September 07, 2007

The Disaster of Homelessness

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

While listening to a National Public Radio (NPR) report about the Minnesota bridge collapse, one of the reporter’s comments caught my attention. She was describing how a homeless man had come by when she was interviewing people and yelled, “This is my life everyday!”

To many, it seems odd that homelessness could be similar to living through a disaster. There are differences that make many of us question that comparison, though. First, disasters are short-lived experiences, yet homelessness is a long-term problem. The longer someone is homeless, the more difficult it is for him or her to move out of it. sr homelessness 2

Second, there is direct, usually governmental, aid to survivors of disasters, whether natural or otherwise. Much of that aid often goes directly to the people who suffered the loss. However, aid for homelessness goes to organizations, not to the people who suffer the effects.

Third, disaster victims are often seen as blameless. We recognize that the precipitating event came from an outside source. Homeless people, on the other hand, are often blamed for their plight. Indeed, homelessness is one of our country’s most typical blame-the-victim scenarios.

Last, in disasters, many people jump up to help those who have suffered.  Witness the blanket and blood drives, the food and other donation programs that spring up after disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. However, most sr homelessness 3people don’t help the homeless person at the freeway off-ramp or on the sidewalk. Aid for homeless causes has been difficult to sustain—often because homeless people appear to be to blame for their circumstances and thus seem less deserving of such help.

Perhaps it would be easier to raise aid for the homeless if people stopped to consider how homeless people resemble victims of a disaster. First, people in both situations certainly experience a breach of norms. When typical rules of society are no longer applicable, people don’t know how to behave. This situation of normlessness brings to mind Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Anomic situations are difficult for the people who exist within them. Because the longer the breach in norms exists, the more upsetting it can be for the people in that situation, most people act to repair those breaches and get to some sense of normalcy as quickly as possible. 

If you’ve ever been through a disaster or been homeless, consider how you might have tried to bring a sense of everyday reality back—and consider how comforting it was if you were successful. In the days after the 1994 Northridge N_Equakeb005-01 earthquake here in southern California, we had no electricity or water—thus cooking or bathing was nearly impossible. Our first few days after the earthquake were spent sweeping up debris and attempting to make the house look as “normal” as possible. We all felt as if we were acting but it was comforting to try to pretend that life was indeed “normal”.

Second, whether you are homeless or the victim of a disaster, the main tasks with which people occupy themselves are similar. Both homeless people and those who survive disasters spend their time on survival issues: where will their food, shelter, and clothing come from? Bathing is difficult and safety is an issue both from the environment and other people. For example, after the earthquake my family pulled out the camping gear and tried to create a special kind of camping trip by cooking on the Coleman stove. (The kids weren’t convinced.)

Bathing was a special challenge since our water was the last utility to return. By the fifth day, I had to go to a friend’s house in a functioning neighborhood to take a shower—we were lucky that we had friends who welcomed us. Some years ago my spouse completed emergency training with the fire department and the main message was “take care of yourselves” since emergency services probably won’t get to you in a timely manner after a major disaster. Thus their advice was to barricade neighborhoods and control the entries and exits—to suppress any looting or robbery activities. If we had had the means, we probably would have gone to a hotel out of the area so that we could have felt as normal as possible as soon as homelessness 1

Third, both for the homeless and for those who have survived a disaster, help is often not helpful at all. Shelters may be available, but they are not perceived as safe or suitable locations to spend one’s time. Rebuilding or finding suitable shelter takes time and depends on the resources available. Disaster relief may provide low-interest loans and financial grants to survivors but are often available only to homeowners, Even though both homelessness and disasters have a deep psychological impact on those who experience them, assistance for psychological help is usually not an option unless one has the resources and awareness to seek it out.

Finally, while homelessness isn’t considered a “disaster” by most people in our society disasters can create homeless people—they do destroy homes after all. The attitudes toward these categories of homelessness are very different. Those of us who study homelessness know that it is a societal disaster and that social factors have a large impact on why people become homeless, but the public does not always see it that way.

While Durkheim’s concept of anomie helps us to understand what’s happening in the social setting during such situations, Marx’s class distinctions and analysis of the ways that power is wielded in society can be useful in explaining why we see these two situations so differently when they are actually quite similar in their experience and impact.

