Helping the Homeless: a Radical Consumer Behavior-Oriented Solution

Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University
ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to discuss a growing segment of the new homeless population in the United States using a consumer behavior approach. First, historical perspectives of the homeless are provided to establish the rationale for traditional thinking regarding this portion of society. Second, recent consumer research involving homeless persons is discussed in order to reorient our thinking regarding the homeless. Finally, a radical solution to solve part of the homelessness problem is provided based upon this revised understanding.
[ to cite ]:
Ronald Paul Hill (1992) ,"Helping the Homeless: a Radical Consumer Behavior-Oriented Solution", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 550-553.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 550-553


Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University


The purpose of this paper is to discuss a growing segment of the new homeless population in the United States using a consumer behavior approach. First, historical perspectives of the homeless are provided to establish the rationale for traditional thinking regarding this portion of society. Second, recent consumer research involving homeless persons is discussed in order to reorient our thinking regarding the homeless. Finally, a radical solution to solve part of the homelessness problem is provided based upon this revised understanding.


The problem of homelessness has become one of the most urgent social and political issues of our time (King et al. 1989). Current estimates of the number of homeless persons on any given night range from 600,000 to 3 million (Whitman 1989). However, an additional 4 million to 14 million "nearly homeless" American families are living in crowded apartments with friends or family. The American Affordable Housing Institute projects that even a mild recession will disturb this precarious balance and cause homelessness in this country to double or triple overnight (Rich 1989).

Such a portrait is quite different from recent time periods. From the post-depression era to the 1970s, American homelessness declined dramatically (Rich 1989). Skid row areas reduced in size, number, and population, becoming the residence of mostly single, alcoholic, adult men. However, a number of factors, including sharp cutbacks by the Reagan administration in subsidies for construction of low-income rental housing, created a new, more diverse homeless population that is quite different from the past (Brown and Krivo 1989; Koegel, Farr, and Burnam 1986).

The purpose of this paper is to discuss a growing segment of this new homeless population using a consumer behavior approach. First, historical perspectives of the homeless are provided to establish the rationale for traditional thinking regarding this portion of society. Second, recent consumer research involving homeless persons is discussed in order to reorient our thinking regarding the homeless. Finally, a radical solution to solve part of the homelessness problem is provided based upon this revised understanding.


In a recent literature review, Blau (1988) provides an excellent historical analysis of the ideology of the causes of homelessness in the United States over the last hundred years. In chronological order, six distinct categories of literature are identified: 1) Social Darwinism and the homeless, 2) Progressivism, 3) the on-the-road genre, 4) studies of homelessness during the Depression, 5) functionalist sociological research, and 6) current perspectives of the homeless.

Social Darwinism and the homeless became popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the wake of the 1873-1875 depression which left three million people unemployed. This ideology suggests that charity to the homeless was generally "indiscriminant almsgiving" and personal weaknesses, such as alcoholism, were the main causes of homelessness. For example, Wayland (1877), speaking at the 1877 Conference of State Charities, referred to able-bodied persons without homes as "tramps" and equated them with professional thieves. He recommended that tramps be provided only with the bare necessities, be segregated by sex to avoid their propagation, and be compelled to perform "useful" work. During this time period, even the ignominious funerals of these "paupers" came to signify their exclusion from the remainder of society, and marked them as failures (Laquer 1983).

Progressivism is a kind of Reform Darwinism based on a more compassionate view of the homeless (Goldman 1952). Anderson (1923), who was homeless for a period of time as well as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, viewed the homeless as individualistic and egocentric, as modern Ishmaels who resist social discipline and conventional social life. In a nonjudgmental fashion, he states that the reasons for homelessness include: 1) unemployment, 2) physical handicaps, 3) personality defects, 4) life crises, 5) discrimination, and 6) wanderlust. However, the establishment of labor colonies and work tests (a case work method that judged the homeless harshly) during this period suggests that the progressives were more lenient in their writings than in their recommendations or actions (see Hunter 1904).

The on-the-road genre contains two distinct groups: social activists as tramps and tramps as social activists. The former group usually was composed of members of the upper classes in society who went on the road to document the squalid conditions of the homeless (Anderson 1923; Chesterton 1926). While they often raised the public's consciousness, the reforms they advocated were mild at best. On the other hand, tramps as social activists tended to view homelessness as an opportunity for self-discovery and adventure, an almost spiritual experience (Mullin 1925; Jennings 1932). However, this approach provides little in the way of understanding of the possible causes of homelessness.

Depression era studies were a response to the tremendous economic and social consequences of the Depression which left millions of people out of work and homeless. Such studies posited two interrelated theories of homelessness: the economic theory and the demographic theory (Sutherland and Locke 1936). The economic theory is concerned with business failures, reduced wealth and incomes, and unemployment. The demographic theory attempts to explain why, given these conditions, some individuals continued to work, have shelter, or accepted relief while others became homeless. While no blame is implied in these distinctions, value judgments based on traditional conservative thinking still were widespread among the public, resulting in typical negative stereotypes of the homeless.

