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


This paper has suggested that the United States is demonstrating considerable progress in developing a homeless system of service, even if its development appears unintentional and unguided by policy. It has acknowledged the value of continued development of knowledge, policies, prevention approaches, and affordable housing access, but suggested the yield from such developments might be improved if they were guided by a comprehensive and accepted vision of the goals and operations of a homeless system of service. The remaining goal here is to consider these U.S. developments in relation to homelessness in other nations. When such a broader global perspective is adopted, the limited evidence we have suggests that larger forces are in play and should be factored into the approaches we take in this country.

In March 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was briefed by Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari. He reported that homelessness is a growing problem for virtually every country and conservatively estimated that 100 million people are homeless. According to a report issued by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (2000), nations were clustered into three groups:

  • high-income, industrial countries including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan,
  • other industrial countries with economies in transition, including Eastern and Central Europe and the Russian Federation, and
  • developing countries, including many in Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia.

Allowing for varying definitions of homelessness based on culture and circumstance, the report notes that homelessness is unrelieved in countries in all three groups.[8]

Even Western European countries associated with well-developed systems of social services and social insurance for their citizens report prevalence of homelessness. For example, Finland, with guarantees of social security, access to health care, and government involvement in regulating the housing market, reported that .2 percent of its population remained homeless.

As noted earlier, access to affordable housing and health care for people who are uninsured are frequently offered as the two policies that would effectively address homelessness in the U.S. It is interesting to compare the estimated prevalence of homelessness in the U.S. with countries that have both policies in place. The expectation would be substantially lower prevalence of homelessness. Data from Canada, Great Britain, and France are presented in Exhibit 9.

Exhibit 9
Estimated Prevalence of Homelessness
Country[9] Public Housing as a
% of Total Households
Health Care?
Prevalence of
United States 1% (public housing) No 1%
Canada 5% (public and 3rd sector housing) Yes 0.4 - 0.8%
Great Britain 11 % (council housing) Yes 0.4%
France 16% (social housing) Yes 0.4%

The data suggest that these two policies have moderating effects on the prevalence of homelessness, but may not constitute the silver bullet we seek. In combination with information in the U.N. report, the data suggest that other forces affect the extent to which accessible affordable housing and health care coverage protect against homelessness.

The report notes that the number of households in poverty in all three national clusters is growing faster than other households and that global reductions in homelessness are unlikely. The causes of global homeless are complex, much as are the causes of homelessness in the United States. Some have argued that economic globalization is at the heart of growing poverty and homelessness (Homebase, 2005), but these are matters for economists to sort out. What is clear from the U.N. report is that economic factors cannot be eliminated.

Among the other causal factors noted in the report are:

  • growing poverty,
  • decreased government investment in social welfare and social security programs,
  • inequalities in housing access,
  • economic competition,
  • land use policies that favor privatization,
  • unplanned urban development,
  • mass migrations, and
  • weakened family support and child protection leading to rapid increases in street children.

Each of these factors strikes a chord of recognition for a parallel circumstance in the United States. The report concludes with 11 recommendations to combat homelessness, many consistent with the data, service, networking, and knowledge development suggestions offered here. Other recommendations, such as an emphasis on emergency shelter, remind us of how far we have progressed in the United States in our ability to advocate for placing primacy on permanent housing rather than emergency shelter.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 443.7Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®