How can we begin to explain these differences in attitudes and assistance? For one thing, homeless people are at the bottom of the class system, while those who are aided by the government and others during disasters are more likely to be at least middle class. In the hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters of the last twenty years, homeowners were often given low-interest loans from government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to rebuild their properties and businesses. In some cases, these supplemented insurance payouts and in many areas, the rebuilt areas were actually worth more after the disaster than before. A notable exception to this trend is the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans.

Marx’s theory can also help us better understand what happened in New OrleansN_Equake004-01 before, during, and after Katrina. The populations most affected were the underclass and working poor who are still suffering the effects of that particular disaster two years later. Even if FEMA had in better working order and there hadn’t been as much bureaucratic mismanagement, these poor people likely would have suffered simply because they are poor. Marx would have a lot to say about why the levees were not repaired when the government had the prior knowledge that they were in jeopardy. Why were those projects not identified as a priority? The class distinctions furthered class divisions and exploitation during a natural disaster, enough to create a massive social disaster for one of our most unique cities.

I think the homeless man in Michigan was right on target, living as a homeless person is like living a disaster everyday—but without the assistance and support given to most disaster survivors.

Photos of Northridge earthquake damage courtesy of Richard Raskoff


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My name is Blair. I am studying homelessness and the reasons that people are homeless. One of the reasons that my group is studying is NATURAL DISASTERS. I was wondering if you could help me in any way by sending me some articles or just emailing me about it. I need all the help I can get!!! My group has had alot of trouble finding research on NATURAL DISASTERS.
Thanks for all the help!!!

It is a sad thing we have houses that could house homeless and diaster victums yet we let them go to waste military houses not on the base of course. The pres could invest in homes and let people pay the uitlies and people would not be homesless for one. If a man can live on the streets everday then victums should be patient until they gain there everyday life back. Sure people get fursated with the postion they are in. HOMELESSNESS only a excuse not for a goverment to help people

I think it is a shame that we have homelessness in America because it is an excuse to the Government.All the money in tax payers money and there are millions of homeless people in this world today.

Homelessness is truely a sad situation and if many people weren't so greedy maybe these people could have a roof over their heads. Some people think that homlessness only happens to lazy people or people suffering from alcoholism and addiction but that just is not true...So many people simply cannot support themselves for reasons they have no control over and plenty of homless people fought for our country.My question is why is the government allowing this and what could ever be done to give these people a quality of life.

I think no one should be homeless we have tax payers, organizations and so much money floating around and people are still homeless. There is no excuse for this. I think the homeless man was right living homeless is like living in a disaster everyday.

The homeless have to live a disaster everyday with no help or relief from the government. People who live in an area where a national disaster took place, immediately get help and relief from the government and organizations get started to help them, but very little (less to none) people help the homeless. They blame them for being homeless without knowing their circumstance. There may have been a disaster that occurred and left someone homeless, but when people jump to judgements without knowing, those people are left behind and left homeless.

I think the way the socity looks at a homeless person it that they let theirselfs get there. As for victims of natural disasters were doing what they had to do but something like a earthquake happen. However i think humans make mistakes and everyone needs a second chance and everyone needs to help homeless people as much as we help the victims from natural disasters. Homeless have to deal with this for many many year because the help is not offered to them like it should be and the only reason the victims for disasters get better is because the help is there.

I think it is very sad that we have homeless ness in America. I agree with the above post we have all the tax payers and we are paying millions in taxes and for what? To take our hard earned money and give it to other countries that bomb us?? We should be taking care of our own. As opposed to spending the billions on freaken Iraq aparently people have forgotten about 9-11. and all our fallen soldiers.

