Systems of Poverty: Understanding Structural Causes of Homelessness

Presented by Morgan Bishop

When we talk about the causes of homelessness, we must first understand that there is no one main cause, meaning there is no single solution. The factors that have contributed to the crisis of homelessness that we see today cut across the sectors of politics, the legal system, economic spheres, social welfare systems, and ideology. To think about possible solutions, we must understand the historical, structural, and social factors that have cumulatively caused more and more people to experience homelessness. 

Within mainstream public opinion, there is an emphasis placed on the individual characteristics and shortcomings of people who become homeless. Although individual risk factors do contribute to people becoming and remaining homeless, they cannot fully explain the mass numbers of people becoming and continuing to be homeless every year. Homelessness is not simply an individual problem, but the result of a conglomerate of intersecting factors that create the conditions for becoming unhoused. Structural systems of oppression in the United States have historically allowed people to become vulnerable, exacerbating individual problems depending on one’s class position, race, sexuality, gender, and other identity factors. In this report, I will address the main social structures that have contributed to homelessness in order to begin to point towards solutions.

Because of the individualistic culture of the United States the general public often does not talk about social problems as being rooted in structural issues. It is easy to blame an individual for their circumstances, for instance claiming that houseless individuals must be lazy and unmotivated. In contrast, a structural approach examines the ways that society and its institutions serve to reinforce existing inequities and exert power in ways that do not support all individuals. In sociology, we refer to these as the micro and the macro paradigms. The micro level paradigm is any analysis concerned with face-to-face social encounters in everyday life and with interpersonal behavior in small groups. In contrast, the macro level paradigm focuses on  institutions and social structures such as political and religious entities. When we talk about structural causes of homelessness, we include the institutions of: public and private housing; state, local, and the federal government; healthcare and the police. By looking at homelessness through macro-level analysis, we can begin to understand the structural solutions needed. To end homelessness, we must work with the understanding that there are no micro level solutions to macro level problems.

Though unhoused people have existed in the United States since its inception, the crisis of homelessness exploded into what it is today in the 1970’s as worker wages stagnated, housing costs rose, social assistance programs were not adjusted for inflation, and the mental health deinstitutionalization movement swept the country. In the United States today, there are approximately over 580,000 homeless individuals, with California being “home” to 22% of the country’s homeless population (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2019). Now more than ever, we need to gain clarity around the causes of homelessness to point us towards pragmatic and effective solutions.

Criminalization of Homeless People Perpetuates the Crisis of Homelessness.

The criminalization of homelessness is cyclical, meaning it is both a product and a producer of homelessness. Our current strategies of policing unhoused people, now called Quality of Life Laws, are rooted in policies from the 14th century. The first Vagrancy Statute, England’s 1349 Ordinance of Laborers (pictured in the box to the left), made it illegal to give monetary support to anyone who was unemployed and physically able to work. This is important to compare to today’s anti-homeless laws because the statute’s language associates those who panhandle with “idleness and vice”. In this sense, the language of the statute also sets moral codes, and subjects those targeted to social punishment and exclusion based on their perceived moral impunity. This set the stage for people to be punished and forced into work if they were simply perceived as being poor, unemployed, transient, or otherwise   socially deviant. As time passed, the Ordinance of Laborers remained in place, though was amended to increase the severity of punishment for those who did not work and those who gave alms to them.

Another set of laws enacted to criminalize homelessness were Settlement and Warning Out Laws, which directly influenced those in the United States. Settlement and Warning Out Laws, such as England’s 1662 Settlement and Removal Act, restricted charity only to those who lived in the same place they were receiving it. In addition to restricting local charity to people who had lived in a settlement for 40 days or more, Settlement and Warning Out Laws also allowed newcomers to be forced to leave the town. As the United States colonies were constructed, emerging towns directly adopted England’s vagrancy and settlement statues as their own. In the sixteenth century, many US colonies adopted Settlement Laws and Warning Out Laws to control who could travel to and receive assistance from communities. This was largely in effort both to regulate the labor force and to legislate individuals’ belongingness or lack thereof. 

Historical anti-homeless policies are important precursors to the policies that we use to police unhoused people today, in that they control the spaces that unhoused people can occupy. Today, unhoused people are predominantly criminalized through Quality of Life laws, a catch-all term to encompass laws which restrict unhoused people’s use of public space. These include prohibitions on loitering, begging, and sleeping in public space along with a wider array of statues. By focusing on the micro level rather than the macro, Quality of Life laws detract from effective interventions that could bring solutions to  alleviate the crisis of homelessness. 

Even more, the criminalization of homelessness entrenches people into poverty and further separates them from attaining housing or other necessities. Legal costs often fare more than what unhoused people can afford, and unpaid fines can result in arrest. This leads to even more legal costs and negative social impacts, which perpetuates the cycle of homelessness and its criminalization.

