In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homelessness

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Resources and Organizations
  • Definition
  • Scope of Homelessness and Characteristics of Homeless People
  • Explanations and Predictors
  • Experiences
  • Public and Community Response
  • Programs and Policies
  • Advocacy and Mobilization

Social Work Homelessness
Yin-Ling Irene Wong
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0129


Homelessness is a complex social problem. Homelessness affects people of both genders and all ages and racial and ethnic groups; however, single men and children younger than five living in low-income families are disproportionally represented among the homeless population. A US government report estimates a one-day prevalence of close to 650,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide and a twelve-month prevalence of close to 1.56 million people using an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program. Homelessness intersects with an array of other social problems, including mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, foster care, and criminal justice. Regardless of the personal vulnerabilities that put an individual at risk of homelessness, agreement is general that structural factors, notably the shortage of affordable housing, structural unemployment, and poverty, contributed to the emergence, growth, and persistence of homelessness during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The complex and dynamic interplay of structural and individual factors has been documented in in-depth accounts of persons coping with homelessness through the use of different subsistence strategies. Public response toward homelessness and public policy for preventing or ending homelessness has evolved over time, representing an increasing acknowledgment of the multifarious nature of homelessness.

Introductory Works

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.

    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-070308-115940

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

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