The homeless have to do deal with anomie because they do not feel normal in this kind of society today. They can get upset with diasters and other things. Homeless people and people who have faced a natural diaster are similar to each other by having to live out of the norm of society. The differences between homeless people and people affected by diasters is that people who have faced diasters usually have some kind support like insurance or aid. Certain people have a calling to something different wether it be aiding the homeless or helping people affected by natural diasters.

i have a problem with sympatizing with tose who are homeless when i was a child it was always the thing woundering where your next meal was coming from are whos house they would send you to to live i do not belive it is the goverments palce to take the money of those who work and give it to those who do not i know that a good percent of the homeless are there because of there choices they made there are ways out of all situations if you only will put your mind and body into doing the work to improve your potion in life i know it can be done because i have done it but i also know that i can also lose every thiong but i know that if it happens i have the resolve to pick myself up and start over if i have to

Homeless people are displaced at different times and locations however self preservation will kick in and they will find away to make it.While a natural disaster is a larger scale group affected at once in a specific area but still self preservation kicks in and recovery begins

I have more sympathy for those who suffer from a natural disaster than those who are homeless. Every situation in unique but in the United States, there is simply no apparant reason to be homeless. There are thousands of opportunities out there, even with the recession. However, victims of a natural disaster lose absoultly everything and have to start from scratch. Emotion, financial, physical. The reason more are willing to help the natural disaster victims instead of the homeless is because the victims can't help themselves, whereas the homeless probably can, they just dont.

The homeless have to deal with anomie because people do not feel sorry for the homeless. It is a looked at as the homeless have created this consequence for themselves. Unlike those who have went through natural disasters who only have to go through the trial for a set amount of time, the homeless must live through everday with no light at the end of their tunnel. The situations betweeen the homeless and the natural disaster victims is that the homeless do not recieve any kind of aid unlike the natural disaster victims. People have compassion on those that could not help thier situation because society knows that they could not help what happend. With the homeless, it is different because society looks at them and thinks that they have out themselves in that situation, therefore they can find a way out.


I think that it is sad how we do have homeless people in America. Our government is getting enough from the tax payers and things get more and more harder for us to buy, but where does all this money go? When dealing with natural disasters people jump more quickly because that is something no one has control over and people want to help. With homeless i think some of it may be because people are scarred to pull over to someone on the side of the road. But we all do not know their story, they could have been laid off work and lost everything, including their family.

im on the fence on this one i think 90% of the homeless population is homeless because of there own choices!! but on the other hand some just have shitty luck!!

Disaster victims do get aid more often and sooner then homeless people do. It is sad, but many people think that homeless people are homeless because of a drinking or drug problem or some other reason in which they are in fault of, which isn't always the case.Homeless people who are just down on their luck especially in this economy today don't get that much help and that maybe one of the reasons. It is hard to tell who is telling the truth.I can't tell a persons story by just looking at them. I agree with some of the other posts we need to take care of our country more than we have in the past.

ive never really consider the things this article mentioned! After reading this, i now see how the homeless man said living in that disaster is living his everyday life! most people consider homelessness to be self inficted, and in some cases may not be true!

The homeless have to deal with anomie because nobody wants to "see" another person who needs help, or food. We would rather not concentrate on someone else's problems when we've got problems of our own. In some ways, natural disasters are similar to being homeless, especially if you're already poor or almost poor to begin with. However, most people that are affected by natural disasters with homes, family, and the like, usually get help by the government; whereas the people that are homeless never get help in their life unless someone takes pity on them. When we see people that are homeless, we assume that they did something to deserve being homeless. When we see victims of natural disasters, we see people whose lives were torn apart by tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. We are more likely to help someone who has had a "natural" disaster happen to them, than someone who has come upon "hard times."

Disaster victims are forced into situations that they are not able or ready to handle. A homelessness person has been working in that direction their whole life. Im sure there are some exceptions, but in my opinion ones own selfishness, pride, and laziness contributes to homelessness. Despite that fact I still think there should be overwhelming help for these homelessness people. A diaster victim might get a rude awakening in the life of homelessness person. Maybe the next time they pass by a person with a "I Homeless" sign they'll understand what it may be like.

Homeless people are often looked at as if they have brought their problems on themselves. These people deal with anomie because people often do not feel sorry for the homeless. We often see homeless individuals as drunkards, addicts, or people who just could not keep a job. The difference between these people and natural disaster victims is that victims of things like a hurricane will recieve help from the government and other places. We are more willing to help those who are affected by nature because nothing could be done to prevent that situation from occuring. We see the homeless as victims of their own mishaps.