Housing Prices Have Continued to Rise When Wages Haven’t.

Of course, there is no way to talk about the crisis of homelessness without addressing the housing problem in America, especially California. Over the past few decades, housing costs in California have skyrocketed while wages have not been adjusted to consider inflation. California  now has one of the highest average housing costs in the country, and increasingly more people experience substantial rent burden. By definition, moderate rent burden means that one’s housing expenses total more than one third of their income, while severe rent burden means that one’s housing expenses exceed fifty percent of their income. In California, 53.9% of renters are moderately rent burdened, while 29% are severely rent burdened. With rent burden being so prominent in California, people have lost their ability to save money and develop emergency funds. This means that most renters are a missed paycheck, a medical emergency, or a rent raise away from eviction and homelessness. This brings into perspective why the general population of the United States has a 1 in 194 chance of becoming homeless (Feldstein, Fisher, and Baker, 2016, p.4).


The increasing cost of housing in California, a structural or macro level problem, can be attributed in part to profit incentives for landlords as well as negative public perception of affordable housing. Public housing has long held negative connotations with the public, including the expectation of crime and the concentration of poverty, the fear of lowering property values, and the disapproval of housing being “handed out”. Negative public opinion has made it more difficult for units of affordable public housing to be built (, 2018). Beginning in the 1970s, affordable housing has been replaced with high end units due to their high profitability for developers and property management. This trend has led to the demolition of many affordable housing units in favor of high end units that only a small share of the population can afford to inhabit.  Between 1973 and 1983, 4.5 million rental units were removed, and about half of those were previously occupied by low income households (Collin, 1992, p. 30). Further, the public housing sector is severely underfunded, and about 10,000 affordable housing units become inhabitable every year due to a lack of repairs (National Low Income Housing Coalition). Even with the public housing that does exist, such as Section 8 housing, waitlists are often very long, with one source stating that people can be on the waitlist for up to five years (Williams, 2000).  No longer considered a basic need in our social welfare system, the commodification of housing has led homes to become unaffordable to the lower and middle classes, and projects a trend of further increasing prices and inaccessibility. 

Not only has affordable housing become much less available due to its replacement with high end units, but its lack of availability has driven its prices up. Between 1970 and 1983, the median monthly rent rose 192 percent, while wages rose only 92 percent (Elliott and Krivo, 1992, p. 115). This trend has only continued to contribute to the issue of homelessness. In 2000, the median gross rent in the United States was $602, while in 2021 the average monthly rent sits at over $1100 (Statista, 2021). A lack of affordable housing is especially prominent in California, which has become the country’s centerpiece of technological industry and expansion. In one study, researchers found that renters in California, on average, need to earn $37 per hour to afford a two bedroom apartment, while the current minimum wage is merely $14 an hour. (Statista, 2021). Housing availability and unaffordability are both structural issues that must be resolved to alleviate homelessness. 

Social assistance programs in the United States are not enough to offset the unaffordability of housing and stagnant wages. Though our social insurance and public assistance programs were successful in propping people up during the Golden Age (1948-1973), many programs either lost their real value or were reduced by fiscally conservative political regimes. For example, revisions to the Social Security Act in 1980 enacted performance standards for people to receive disability insurance, and capped benefits for disabled recipients at 85% of the estimated amount that an individual would earn working (Social Security Disability Amendments of 1980: Legislative History and Summary of Provisions, 1980, p.14). Today, the monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for low-income disabled recipients is only $794 per month (Social Security Administration, 2021). Furthermore, people who receive disability payments today are unable to get married without losing their benefits, which prevents people from merging incomes to be able to afford shelter.  This is substantially less than the average cost of rent in the United States, which illustrates why disabled individuals comprise nearly a quarter of the unhoused population (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018). 

Other social assistance programs have been similarly dismantled or reduced. In the 1980s and onward, the federal government began to dismantle the welfare state by cutting and reforming its programs. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) which ended entitlement to cash assistance for low-income families that had been provided through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replaced the program with state block grants which provided substantially less funding. The new program also set time limits and imposed work requirements for benefits, cut funding for food stamps, and restricted eligibility disabled children to SSI (Bertram, 2021). This trend of restricting eligibility and decreasing funding for social programs has only continued, and the welfare state further fails to adequately support poor individuals and families at risk of becoming homeless. Today, the welfare state in the United States fails to prevent people from falling into homelessness, offering low payouts and a lack of programs specifically designed to provide housing (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2018).

Deinstitutionalization Has Put Thousands of People on the Street With No Resources.

