Los Angeles’ Homelessness Crisis and the abuse of the term ‘chronic homelessness’.

Los Angeles’ failure to cope with homelessness has brought the issue to the light of many who believe that such a thing does not happen in the richest and powerful country on earth. Among the interesting facts, branches the distinction between both terms Homelessness and Chronic Homelessness. The nuance is relevant inasmuch as for public policy purposes Chronic Homelessness means something entirely different from just a growing crisis on the homeless population. The fact that Los Angeles tops the nation in homeless population makes regular people (including policy makers) think that since there is a crisis, every homeless is chronic. Even mainstream journalism reports both terms indistinctively. Peeling out layers on homelessness leads to a better understanding of the phenomenon thereby rising community expectations for homelessness plans and policies. This brief article stresses the essential differences that make a homeless situation chronic.

Let us start with the confusion in mainstream media. Los Angeles Times and The New York Times reported on their sites the following sentences. Note that the use of the terms, homeless and chronically homeless, is applied indistinctively.

“L.A.’s chronically homeless population has grown 55%, to 12,536, since 2013, accounting for almost 15% of all people in that category, HUD reported. More than one-third of the nation’s chronically homeless live in California, the agency added” (Los Angeles Times. November 19, 2015).

“The number of chronically homeless people nationwide remained basically flat, rising 1%, the report said”.

“The nationwide numbers came as a disappointment to HUD, which had extended a goal of ending chronic homelessness from the end of the year to 2017″.

“The government classifies disabled people who go without housing for a year, or who land in the street several times over three years, as chronically homeless“.

In spite of the last sentence in which the article on Los Angeles Times quotes the Federal Government in its definition of “chronic homelessness, the use of the term remains ambiguous for most of the readers. Plus, although both newspapers do a good job in informing by using data and quoting qualitative sources, the overall purpose gets defeated by the lack of clarity of the concepts. Then, the question worth asking is the following, what is chronic homelessness and how it differs from homelessness alone?

Chronic homelessness:

Homeless or house poor is every person who cannot afford to pay for shelter, whereas chronic homeless falls into a more complex definition. Among experts, the term “chronic homelessness” has emerged to define not only the absence of physical shelter but also shared psychological conditions among the homeless population. Piliavin et. al. (1996) points out several important factors that are often associated with causes of chronic homelessness. Among those factors is the lack of institutional support which is defined as having weak ties with institutions such as Employment, Marriage, Youth, and even Family. Another factor is Human capital deficiencies which are understood as poor relationship building skills. Personal disability is a third factor which ranges from substance abuse to mental health. Finally, acculturation is the last factor Piliavin et. al. (1996) relate.

Of primary relevance to Los Angeles’ crisis is the last cited aspect. Acculturation plays a significant role in determining the length of homelessness status. Shared stories, shared needs and shared means to survive among homeless individuals may affect the lasting permanence of a person’s homeless status. This phenomenon of acculturation evolves through a friendship building processes among homeless persons. Plain and simply put, homeless individuals with more homeless friends are more likely to remain homeless, therefore chronically homeless.

Also and regardless of ethnic groups, age, gender and marital status, chronic homelessness is portrayed as a phenomenon derived from mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia or psychotic disorders. Personal disabilities range from substance abuse to mental health. Risk factors for homelessness within this factor include social poverty, economic poverty, feeling unloved in childhood, mental disorder, and low level of friend support, sexual, drug or physical abuse and parental divorce.

Finally, structural pressures are to blame when it comes to chronic homelessness. Excessive Individualism among member of the society seems to lurk underneath the deterioration of social capital. In other words, our society reproduces cultural and ideological pressures that blame the homeless person as solely responsible for his situation (Lee et al., 1990). Experts believe that dysfunctional family environments, for example, homes headed by young (ages between 17 and 25) and female, in addition to social and cultural pressures, and a lack of public support, is a classic formula for chronic homelessness. Axelson and Dali (1998) state that chronic homelessness is an outcome of a lack of family and social support. In most, cases homeless women report having been physically abused.


In conclusion, nuances in homelessness must be considered when dealing with public programs intended to curb down the phenomenon. Policy-wise, these differences may affect the target and the outcomes of policies being formulated by government officials. Furthermore, it is evident that the crisis comes not only from the lack of public programs and strong public organizations but also from the weakness of social bonds and links. Thus, besides these institutional and social facades of homelessness, media must also illustrate the public so that we all know there is a shared responsibility in solving chronic homelessness. Even the family, as an institution has a role that needs to be addressed in Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis.



Lee, Barrett A., Sue Hinze Jones and David W. Lewis (1990). Public Beliefs about the Causes of Homelessness. Social Forces, Vol. 69, No. 1.

Piliavin, Irving, Bradley R. Entner Wright, Robert D. Mare and Alex H. Westerfelt (1996). Exits from and Returns to Homelessness. Social Service Review, Vol. 70, No. 1.

Axelson, Leland J and Paula W. Dail, (1988). The Changing Character of Homelessness in the United States. Family Relations, Vol. 37, No. 4.



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