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homelessness

homelessness, the condition of not having a permanent place to live, widely perceived as a societal problem only beginning in the 1980s. Estimates of the number of homeless people in the United States are imprecise, but in the late 1990s ranged from 700,000 per night to 2 million per year. A survey made in 1994 found that 12 million Americans had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives; the vast majority of those who are homeless consists of single men and families with children. The problem exists in all major cities and many smaller communities. The causes range from large-scale deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people to disintegration of the social fabric in minority communities, drug and alcohol abuse, relatively stagnant wages at lower income levels, cutbacks in federal social-welfare programs, job loss, reductions in public housing, and rent increases and real-estate speculation. The McKinney Act (1987) established federal support for the building and maintenance of emergency homeless shelters; some 3,700 agencies and organizations now operate shelters.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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