Homelessness in America

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Homelessness in America is a persistent, complex, and widely-occurring problem that incorporates many economic, social, and psychological dimensions. After years of war and economic decline, the ranks of the homelessness have grown to include families with children (35%), military veterans (23%), children (25%), persons fleeing domestic violence (30%), and the mentally ill (20-25%) (National Student Campaign, 2012). Additionally, the number of homeless young adults, aged 18 to 24, is growing, giving homelessness a new face (Saulny, 2012).

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With regard to the problem of homelessness, some people perceive a call for greater human compassion, while others demand more effective social policy and more comprehensive public health services. In this paper will examine a broad range of private and public responses (e.g., laws, policies, programs, and individual behaviors) to the problem of homelessness in America and examine responses in depth from the perspectives of virtue ethics and distributive, commutative, and retributive justice, evaluating competing and conflicting views about the appropriateness of private and public responses to the problem of homelessness and present a balanced conclusion about the justness of each response.

Following Aristotle’s lead, we should distinguish among distributive justice, com-mutative justice, and retributive justice. The just distribution of goods and services among the Americans is a matter of distributive justice. Fair exchange through contract, covenant, or other agreement that fulfills the rights and responsibilities of all Americans involved is a matter of commutative (contractual) justice. Given the essential role of the social contract in any study of social and criminal justice, the concept of commutative justice is central but sometimes overlooked. The proper response to people who have acted unjustly is a matter of retributive justice.

Distributive justice looks at the division of goods or services. Let’s take public health services. American government offers public health services, using public funds. If, the government uses its own recourses, to provide the services who has a right to some or all of this public health services or, what is the most just distribution of this public health services. This is a question of distributive justice. There are three basic theories of distributive justice: libertarianism, utilitarianism, and egalitarianism.

Borrowing a distinction from distributive justice, we can imagine how each of the three theories of distributive justice would approach commutative justice. The egalitarian, argues that every person in America has a right to an equal right of the economy, and would require that contracts be available equally to all people and that all parties to the contract benefit equally. In this view, all people interested in hiring a homeless and all homeless interested in a good job should have equal opportunities to pursue their interests and should receive equal results and equal pay for the substitute homeless people.

The utilitarian, calls for the greatest result for the greatest number of people, would insist that opportunities to enter a contract be of the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people possible and that the results of any contract be good for the greatest number of people affected by those results. In this view, the interests of the would-be people and the homeless must be compared with the interests of the larger community.

Virtue theory addresses the shortcomings of each theory of distributive justice by insisting that in any given case we must distribute public health services in a way that is neither deficient nor excessive. If one homeless person is sick and all other eligible recipients are ok, then it would be intemperate of these others to demand public health services equal to the person. If in seeking out others to receive public health services, the government must engage in a life-threatening quest with no guarantee that the public health services will be edible by it finds a recipient, then it would be imprudent of the government to set out on such a quest. It might also be foolhardy. It would be more prudent for the government to provide the services to its own staffs. Commutative justice is about formal and informal contracts. A useful definition is that commutative justice “calls for fundamental fairness in all agreements between individuals or private social groups” (U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1986).

In the United States, some people say that the proper purpose of punishment is rehabilitation. Other suggested purposes for punishment include preventing the offender from offending again, revenge, restitution, deterring others from committing a similar offense, and various combinations of these purposes. Note the overlap here of social justice (public satisfaction) and criminal justice (crime prevention), and of moral justice (consequences) and legal justice (restitution). Some theorists have suggested alternatives to retributive justice, including restorative justice and transformative justice.

Restorative justice, such as community service, seeks to restore the community to its higher sense and level of safety and security before the crime. Transformative justice, such as probation before judgment, rests on the hope that the offender will not offend again and that his victims will not seek revenge. In broad terms, these two theories come under the general heading of retributive justice since they also attempt to answer the question, how should one respond to someone who has acted unjustly?

For virtue theory, recall that justice means giving people exactly what they deserve no more and no less but how do we determine what someone deserves retributively? A lively example of this issue is the debate over capital punishment. Most people who regard capital punishment as absolutely wrong believe it is an excessive response to the crime. Some people object to capital punishment for certain heinous crimes on the ground that it is a deficient response. Thus, someone might say, “Killing is too good for him!” or “Let him spend the rest of life in prison so he can reflect on what he’s done wrong!” The virtue theorist who defends capital punishment must show how it can be just, temperate, courageous, and prudent. This appears to be a difficult but not impossible task.

Still others insist on greater individual responsibility and more respect for the needs of business, reinforced by aggressive criminal justice responses. Surveys conducted over the past two decades have demonstrated that homeless Americans are exceptionally diverse and include representatives from all segments of society the old and the young; men and women; single people and families; city dwellers and rural residents; whites and people of color; and able-bodied workers and people with serious health problems. Veterans, who are among the most honored citizens in our society, appear in substantial numbers among the homeless, as do former criminal offenders and illegal immigrants.

