Homelessness In America: The Crisis in New York City among African American Communities

Consider this a paper that you are writing for a new social work student to read.  You want them to understand a social problem that is important, the history of that problem, who it affects, and what is being done to address it. Your project must be no more than 7 pages and will address the following four points:

  1. Define the problem as it is viewed today. What is it? How do we know it is a problem?
  2. Define the problem as it is viewed today. What is it? How do we know it is a problem?
  3. Describe the ways in which it affects at least one group of people who are members of a vulnerable or marginalized population. How many are affected, how significantly are they affected, etc.
  4. Describe important changes in how this problem has been viewed throughout at least two of the time periods covered by this class, including any time period from the English Poor Laws or Colonial times, up through 2000.
  5. Describe two key policies related to this problem that are currently actively being implemented or has been passed recently. What level of government is the policy? When was it implemented? What does it do? Why is the policy important in the field of social work?

The focus of the paper is homelessness in New York City; how it impacts disproportionately unhoused African Americans with mental health.


Definition of the Problem and how it is Viewed Today

            The definitions of homelessness differ widely as there is no agreed upon definition of the term by policy makers or researchers (Wakin, 2022). As a result, homelessness can have several varied connotations, explanations, perspectives, and characterizations. Perhaps the best point to begin is with the official federal definitions as these provide the foundation for addressing the situation and are powerful determinants of how the problem is approached. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as the state of not having a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, or a state in which an individual has a primary nighttime residence that is publicly supervised or privately operated, while providing temporary accommodation, or a state in which an individual has a primary nighttime residence that is public or private and not meant for human habitation (Wakin, 2022). HUD further views homelessness as a state in which an individual or family is at an imminent risk of losing their primary nighttime residence, are homeless under other federal statutes, or are fleeing or attempting to flee their housing due to domestic violence with no other place of residence. This paper aims to explore homelessness in New York City, its impact on unhoused African-Americans living with mental health problems, as they are the most severely affected, and the important role of social work in addressing these issues. The paper will begin by providing background information on the prevalence of homelessness in America and New York City in particular, citing relevant research and statistics to support the claims. The paper will then examine how African-Americans living with mental health problems are disproportionately affected by these issues and the severity of the problem. Finally, the paper will explore significant changes in society’s view of homelessness through two important historical periods, and the important role of policies in addressing systemic homelessness.

How do we Know that it is a Problem?

Homelessness is a complex social problem affecting many communities in the United States including New York City, and has been prevalent for a long time despite the political goodwill and resources devoted to it (Larkin et al., 2019). The scope of the problem is so wide and its impact so great that it has elicited numerous societal and public policy reactions. Federal agencies, non-profit organizations, the philanthropic community, and social workers have put efforts to develop frameworks and implement programs to alleviate the problem, often with varying degrees of success. The demand for these programs far exceeds the available resources, underscoring the need to address the problem.

Point-in-time counts provide an idea of how prevalent the problem is in the society. Statistics from the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) show that in the year 2020, more than 580, 466 people were homeless and stayed in places not fit for human habitation every single night (Jang & Valero, 2022). In the same year, it was estimated that over 226,080 individuals were unsheltered. As a confirmation of the acuteness of the problem, shelters from the U.S reported a surge in people seeking for shelter with wait lists doubling in that period. The number of homeless people outside shelters has continued to rise since 2016 (Jang & Valero, 2022). Most of them sleep on the streets, the subway system, parks, and in other public spaces.

There is substantial evidence that chronic homelessness results in health-related harm and other related social problems (Wakin, 2022). Research indicates that homeless individuals are prone to infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, serious medical problems, premature mortality, traumatic injuries, frequent hospitalizations, and death occasioned by exposure to extreme heat or cold. Homeless individuals are more likely to be hospitalized than their housed counterparts because of lack of health insurance as well as due to the fact that they cannot be adequately cared for without secure housing (Wakin, 2022). Homelessness has also been linked to a host of other fatalistic outcomes including substance abuse, alcoholism, mental health problems, violence, and incarceration.

Homelessness in New York City: How it Affects Disproportionately Unhoused African-Americans with Mental Health Problems

Homelessness in New York City has reached its highest in the recent past since the great depression. According to the Coalition for the Homeless (2023), there was an approximated over 68,884 individuals sleeping each night in the municipal shelter system in New York City in December 2022. Of these, 58 percent are African Americans and majority are those living with mental health problems.

The problem of homelessness in New York City is serious for unhoused African Americans living with mental health problems and it has drastic and long-lasting consequences for these individuals (Larkin et al., 2019). For instance, the chances of mentally ill homeless people remaining homeless for a longer time are higher than those who are not mentally ill. In addition, the chances of such individuals to escape homelessness are limited due to the challenges they encounter in personal judgment, social skills, and motivation (Larkin et al., 2019). While most can thrive in the community with relevant support services, this still remains elusive as most do not seek help.

Homelessness exacerbates the problem of mental health in homeless African American New Yorkers (Wagner, 2019). The stress of experiencing homelessness intensifies mental health problems resulting in all sorts of emotional distress including depression, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. The mentally ill may resort to alcoholism and substance abuse as a means to cope with their predicaments, but this only aggravates the problem, and significantly increases the likelihood of developing substance use disorders.

