In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What to do about it

by Drs. Marybeth Shinn and Jill Kaddurl

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



As the authors point out to us, an entire generation has grown up since homelessness spilled out of skid rows and into the nation’s consciousness. Young people have no memories of the days when they did not have to pick their way around their fellow citizens dwelling in the streets, and older adults can scarcely recapture their shocked disbelief that homelessness should arise here, in the United States.

This book argues that the United States and other wealthy, industrialized countries have the resources to end homelessness, if we make the policy choices to do so. Further, there is a good deal of evidence about what works and what does not work to prevent and end homelessness for different groups of people. The recent halving of homelessness among veterans shows what can be done with will and resources. But to end homelessness it is important to understand more about it and where it comes from. The book is organized around four questions: Who becomes homeless? Why do people become homeless? How do we prevent it?

Chapter 1 provides estimates of the number of people who experience homelessness each year and shows that, because homelessness is a transient experience, the number is much larger over a longer period of time such as five years or a lifetime. Chapter 2 asks why people become homeless. Some writers have assumed that the characteristics of homeless people are in themselves a sufficient explanation. This chapter challenges this assumption and examines causes in social policies and sociocultural attitudes, including patterns of social exclusion, as well as individual characteristics. The chapter argues that homelessness is essentially a housing problem, marshalling evidence on how the current crisis of homelessness came to be.

Chapter 3 asks how to end homelessness for particular groups of people who experience it, focusing on programs with strong evidence of effectiveness for resolving homelessness and improving the lives of families with children and of individuals who have challenges such as severe and persistent mental illness. Chapter 4 expands on this question, by examining comprehensive efforts to end homelessness. It introduces and assesses the components of the homeless services “system” that has grown up to address the problem and describes efforts to act strategically and with sufficient resources.

The final two chapters ask how to prevent homelessness. Chapter 5 considers targeted prevention efforts directed at groups that are at special risk, and Chapter 6 proposes broader policy changes to end the structural conditions that give rise to homelessness. Some of the findings in each chapter may be surprising. For example, Chapter1 shows that the age at which people are at highest risk of entering a homeless shelter in the United States is infancy and that half of adults who experience sheltered homelessness over the course of a year do not suffer from severe mental illness or have any other type of disability.

The final chapter of this book, Chapter 6, describes a number of policy options that would allow the United States to end homelessness. The United Nations included a right to housing in the Universal declaration of Human rights 70 years ago (United Nations 1948) Not all countries are wealthy enough to make that right a reality. In the United States, it is within our power to realize that right today.

This book provides information that cannot be found anywhere else. Every organization needs a copy of this book filled with opportunities to change the plight of homelessness.