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


Since the last National Symposium on Homelessness Research in 1998, much of our attention has focused on persons experiencing chronic homelessness and on efforts to end the longstanding national challenge of homelessness. Research, knowledge development, opportunity, and advocacy have each served to address our concerns, and the result has been a significant revitalization in our national response. Parallel advances suggest the emergence of a coherent, de facto system of service to address homelessness. While the system has yet to realize full expression, its easily identifiable components provide opportunities to focus our efforts and demonstrate that positive outcomes are occurring. The operational components of the de facto system, which will be discussed in this paper, challenge us to consider what further successes we might achieve with a formal system that strives to rectify homelessness. The emergence of the de facto system has been fostered by at least four factors:

  • A deepened empirical understanding of the heterogeneity within the population of people experiencing homelessness,
  • A growing store of effective service responses,
  • Service providers that are increasingly adept, and
  • The development of multi-partner collaborations among providers that help address the multiple facets of homelessness.

Papers at the previous Symposium (see Fosberg & Dennis, 1999) acknowledged developments in these areas (see Rosenheck et al., 1999; McMurray-Avila et al., 1999; Dennis et al., 1999), and at least three of these factors receive attention in other papers in this Symposium. Before examining the proposed systemic response, this paper will discuss the history of homelessness in the United States. After a discussion of the changes in our approach, a section on the prevention of homelessness and another on global perspectives on homelessness will follow.

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