Common individual causes of homelessness that people point to are the twin problems of mental illness and drug abuse. It is true that about a quarter to a third of the unhoused population has a serious mental illness, and structural factors such as deinstitutionalization of public mental health treatment facilities and inaccessibility to mental healthcare have perpetuated this. The deinstitutionalization movement, which was fueled by national concern with patients’ civil rights and an effort to decrease federal spending, greatly decreased the amount of people in public mental health institutions. In 1980, there were a mere 137,000 people living in state psychiatric hospitals, compared to 535,000 in 1960 (Flynn, 1985, as cited in National Academies of Sciences et al., 2018). In an attempt to offset the effects of deinstitutionalization, the federal government displaced the responsibility for mental healthcare onto decentralized community based programs. However, the guidelines and requirements for these community programs were vague and were severely underfunded. People who needed psychiatric care were released onto the streets with little to no resources for support, which allowed them to fall into homelessness. Because mental health institutions are highly structured, people who are abruptly released do not have the community relationships, social skills, or financial resources to re-integrate back into larger society without falling into poverty. This is the same reason why people who are incarcerated have difficulty reintegrating into society, and partially why prison recidivism rates are so high. 

Still today, mental health services including substance addiction treatment are structurally inaccessible to many low-income communities, which exacerbates individual mental health challenges and makes people more likely to lose their shelter. In general, mental health services including therapy, psychiatric care, and inpatient treatment are costly without insurance, and most insurances still require copays per visit. Most health insurance that covers adequate medical care is provided through private employers, which unhoused people largely do not have access to. Public insurance, such as Medicare and Medicaid, can cover select mental healthcare costs including partial hospitalization and depression screenings. However, the reimbursement rates for these programs are often low, causing many mental health providers to not network with public insurance (American Psychological Association, 2010). This makes highly necessary mental health care inaccessible to many poor and unhoused.


The complex nature of the issue of homelessness requires solutions to be cross-sector, community oriented, and pragmatic. We must search for solutions through the fulfillment of basic human needs, the building of community care, and the expansion of affordable housing and social programs. Our solutions must be cross-sector, and require large structural changes to the current welfare system. We must address inequities in the area of healthcare, housing, welfare, policing, and the labor market. Any solutions that do not do this, such as increased policing or micro-level services, further separate us from coming to real solutions around how to end homelessness. 


Ideology: beliefs, attitudes, and opinions that dictate the way that individuals or collectives perceive and navigate relationships and society.

Micro: analysis having to do with individual interactions and choices, such as the analysis of an interaction between two people.

Macro: analysis having to do with large collectivities, such as the study of how religious institutions affect public opinion.

Social Structure: A recurring pattern of social behavior on the macro level scale, such as the way that that practice of Judeo-Christian religion is intertwined with conservatism.

Social System: Two or more social actors engaged in stable interaction with each other to ensure the functioning of society. Social systems can be exemplified in how our public education funding is intertwined with property values, politics, and ideology. 

Institution: Social practices regularly and continuously repeated that are sanctioned and maintained by social norms and hold major significance in a social structure. Examples of institutions include the criminal justice system and incarceration, religious establishments, and public education.

Criminalization: The social and legal process through which individual acts and identities are made to be illegal and punishable. The criminalization of homelessness involves the increasing punishment of acts that are innately connected to the identity of being homeless, such as sleeping or camping in public. 

Vagrancy: A historical term that is less widely used now, vagrancy constitutes the experience of being transient, unemployed, homeless, and/or poor. “Vagrant” is an outdated term for someone who is homeless, similar to “beggar” or “vagabond”.

Anti-Homeless Policy:f A catch all term for policies that target unhoused people, either implicitly or explicitly. These include bans on begging and loitering, prohibitions on the use of public space, and persecution of those giving food or supplies to unhoused people. 


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Feldstein, S., Fisher, M., & Miller, N. (2016). California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State (pp. 7-30, Rep.). University of California, Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic.

Flynn K. (1985). The Toll of Deinstitutionalization. In: Brickner PW, Sharer LK, Conanan B, Elvy A, Savarese M, editors. The Health Care of Homeless People. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company; 1985. pp. 189–190.

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Mental health care (outpatient). Outpatient Mental Health Coverage. (n.d.). 

Social Security Disability Amendments of 1980: Legislative History and Summary of Provisions. (1981). Social Security Bulletin, 44(4), 18.

Social Security. SSI Federal Payment Amounts. (2021) 

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. (2018). Homelessness in America: Focus on Chronic Homelessness Among People With Disabilities. Washington DC.

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Williams, K. (2000). The Long Wait: The Critical Shortage of Housing In America. The Corporation for Supportive Housing and Housing California.

Author Bio:

My name is Morgan Bishop, and I am thankful to have recently graduated from UCSC with a bachelors in sociology, a minor in legal studies, and a concentration in Global Information and Social Enterprise studies. I am passionate about studying structural systems of inequality and helping individuals while keeping these systems in mind. In the future, I plan to attend graduate school to further my opportunities for research and social change work.