The American Experience:

Not since the Great Depression of the 1930’s has American society faced such astonishingly high levels of inequality. The American Subprime Mortgage Crisis of 2008, considered by economists to be one of the most serious global financial disasters ever seen, almost collapsed the world’s financial system and impacted incontestably on economies across the globelxxxiii. In the United States, the impact on both housing and public services has been most obvious and a direct manifestation of the wider crisis which the credit crunch has caused.

The extent to which income is distributed in an uneven manner has been growing markedly, by every Major statistical measure, for over 30 years. Disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10% of citizens now average nearly nine times as much income as the bottom 90%lxxxiv. Homelessness is an inevitable consequence of poverty; in America, it ranks on a magnitude and complexity scale which I found difficult to even begin to comprehend.

  • In January 2015, officially, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States;
  • Of that number, 206,286 were people in families, and 358,422 were individuals;
  • About 15% of the homeless population - 83,170 - are considered to be ‘chronically homeless’lxxxv.

According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, a person who is considered ’chronically homeless' is an ‘unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition’ who must have been sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation (e.g., living on the streets) and/or in an emergency homeless shelter:

  • for a period of a year or more, OR,
  • to have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the previous three yearslxxxvi.

A ‘disabling condition’ limits an individual’s ability to work or perform one or more activities of daily living. For the purposes of assessing chronic homelessness in America, a disabling condition is defined as:-

  • Diagnosable substance use disorder;
  • Serious mental illness;
  • Developmental disability;
  • Chronic physical illness;
  • Disability, including the co-occurrence of two or more of these conditionslxxxvii.

The passing of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was a predisposing factor in setting the stage for 21st Century homelessness in the United States of Americalxxxviii. Long-term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals during the 1970’s and the intention was to rehabilitate within community mental health centres. In practice, facilities mostly did not materialise, and this population largely migrated to a life on the streets with little in terms of a sustainable support system soon thereafterlxxxix.

Today, more than 124,000 – or one-fifth – of the estimated 610,000 homeless people across the United States of America suffer from a severe mental illness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developmentxc. These disadvantaged individuals are gripped by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression — all manageable conditions with the right treatment and care - but debilitating if left unattended to. In the absence of early intervention, their plight costs the federal government millions of dollars a year in services, and ultimately prolongs disorder and suffering.

Disparities between the rich and the poor: San Francisco

The vast and expanding divide between the wealthy and impoverished is nothing short of staggering to the new and objective eye; the way in which abject poverty and hopelessness has been normalised left me breathless at times. In large cities where there is evidence of strong economic growth, gentrification – a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighbourhoods by means of influx of more affluent residents – is resulting in vastly increased property values and the displacing of lower income families and small businesses. Local communities are changing, with both positive and negative consequences.

I found that individuals experiencing chronic street homelessness generally try to be socially invisible in order to avoid enforcement of new anti-vagrancy penaltiesxci; practice I saw enforced with regularity in each of the locations I visited. During the last decade, many public services, such as churches and libraries, began restricting access to people experiencing homelessness and this has culminated in much of this demographic being banished to sidewalks, parks, under bridges and even inside subway tunnelsxcii.


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Copyright © by Amy.F.Varle, January 2018.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

The views and opinions expressed in this report and its content are those of the author and not of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which has no responsibility or liability for any part of the report.



When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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