Homeless people have no purpose in life. We are identified by the work we do, the place we live, the people we live with, and the possessions we have. The homeless are also identified by these aspects and it does not give a good impression. We tend to view them as irresponsible in not providing for themselves and their families. On the other hand, people of natural disasters are truly victims of their circumstances. They did not bring it upon themselves, but were living their lives and suddenly disaster struck. These people we tend to feel sorry for and want to help them in their time of need.

Seth Cardwell

In my opinion I think that people that are homeless choose to be homeless because they can just go to the military and have a good life

I have no choice but to be religious on this one. Most of the time no one chooses to be homeless. This should remind you to be thankful for your life and what you have everyday. Imagine not having a home to go to. Imagine your only place of refuge, privacy, and seclusion from the world taken away as a result of mother nature.

The homeless experience being abnormal because it is not typical for someone to be homeless and wondering the streets with signs asking for food, shelter, etc. The unfortunate event of being homeless and being the victim of a natural disaster is not similar. People that are homeless are not always that way simply because of circumstance. Rarely ever is someone homeless just because a series of unfortunate events. Victims of natural disasters however had no preperation and no way of avoiding the disaster that they had no part in creating. People are less likely to give to someone who may or may not have brought their unfortunate situation upon themself.

Becoming homeless is a great fear for many people. The thought of loosing everything you have due to a natural disaster is devastating. Thankfully today, there are millions of people who provide aid and help for people who do loose everything in a disaster.

Sometimes homelessness is not by choice. Maybe their support system is gone and they have nothing or no one compared to those of a natural disaster. They have FEMA, Red Cross, and other help agencies willing to lend a hand. Homeless men, women, or families never recieve a second look.

I think people see differences because most people who are homeless choose that way of life. There is a small percent that try to get some kind of normal life back but fail because of lack of resources to help them. People who suffer from natural disasters happens quick but has lots of resources to help and they get back on there feet faster.

Homeless people deal with anomie mainly by realizing that being homeless IS their life. Its the norm for them. Homeless people and disaster struck victims are same in theyre homeless, have nothing to go back to, and have to depend on others. But theyre different because homeless people are put at the bottom as far as government aid and other things like that. People feel different when giving to disaster victims because they feel its something they couldnt help but they feel the homeless put themselves in that situation.

I can understand how being homeless is like living in a disaster everyday except without the help of others. I do feel that homeless people do bring it upon themselves but some don't. It does amaze me though that people would rather lend a helping hand to someone who has been in a disaster rather than someone that is homeless. This is why I thank God every day for what he has given me that hasn't been taken away.

Everybody in one form or another place labels on people. Unfortunately the homeless are considered vagrants, undesirables, even drug addicts. These are all stereotypes.
The people of the disater mentioned above were homeowners middle class there considered educated, law abiding so they receive help.

the homeless just like most things two sides to every story one is do they wish to be homeless and how did this come about? and the other is can we set up a system so that the one how wish to turn this ungortunate situation around can. but i feel a large part is how our gov system is set up money "power" flows from the top down not and the power should equal from below, up

I believe that no one choose to become homeless, things doesn't go right for them. I don't judge the homeless becuase I don't know their story. Victims of natural disasters doesn't have the choice to become homeless or not because the weather is always changing.

Social groups provide the values, norms, and rules that guide people’s lives. people who face a separation from this comfort try to restore a quick normalcy in their lives.
Though homelessness is in may ways similar to natural disaster,in our social world,it is more common to trow the blame to a homeless than to a disaster`s victim. This is caused by the belief that every dream are possible, as long as one work hard to achieve them. I agree with Santillan in that everyone needs a second chance. Just as disaster victims, homeless are equal human being, seeking our support and |help, and love.

I think no one should be homeless at all. We have all of the taxpayers and goverment money. People think some homeless people are homeless because of some drug problem or some other situation, but that is not always the case. I still feel like they should get help just like the people in the diaster situation.

The homeless people deal with anomie because they are constantly trying to make things seem as normal as posible. The longer they go with normlessness, the worse it gets for them.

It is harder for homeless people to get help because in today's society we tend to blame the homeless person for the situation they are in. We usually tend to come together and help those individuals out who have suffered a natural disaster. The money we give to help out homeless people does not go directly to them, but to organizations, like the salvation army.

