge on Ohio marriage licenses. In Chicago, the only public shelter that includes men is administered by Catholic Charities. In Washington, D.C., confrontations with groups of concerned citizens resulted in the city’s agreement to open three public schools for public shelter. Today the District of Columbia supplies the funds, while the Council of Churches administers the program.

New York City has worked out what may well be a model arrangement with an ecumenical network of 110 churches and synagogues (collectively known as the Partnership for the Homeless) which either open their own doors or provide volunteers, resources and guest referrals. Last winter they provided beds for more than 450 people a night (out of a homeless population estimated to number at least 36,000). Now Partnership is working with the mayor’s office and other concerned groups on a more ambitious plan: rehabilitation of more than 1,000 city-owned apartments to provide permanent housing for almost 4,000 homeless families and individuals. At a cost of at least $28 million, the project represents the first large-scale attempt to give the homeless a chance to qualify for an affordable home.

The churches have risen to the challenge of homelessness better than other sectors of society. Nevertheless, some religious leaders would agree with John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., who charges that “the churches have not done enough. Some in Washington have spent millions for new facades and nothing on the homeless. It’s easier to get into Fort Knox than into most churches. Too many have forgotten the biblical mandate to welcome the sojourner. A church should be a hospice.”

Steinbruck’s church is just that. A chapel in the building becomes an emergency shelter for women each night. Houses belonging to the church have been transformed into a network that includes a clinic, a free food store, a day center for women, two transitional shelters for women, a temporary shelter for refugee families and a home for Lutheran Volunteer Corps members who serve the homeless and hungry.

Other churches have welcomed the homeless by allowing them to sleep in the pews. Still others use a hall in the church, rent buildings in the neighborhood or press the city to make warehouses and schools available.

Some churches, looking beyond emergency shelter, have joined with others to buy up decaying apartment buildings and rehabilitate them into decent low-cost housing. A few have transformed single-room occupancy hotels into semipermanent residences with supportive services.

Shelters are not the real answer to homelessness in the richest and most powerful country in the world. They are a Band-Aid on wounds whose source lies in the very structure of our society. But they do represent one step, an action in which almost anyone can become involved. Working to create a safety network of hospices may help us to reflect on the causes of homelessness, and to ponder the paradoxes of power.