Each of these groups experiences distinctive forms of adversity resulting from both societal structures and personal vulnerabilities, and has unique service delivery needs. All, however, experience extreme poverty, lack of housing, and a mixture of internally impaired or externally inhibited functional capabilities. Attention to the distinctive characteristics of subgroups of the homeless is important in facilitating service delivery and program planning, but may also diffuse attention away from shared fundamental needs, and generate unproductive policy debate about deserving vs. undeserving homeless people.

Examining differences among subgroups of homeless people has some clear advantages. First, each subgroup has unique service needs and identifying these needs is critical for program planning and design. Detoxification programs, for example, are of little relevance for programs assisting homeless children, and job counseling has limited value for people with severe addictions. Even psychosocial characteristics, such as demoralization, lack of self-confidence or self-esteem may have distinct roots for people with different backgrounds.

Second, identifying subgroup needs can guide agencies in hiring staff with skills that are matched to their client’s needs. Programs serving people with mental illness need access to clinicians with expertise in treating these disorders, while programs serving latinos and other minorities must hire linguistically and culturally competent staff.

Finally, identifying group-specific service needs can provide crucial information to guide development of responsive interorganizational service networks. Homeless people typically need assistance in multiple areas, often involving distinct agencies. Building alliances among agencies with different missions, goals and values can be complex and time consuming, and it is important that these efforts are appropriately targeted.

Focusing attention on subgroup differences also has potential risks. While differencing subgroup needs may assist some types of service planning and delivery, attention may also be distracted from the basic needs homeless people have for safe, decent housing and income resources. Attending to differences may numb awareness of the inevitability that in a market-oriented industrial nation with a limited commitment of resources to safety net services, some people inevitably fall into extreme poverty and homelessness. Scholars and researchers consider declining employment and public support of the poor, and reduced availability of low-cost housing to be the primary reasons for the increase in homelessness since the late 1970s (Jencks, 1994; Rossi, 1989).

Programs that target special needs may blur awareness of the structural causes of homelessness and may lead policy makers to erroneously explain homelessness as a result of personal or subgroup failings. Who is vulnerable in a particular housing market should not be confused with why homelessness occurs at all. “Social poverty”, although it may appear differently in different subgroups, is often derived from long exposure to demoralizing relationships and unequal opportunity (Tilley, 1998).

Populations that are prominently represented among the homeless are poor and lack access to low cost housing. These subgroups may be better characterized as being systematically under-served by our society’s social safety net programs and opportunity structures rather than being uniquely burdened by individual incapacities. Personal characteristics often found among homeless people may represent markers of societal neglect and bias.

Historical surveys of the changing faces of homelessness indicate that the subgroups most vulnerable to losing their homes change with societal attitudes, safety net programs, and medical technologies. The profile of homeless people reflects, in part, our social history. For example, at the turn of the century the homeless population included amputees from the Civil War and railroad accidents, the blind, and many people with syphilis (Bassuk & Franklin, 1992).

It is not surprising that within this context the differential composition of the homeless population in America receives so much attention. While in other wealthy industrial countries, the mere fact of homelessness justifies a public response, the traditions of social provision in this country demand further justification of the claim for public sympathy and support for each specific subgroup of homeless people. In a broad empirical review of the performance of the U.S. Government, former President of Harvard University, Derek Bok, concluded that while our country excels above all others in its productivity and high standard of living, and that our government is both effective and efficient, it does less well than other countries at protecting its citizens and assuring their personal security (Bok, 1997, p. 63-64).

Convincing others that people are deserving of assistance requires that researchers specializing in the problems of each subgroup advocate for the legitimacy of their needs. This also may explain why so much scholarly attention is directed at subgroups of the homeless who are regarded as “deserving”: families, children, the severely mentally ill, and veterans. Little emphasis is placed on other subgroup characteristics such as extreme poverty, minority status, or being an illegal immigrant.

In conclusion, we do not mean to underplay the importance of addressing the pressing needs of subgroups of the homeless. Children must be educated, single mothers must have child care and job training, the mentally ill need treatment for their illnesses, and veterans deserve honor and recognition for their past sacrifices. All the disadvantaged need encouragement and support (Bardach, 1997). But the studies we have reviewed suggest that as important as these specialized services are, they are not the most effective way out of homelessness.

That data strongly indicate that all services must be targeted to the specific needs of individual clients, and that emphasizing subgroup characteristics and needs should in no way imply a de facto acceptance of homelessness itself as irremediable and therefore, as acceptable. Since we as a people are not committing the funds to provide subsistence resources for the poor, we understand that there will continue to be hundreds of thousands of homeless persons on any given night, and we are resigned to providing for their educational, health care and job training needs within that context. To do so is certainly preferable to neglecting those needs. However, it is imperative that policy makers understand that such a response may reflect capitulation to an outcome that is not inevitable. If the political will were present, homelessness could be eradicated or at the very least, very markedly reduced.


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