In the late 1950s, the homeless became an area of research interest among functionalist sociologists. A positivist approach, functionalist sociology assumes a homeostatic social system, and the homeless aroused interest since they managed to survive outside of its boundaries. Merton (1957) suggests that the homeless adapt to the social environment through "retreatism", a condition where an individual is barred from success within society and subsequently retreats to drugs, psychosis, or skid row. Interestingly, the homeless often were viewed as a threat by functionalist sociologists precisely because they withdraw from society (Bahr and Caplow 1973). Their fear is that if a group can exist outside of the social system, the system itself may be in jeopardy.

The growth of homelessness in absolute size as well as visibility in the 1980s gave rise to a proliferation of reports on the homeless. This material can be categorized loosely as falling into two groups: original advocacy research and government-sponsored reports. Advocacy research often mixes moral witness and education in an attempt to change the stereotypical view of the homeless as weak-willed and at fault for their condition (Katz 1989; Ropers 1988). To accomplish this goal, it explores the structural factors in society that lead to homelessness, and describes the homeless as the "human waste of a disposable society" (see Hombs and Snyder 1983; Hopper and Hamberg 1985). Government reports take a different approach and tend to treat homelessness as a housing issue leading to a host of other social problems. Despite their diverse political purposes, most of these reports cite unemployment, deinstitutionalization, drug addiction, and the scarcity of low-cost housing as the primary causes of homelessness (National Mental Health Association 1988).

One major problem across these perspectives is the view of the homeless as helpless and unable to cope with personal or environmental circumstances. While recent research suggests that certain subpopulations such as the elderly, children, and the severely physically or emotionally ill may be unable to survive on the streets (see Hill 1991), other investigations identify a large and potentially growing segment that has developed quite extensive survival strategies. It is this group that we address in this paper.


In a recent JCR article, Hill and Stamey (1990) describe their ethnographic experience with the "hidden homeless," a subpopulation of homeless persons who choose to live on the streets, often beyond public scrutiny, rather than in shelters or public places such as subway stations (see New York Times 1991 for an excellent example of this lifestyle). They collected data in a wide variety of settings including abandoned buildings, bridge abutments and tunnels, shantytowns, public parks, and automobiles used primarily for shelter. During this study, Hill and Stamey (1990) examined how possessions were acquired by looking at nontraditional employment strategies, scavenging activities (e.g., rummaging through public garbage containers), and why some products were purchased while others were scavenged. Further, they looked at the types of possessions consumed, and examined the approaches used by the homeless to obtain food, clothing, shelter, and personal hygiene/health care products as well as tools that were used to facilitate search, acquisition, storage, and consumption of these products. Finally, they considered how community among the homeless impacted consumption and its importance to protection of self and possessions, sharing of limited resources, and social interaction.

Three significant interpretive themes emerged from this research. In the first theme, the hidden homeless were portrayed as a "nomadic society," characterized by a reliance upon "nature" to provide the necessities of life, mobility to cover an area wide enough to provide sufficient quantities of needed items, and flexibility to adjust to changing opportunities as they are revealed within the environment (see Chris Drake 1990 for an additional source). The second theme centered around self-concept development by the hidden homeless. According to Hill and Stamey (1990), this segment of homeless persons is able to maintain some self-esteem by distancing themselves from the more dependent categories of their peers (e.g., "shelter dwellers"), and by living independently of welfare institutions. Finally, the third theme compared the meaning of possessions to the hidden homeless with middle-class Americans. The authors found that these homeless persons, when compared to average citizens, held different perceptions/lower expectations regarding what constitutes acceptable housing, and developed a sense of pride from the construction rather than purchase of their home (see Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989 and Wren 1991 for additional findings that parallel this interpretation).

One implicit theme that permeates these results is that the hidden homeless are a resourceful, determined, and capable group that proactively deals with the lack of available resources in their consumer environment. They often differentiate themselves from shelter users and feel that such facilities are used by the most destitute or the insane. Thus, this segment of the homeless tends to view themselves as surviving by their own wits and abilities.


The research by Hill and Stamey (1990) provides a sharp contrast with the work of Lewis (1966) by suggesting that many homeless persons take an active role in determining their life choices. However, this perspective of the homeless should not suggest that they are without need. Many go hungry frequently and find themselves without shelter on a regular basis. Further, the most needy - for example, the mentally ill and the physically disabled - are the least likely to devise and employ the survival strategies described. Nevertheless, this study suggests that, as a society, we need to find methods of support that allow the homeless to maintain their dignity and independence (see Fabricant 1988).

One suggestion is to provide ways to help the homeless avoid the spiral down the housing chain from "housed" to "homeless." In order to halt this process, affordable housing should be made available in the communities where homelessness is most likely to occur so that people can escape this inevitable decline. The research of Hill and Stamey (1990) suggests that many homeless persons expect and require less in a shelter than the typical consumer. Nonetheless, the provision of basic shelter that provides a warm, safe, sanitary, and somewhat private refuge may help the homeless improve the quality of their day-to-day lives by allowing them to refocus their efforts on other important needs. The development of a "homeless village" with a first aid clinic, police mini-station, kitchen facilities, learning and training centers for youth and adults, shelter, and heated lean-tos for those unwilling to live inside has been proposed for the city of Philadelphia (Donald Drake 1990). