Homelessness: The Social Impact

Posted: May 29, 2008 in Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Money

Most mornings, one of the first things I do is check the statistics for this site: how many people have logged onto the site; which posts were read the most within the previous 24 hours; and what search engine queries were used to find the site.

Over the last four or five days, I’ve noticed variations on the same theme: "what impact does homelessness have on society?"

It’s a valid question – one which I’ve thought about off and on throughout today.  

Homelessness impacts a community in a number of different ways.

There is, of course, the economic impact that homelessness has on society. Operating and maintaining homeless support services programs such as homeless shelters, day centers, homeless medical services and so forth are costly ventures. The funding for these programs comes in the form of taxpayer dollars and private donations. Yet, most of these programs are generally unfunded, which means that only the most basic of services can be offered. This in turn means that many homeless are forced to seek alternate methods of getting their basic needs met. Subsequently, those homeless who cannot find employment will turn to recycling or panhandling as a means of putting money in their pockets.

As the numbers of homeless who dig through garbage cans and dumpsters in search of recyclable items and as the number of homeless who panhandle increases there are the inevitable complaints to the community’s government to "do something about the homeless." This usually causes the city to adopt stricter laws concerning – and in some instances, prohibiting – these activities. Then, because of the need to enforce these ordinances, local law enforcement must be on the look out for violators.

For those homeless who are caught, the officer must then take the time to stop, check the person’s ID, and write the person a ticket. Which costs more money, because then it has to go through the local court system. Paperwork has to be filled out, court appearances must be set, and for those homeless who either don’t pay the fine or show up in court, additional paper work is created. If a warrant is issued, then the next time the person is caught, there is a possibility that they will be given a trip to the local jail – at taxpayer’s expense, of course – which means more paperwork.

In a small community, such as San Luis Obispo where the local economy is heavily based on tourism, a high visibility ratio of homeless can adversely affect the amount of tourist dollars in the coffers of local businesses. The remedy used by the governing bodies is to strengthen or adopt stricter anti-loitering ordinances in high tourist traffic areas. But, of course, there is then the need to enforce these laws. So, a special transient task force is brought into play. Since local police departments can’t just pull officers out of other departments, additional officers must be hired – again at taxpayer’s expense.

There is also an environmental impact that homelessness has on a society.

Since most communities do not have anywhere near the amount of supportive resources needed for the numbers of homeless in their areas, the homeless will be forced to find alternate places to live and sleep. In more urbanized areas, this could be in the doorways of businesses after closing hours, behind buildings, public benches, bus shelters, building hallways and the like. In other, less urbanized communities, the homeless may seek shelter in "green belt" areas.

Since every person has a need to heed the call of nature, and because many businesses deny the homeless the use of bathroom facilities, the homeless are forced to use whatever convenient location they may find to tend to those needs. And the cost of clean up, once again comes out of taxpayer dollars.

It is a sad truth that there are homeless who, for whatever reasons, do not have access to homeless support services.

Since no one wants to starve, the stealing of food becomes a necessity just in order to survive. Additionally, on those days when the weather is cold or wet, the need to stay warm and dry may cause some homeless to "borrow" certain items from retail or department stores. And who ultimately pays for that? Once again, it comes out of the pockets of John and Jane Q. Public in the form of higher prices at the check out line.

Call me simple, but it seems to me that if we truly want to reduce the numbers of homeless in our communities, the most effective way of doing so would be to help them become productive, self-sustaining members of the community. That would put them back on the "tax rolls." And that means, that they in turn, could help share the burden for helping the homeless help themselves.

Or does that make too much sense?

  1. Michael,
    That last idea about creating the opportunities for the homeless to become self sustaining members of the community is powerful and makes so much sense.

    Many times the word “sustainability” is thrown out there as the word of the year, but many are not willing to really look at the various levels of implimenting the concept.

    Keep the thinking cap on and this blog going. I assure you that changes will come.


    • Rrick Davega says:

      Figures this article would come out of SLO. I spent time there when I was one of the population, and they made Las Vegas appear warm & welcoming. Now my wife and I, do quite well for ourselves as we have become one of the established douche bags in the central coast community. I love taxes!

  2. Chris says:

    Yeah. One of the homeless orgs in my town (Richmond, VA) has a focus on housing for the homeless for just that reason: self-sufficiency. Myself and a few others have been doing a few things for homeless in the area but am wondering where to go next. Currently we’ve only been collecting basic needs items (clothing/shoes/backpacks/toiletries/sometimes food) but recognize that this isn’t doing much beyond the day-to-day…

    BTW – I found this from your post @ the Center for Respite Care blog..

