Homelessness: A Case Study of the Breakdown of the American Dream

Donald Burnes PhD, May 3, 2020

Over the last 40 years, much has been written about the national scourge of homelessness. There have been various research studies on the demographics of homelessness, epidemiological studies of various kinds, evaluations of programs and the identification of evidence-based practices, collections of first-person and third-person stories about individuals with lived experience, pronouncements about strategies for improving various conditions and policies related to the issue, among others. These range from an early book by Johnathan Kozol, Rachael and her Children, to a more recent five-year study on the impact of various housing options, The Family Options Study, and my own co-authored Journeys Out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience with Jamie Rife. Even a casual computer search for literature about homelessness will turn up hundreds if not tens of thousands of books, articles, and studies. In addition, national groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition on Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and the Interagency Council on Homelessness regularly disseminate literature reviews, training materials, and evidence-based practice recommendations on strategies, policies, and programs to address this problem.

Interestingly, virtually all the writers on the topic seem to view homelessness as an isolated example of the breakdown of the American dream. This is typical of the American approach to social issues, i.e. the isolation of a problem so that it is self-contained in its own social and cultural box. In the case of homelessness, after almost a decade of the rise of homelessness across the country, Congress enacted the McKinney-Vento legislation that created a separate funding stream, a separate regulatory stream, and a separate programmatic stream for those experiencing homelessness.

Much the same can be said for any of the numerous other groups that have suffered discrimination across the country. The experiences of people of color, illegal immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people in poverty, those in mental institutions, and those in the criminal justice system, among others are typically considered in isolation from each other. Although each subgroup has experienced systemic discrimination in different and separate ways, in some respects the experiences of all the groups are a mirror image of each other, namely the creation and maintenance of policies and programs at all levels that undermine the ability of members of each group to truly live the American dream.

In fact, an analysis of aspects of homelessness should only be considered a single case study of how we as a country have treated marginalized populations in our midst. Our national history is replete with examples of how the living conditions and the fortunes of other groups have been systematically eviscerated across the recent decades. People experiencing homelessness are not alone; they are but one example of “how some people across the country get screwed,” according to one observer.

Considering all this, why do a case study? There are several reasons. First, focusing on homelessness in a silo does not work. No one cares; it is stigmatized; and it misses the broken systems that perpetuate the larger problem. Second, placing homelessness within the wider narrative of broken systems and the broken social contract makes this issue much more relatable and contextual. Third, framing homelessness in this context is key to moving it in people’s minds AWAY from an individual culpability/responsibility narrative and into a more careful examination of systemic breakdowns. Finally, anchoring homelessness in a broken systems and social contract narrative will encourage empathy, deeper scholarship of what is going on, and it will broaden base of potential supporters of this intersectional problem.

Unfortunately, much of our national conscience about groups that are the victims of discrimination focuses on the distinction that many make between the worthy and the unworthy poor. Those who are deemed worthy are people who suffer wretched circumstances through no fault of their own. Those who are unworthy are those who suffer wretched circumstances because of their own faults, their “failings.” Many of those in the marginalized groups are viewed as unworthy and are rewarded with discriminatory practices and great societal antipathy.

Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to consider two pivotal issues. First, we must not separate homelessness from the systematic discrimination that many in our society suffer from, and we must link arms with those who suffer from the same kind of treatment to build a campaign to truly address this breakdown of the American dream. Second, we must understand that members of each subgroup are not homogeneous; they are not all the same. Everyone is a unique individual, and each is worthy of being considered part of our greater community. We must not marginalize anybody. Everyone is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, friend, and neighbor. We are all in this together.

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