I never looked at things the way the article mentioned them, But I know from experience being homeless is a very sad and embarrasing situation, some people are homless by choice some just do't know how to maintain. But to me a disaster is the most worst way to become homeless.

I think people do treat people differently whether they are homeless rather than them being in a natural disaster. Many people consider being homeless as they chose to be homeless. and the ones who were in a natural disaster they had no choice. it chose them. I think that an amount of sympathy should be provided to both.

I have never been homeless but I do know someone who has. They have an everyday struggle, getting food, finding a place to sleep, and staying warm ect.People who are homeless compared to people who lost their home due to natrual disaster. You do not really know the reason why homeless people are homeless it could have been sudden just like the disaster it all depends on the persons situation. On the other hand the person who lost their home due to the disaster possibly has a job and will recover soon. We react differently to homless people and people who lost their home due to a natrual cause because we know the reason they are homeless. I am sure that if we knew some other people reasons we would be just as eager to give.

I myself have VERY recently been homeless. I have a degree in business administration and have experience. Yet, no one will hire me. In the month of December I slept outside on some EXTREMLEY cold nights. Being homeless is not a choice, I am willing to work and trying to find work, yet still have not a dime in between. When I was in high school, my junior year for our final english paper we had to write 25 pages on homlessness. Until I wrote that paper I had no idea how many people were homeless then, and that was 10 years ago when the economy was much better then than now. I can't even imagine how many people are homeless now with the economy self destructing like it is lately. Many people say well they should get a job, or do this or that then you would not have the problem of being without. Maybe life teaches us to appreciate what we have instead of wanting what we dont. Don't take ANYTHING or ANYONE in life for granted. When you get home and you walk in your door and turn on the light switch, think about how many people dont have a light switch or power behind it and how fortunate you are to have that luxury. Don't take for granted that there will always be a light switch or power behind it, once you do it will all be taken away.

Homeless people have either made their lives the way they are or they where born into a poor family without any skills to move on with in life. But an accident victim had no control over what happened so they are not the same as a homeless person. The government will help the disaster victims but not some old bum on the side of the street.

Homeless people have to deal with anomie because they essentially become anonymous. They are very disconnected from society. No one cares about them, they only interact with people to get food or shelter if they are lucky enough for some one to give them some money. Homeless people get no respect and no one really tries to help them on a large scale unlike those who are affected by a natural disaster most people will come to their aid fairly quickly and usually on a national level. People will line up to help those who have been through a natural disaster but not those who are homeless. Why is that? We are all people and we all need help at some point. I hope someone will help you when you need it.

Unfortunately, it is very common for people to make assumptions about homeless people without truly knowing the reason for their misfortune. As a result of these assumtions, people are less likely to help them because they normally believe that homeless people's previous actions caused them to be in that particular situation.
People struggling from a natural disaster are more likely to receive help from outsiders based on the fact that they did not cause the misfortune themselves. We tend to feel more sorry for these people because of the fact that the possessions they had worked over the years for were destroyed.

I think it is a sad world when people see a homeless person on the side of the road or under a bridge and say "well he did it to himself". Show me one person who grows up thinking, hey I'm going to screw my life up and end up on the streets. These peoples lives have more than likely been a struggle from birth. A lot of them were abused or neglected as children and never knew the love, support, and encouragement needed to become a functional member of socitey. I do agree that a lot of our homeless are in the situations due to addictions but where did the addictions stem from? I know for a fact that many of the addicted and homeless want to change their lives but they don't have the resources available to them. There are just not rehabs willing to take in the homeless for free and the few that there are, it takes years to get into. Another aspect that I feel is totally overlooked is how many people are homeless due to mental illness. I had to comment on this because I feel it is wrong to judge a homeless person just because he is homeless. Be thankful for what you have and for your sanity. A lot of people are not so lucky.

You are probably right...but as I read at many places organizations like FEMA don't discriminate on the basis of homelessness while helping people after being hit by disasters. But though I am not sure now,, will have to study the psychology working behind this. It is always better to be prepared in case something worse comes up.

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