Perceptions of the causes of homelessness can generally be broken down into three camps: a) personal/individual, such as psychological deficiencies or bad choices; b) structural, such as low opportunities for jobs and housing, racism, or educational deficiencies; c) a combination of individual and structural issues. Although homelessness is likely a complex version of the latter option, the majority of the research on homelessness is on the personal characteristics of people experiencing homelessness and not the context surrounding their plight or interactions between the spheres of influence. This has often led to the erroneous assumption that personal characteristics and choices are causal. As an example, although it is difficult to determine whether alcohol and drug dependence are causes or symptoms of homelessness, instance of these disorders are significantly higher in men and women who are homeless when compared to similar low-income people (Caton, Hasin, Shrout, Opler, Hirshfield, Dominguez, & Felix, 2000). This should lead policy makers and organizations working with homelessness to adopt drug and alcohol treatment as an important part of supportive housing and wrap-around services, rather than blaming homelessness on individual decisions to drink or do drugs.
Shinn & Tsemberis (1998) note that the correlation between homelessness and mental illness and other personal factors is overexaggerated and less strong than the correlation between homelessness and economic factors – pointing toward more structural etiology. In a study of the antecedents of homelessness in Boston, MA, Crane, et al. (2005) found that economic factors were the most common cause of homelessness, followed by almost equal contribution by mental health issues and relationship breakdowns, then health problems and then many other causes; the most common causes (in order) given by people experiencing homelessness for loss of their housing were economic difficulty paying rent or mortgage, housing sold or converted, breakdown of cohabitational relationship, death of a relative or friend, and disputes with the landlord, co-tenants, or neighbors (Crane, et al., 2005). Locally, three fifths of people in Nashville believe that homelessness is caused by structural issues (Lee, Jones, & Lewis, 1990) – while 90% of people believe that there are multiple causes of homelessness, including luck. According to the Metro Homelessness Commission's Economic Stability Committee report on employment for individuals who are homeless (2007), the majority of people experiencing homelessness interviewed in Nashville (93.5%) have been employed, about two thirds (62.6%) are earning money in some capacity, and the majority are willing to work. Most interviewees were employed temporarily, are not full time, and receive low or substandard wages. This employment situation may be a cause or catalyst to homelessness or people remaining homeless.
Different research literatures also approach causes of homelessness in divergent manners. The economic literature primarily approaches homelessness as a failure in the housing (and sometimes the labor) market where housing prices become too expensive for certain people to afford, and thus these people become homeless (Allgood & Warren 2003; Bohanon 1991; Early 2004). Analyses of the cost of homelessness are primarily focused on the costs and effectiveness of subsidized and public housing. Yet, this line of analysis excludes possible non-demographic factors that could render people unable to live in housing at all, regardless of cost. The psychology literature includes a greater focus on the mental and physical health issues surrounding homelessness in addition to examining the issue of affordable housing from a social perspective (Levine, Perkins, & Perkins 2005; Rosenheck & Seibyl 1998; Shinn & Tsemberis 1998).
Still, perceptions of individualistic causes of homelessness are persistent. In 2006, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield took people experiencing homelessness to see the film The Pursuit of Happiness to encourage them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps – essentially ignoring structural causes for homelessness and highlighting an extremely rare case of rags-to-riches success (Wang, 2006). Irregardless, the public generally view people experiencing homelessness more negatively than those living in poverty or living with mental illness – regardless of where they place the blame for homelessness (Lee, Farrell, & Link, 2004).
Although structural causes are important to address, Shinn and Tsemberis (1998) remind us that people experiencing homelessness still have a higher rate of disability than the rest of the population. Beyond alcohol and drug use, other personal characteristics still have bearing on homelessness; Herman, Susser, Struening, and Link (1997) demonstrate that adverse childhood experiences – like lack of parental care and physical abuse – are powerful risk factors and common precursors to adult homelessness. The Metro Nashville Health Department (1998) report also states that 37% of respondents report that a health professional told them they have a drug and/or alcohol problem and 22% were told that they have a psychiatric problem. The literature and local knowledge points to solutions that focus on both structural and personal issues to prevent and ameliorate homelessness.