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Studies that follow homeless "careers" over time show a persisting pattern of
residential instability for some single adults, who "drift between atypical living
situations and the street" (Sosin, Piliavin, & Westerfelt, 1990, p. 171). Has home-
lessness been prevented if people make the rounds of friends and family, repeat-
edly doubling up in unsustainable situations? And what about those with severe
mental illnesses and substance abuse problems who travel "institutional circuits"
that include mental hospitals, prisons, or jails as well as shelters, shared or
doubled-up arrangements, and the street (Baumohl, 1989; Hopper, Jost, Hay,
Welber, & Haugland, 1997; Milofsky, Butto, Gross, & Baumohl, 1993; Snow &
Anderson, 1993; Spradley, 1970; Wiseman, 1970)? Has homelessness been pre-
vented when they are shunted from one way station to another?
We rehearse these conceptual and evaluative quandaries to make a larger point
that too often goes unvoiced. Like unemployment, homelessness is as much a mat-
ter of degree and discrimination as it is one of duress (Hopper & Baumohl, 1994).
How pertinent distinctions are drawn bears substantially on our ability to assess
any prevention effort. In the case of unemployment, for example, should part-time
workers looking for full-time work be considered "employed," as they are pres-
ently? Should "discouraged workers" (those without work and not seeking it) be
out of the equation altogether, as they are now?
The Problem of Targeting
Converging evidence from national telephone surveys (Link et al., 1994) and
records of shelter admissions (Culhane, Dejowski, Ibanez, Needham, & Macchia,
1994) suggests that about 3% of Americans have been literally homeless over a
5-year period.
From a moral perspective, these numbers are far too high; empiri-
cally, they are small enough to make it hard to identify those most at risk. Many
studies have identified factors that reliably distinguish people who are currently
homeless from some comparison group. From this ex post facto comparative anal-
ysis, some have attempted to derive predictor variables. But only one study has
examined the efficiency of targeting or forecasting the onset of homelessness
(Knickman & Weitzman, 1989; Shinn et al., 1998), and its results are not encourag-
ing. This New York City study examined 20 potential factors, including measures
of demographic characteristics, persistent poverty, behavioral disorders, social
The Prevention of Homelessness Revisited
Ed Koch, "We are going to, whenever we can, put people into congregate housing like the Roberto
Clemente shelter--which is not something people might rush into, as opposed to seeking to go into a
hotel" (Basler, 1985). Since 1996, New York city has required shelter requesters to prove that they are
truly homeless, resulting in many being turned away. "I can't screw the front door any tighter," said the
city's Commissioner of Homeless Services (Bernstein, 2001).
See the National Coalition for the Homeless fact sheets at <http://www.nationalhomeless.
org/facts.html> for a discussion of the prevalence of homelessness over different periods and with
different definitions.