Homeless African Americans with mental health problems are racially discriminated and segregated in most American societies including New York City (Larkin et al., 2019). These people are treated with fear and exclusion by the public, which produces an inherent inferiority of this vulnerable group. They are stereotypically viewed as a public nuisance and portrayed as dangerous and deranged, yet they are victims of systemic neglect. This kind of stigmatization leads to a loss of status which results to further discrimination, perpetuating a cycle that intensifies vulnerability and marginalization.

Important Changes in how Homelessness has been Viewed Throughout History

            Throughout history, views on homelessness, the language that has been used to describe it, and the response to it have varied significantly across space and time (Eid, 2022). The following is a description of the important changes in how homelessness has been viewed during the Great Depression and post-World War II era up to the 2000.

The Great Depression (1930s-1940s)

During the 1930s, there was a noticeable shift in public perception about the homeless and the Great Depression marked a significant turning point in how homelessness was viewed (Wakin, 2022).  As millions of people lost employment and homes, the homeless population increased dramatically, and the society started viewing homelessness as a crisis rather than an individual failing. As a result, the Great Depression did not invoke hostile backlash as was witnessed during the colonial period, and the plight of destitute individuals invoked sympathy, with people becoming more willing to open their doors to strangers seeking for help (Wakin, 2022). The long-standing view of the homeless people as lazy and defective slowly faded away. It is during this era that the federal government developed the New Deal policies that successfully mitigated poverty, and as a consequence, homelessness help (Wakin, 2022). The policies also formed the framework of the government’s effort to lift some of the productive citizens out of desperate economic situations through work programs and provision of emergency relief to the homeless. This marked a shift in how homelessness was viewed and set the beginning of policies that sought to offer effective long-lasting remedies to this ancient problem.

Post-World War II Era

            During the post-World War II era, people began viewing the problem of homelessness as a societal problem that warranted coordinated effort from the government and the community (Wakin, 2022). Thus, the public and policy maker’s perception of homelessness changed drastically and social workers began advocating for policy changes and social justice initiatives. This led to the development of social welfare programs and other benefits for veterans which enabled returning servicemen to rejoin the community, some ending up on skid row (Wakin, 2022). This era also saw the beginning of the federal government’s effort to lay the groundwork for today’s affordable housing system through policies. For instance, the Congress enacted the Housing Act of 1949 as a response to the then dire housing shortage with the aim of offering suitable living conditions for the American families. These factors led to a steady decline in the scope of homelessness post-World War II.

By the late 1970s, there was an increase in the level of homelessness in city streets making it a serious social problem in the 1980s (Eide, 2022). This rapid increase in homelessness was met with concerted efforts from the government, social workers, and non-governmental organizations to address the problem. This led to the rise in the number of shelters for the homeless. In New York City, for instance, 25 new public shelters have been established since 1980. An additional 60 small shelters have been sponsored by synagogues and churches to provide shelter to the growing number of homeless people (Eide, 2022).

Key Policies Related to Homelessness that are Currently being Implemented

The scope of homelessness in the United States is an end result of public policies (Jang & Valero, 2022). Policies are designed to solve the problems associated with homelessness. Thus, the process requires a focus on evidence-based policies, practices, and adaptiveness to change. As such, there are two key policies that are currently being implemented or have been recently passed.

One of the policies is the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) which is a local-level policy implemented in New York City (New York Department of Social Services, 2023). The policy was implemented in June 2021 to provide emergency assistance to tenants in New York City who were impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and whose income is low or moderate. The policy is important in the field of social work as it provides significant economic relief to moderate and low-income households in New York City who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, by providing temporary rental assistance, utility arrears assistance, and rental arrears. It also helps landlords obtain their rents that are due.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is the second recent policy to be enacted. It is a federal-level policy passed by the U.S congress and signed into law in March 2021 (Jang & Valero, 2022). Thus, it applies to all states and territories within the United States. The policy is aimed at providing significant relief to struggling families, the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. It has important provisions for homelessness and low-income housing, specifically $5 billion funding to reduce homelessness, $21.5 billion for emergency rental assistance, and $5 billion in emergency housing vouchers. The policy is important in the field of social work as it provides funding for fundamental social services including funding for homeless assistance and supportive services programs, emergency rental services, mental health services, support for the vulnerable families, children, and youth.


Coalition for the Homeless (2023, February 1). Basic facts about homelessness: New York City. Coalition for the Homeless. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/

Eide, S. (2022). Homelessness in America: the history and tragedy of an intractable social problem. Rowman & Littlefield.

Jang, H. S., and Valero, J. N. (2022). Public-nonprofit collaboration and policy in homeless services: management measurement and impact. Palgrave Macmillan.

Larkin, H., Aykanian, A., and Streeter, C. L. (2019). Homelessness prevention and intervention in social work: policies programs and practices. Springer.

New York Department of Social Services (2023, February 1). Emergency rental Assistance Program. Office of Temporary and disability Assistance. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://otda.ny.gov/programs/emergency-rental-assistance/faq.asp#faq-benefits-q1

Wagner, D. (2019). Poverty and welfare in America: examining the facts. ABC-CLIO.

Wakin, M. (2022). Homelessness in America: a reference handbook. PRAEGER.

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