Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. Economic and Societal Changes


The consistent structural variable in Americas homelessness history is economic performance. When business cycles turn downward and the economy falters or retreats, people get cut off from their livelihood. Sources such as Tull (1992) and Homebase (2005) place particular emphasis on the economic shifts from a manufacturing to service-based U.S. economy, and globalization as significant contributors to contemporary homelessness. No matter the specifics, looking across the episodes summarized in Exhibit 1, homelessness appears either to increase during perturbations in the economy or to be more willingly acknowledged. As Burt and Aron (2000) have noted, the contemporary wave of homelessness has not subsided during good economic times. This suggests that economic performance is only one factor in a constellation of many other causes.

Although it may be an accident of labeling, each major wave of homelessness seems to be associated with a period when America was undergoing a significant redefinition of itself; for example, colonies in revolt and seeking their independence. Hopper and Baumohl (1996) and Hopper (2003) advocate for the use of the anthropological concept of liminality as a theoretical basis for understanding the condition of homelessness and our response to it. A liminal state represents a period between transitions from one life stage to another and is characterized by high levels of personal ambiguity and uncertainty. If large numbers of individuals do not successfully exit a liminal state, the consequences are socially unsettling and provoke a corrective response. Social and government programs are often created to correct or prevent difficult transitions.

It is interesting to extend the concept of liminality to the periods during which U.S. society itself, rather than an individual, undergoes a transition from one stage to another (colony to nation, manufacturing economy to service-based, etc.). It could be speculated that there are some types of societal transitions associated with leaving a large number of citizens behind  that is, those not making a successful transition. Homelessness may be one manifestation of such a jarring societal transition. If the concept has merit, there may be value in trying to determine what types of societal transitions are correlated with homelessness as a residual. Such understanding could have value in anticipating a future national episode of homelessness and in analyzing what interventions could contribute to leaving fewer citizens in a liminal state of homelessness.

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