  3. Harmony says:

    All in all, providing sufficient affordable housing and living wages is costing society far less than (for example) emergency trips to the hospital, etc. When homeless people have roofs over their heads, that means they’re off the sidewalks, folks. Speaking as one who’s been twice homeless.

  4. michael says:


    You’re correct about the need for us, as a society, to implement self-sustainability for the homeless. Unfortunately, before that can become a reality, we have to have a mind set change regarding our views of the homeless.


    A vital next step is to organize a “grass roots” group of like minded people to petition your local government to enact meaningful programs that provide genuine opportunities for the homeless to transition back into the community.


    As you pointed out: when the homeless have a roof over their heads they are off of the streets. Studies have also shown that an additional benefit, is that once the homeless have a stable living environment, they are significantly more able to find gainful employment – which as I pointed out, puts them back on the tax rolls. It’s a win-win situation.

    • Josh says:

      4 Harmony

      I am intrested in starting a non profit orginization that can provide some of these programs and houseing. I was wondering where i can find information about the studies you are refering to?

  5. mary says:

    Homeless people tend to be more self-sufficient than the general population. They have to be or they would never survive living on the streets.

    How does one make a Vietnam veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or a 65 year old woman with schizophrenia a more “productive, self-sustaining members of the community”?

    Yes, the goal is to make them “self sustaining” but how?

    Many of LB’s homeless are up and in line at Labor Ready every morning, even after sleeping on the streets. They compete with homed people~often illegal immigrants for the jobs at construction sites and factories.

  6. mary says:

    Quite a lot of the homeless get General Relief and Food Stamps. Once they become “self sufficient” obtaining a job and a roof, they have to pay back all the GR money they were given. If the job pays minimum wage, which is usually the case, they can not afford a place to live. If they got a better paying job, and have to pay back the large sum of money, they can not afford other costs, such as electricity.

    Some of them simply give up.

    It was the “sweeping welfare reform” of the 1990s that created a problem. Females fleeing domestic violence households, that needed the temporary welfare fix, find it almost impossible to start over with needing to pay back the money. Divorced men are others who lost housing and do not earn enough to rent and pay child support and sometimes alimony.

    Others are single retired men who travel. They take the Greyhound or trains but have no home to go home to.

  7. Mary Martin says:

    I loved your article, I chose your article for a paper I am doing for a psychology class. I believe that the best way is to help these people help their selfs, but many are mentally ill and do not trust the system. I my self was homeless for six years, because of my mental state, and I now receive a check that helps pay for a home and other stuff one thinks one needs to live. I wanted to share with you that even though I now have money to have these things I am not happy. I was happy out there, why because I liked living outside most of the time, cold and snow is kind of unkind, but rain no biggy. I did not like staying in a city. I spent four days in the streets of Chicago, downtown Grand street, slept on benches and begged for food in front of restaurants. People would just hand me money, and I ran a sign a couple of times, but I never just walked up and asked anyone for a dime. Being in the streets helped me see people from kind of like a mouses point of view. People waste so much and give to others so little…many are self absorbed and I think everyone should be more loving and help others who have nothing. Money is evil, and I know my thinking is crazy, but things should not cost people so much. People can get so ugly to people who are homeless, yelling at them saying get a job. Well I could not hold a job, because of my mental illness. Not because I did not want to work, but because not many can put up with me. I use to be a nurses aid, and I was very good at it, but I have a problem with rules that do not help take care of people who need a lot of care. I would be very ugly to my superiors, because in my mind they only cared about money not the people they were taken care of. I just think we should try to be more understand of others we only see the out ward image of that person, we do not take the time to see the inner person. Well thanks for writing such a good article.

    • Jamie says:

      Mary I have never been homeless, but what you said touched my heart. I am in college working my way towards a Masters in Social Work and I totally agree with you. Life should be about helping people with kindness, understanding, and empathy. Hope you are doing good and still have a loving heart.

    • Rosa Macias says:

      Your reply is so impactful, Mary, and it carries a message that a only minuscule number of people will understand fully. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  8. Leroy says:

    They too are people Regardless… I personaly have utter respect for someone who can go a day without food. we know Survivor as a tv program, the homeless live it!!

  9. Michelle says:

    I did actually find this website after typing what effect does homelessness have on society. I am doing research for a sociology paper for my college. Thanks for the information. I plan on doing more research still but appreciate the thoughts!

  10. Antonio Cruz says:

    Thanks everybody; all of you provided great information, which give me insight to develop practical and effective interventions to help those who are already homeless, as well as to prevent people from becoming homeless. Thanks and God bless all of you

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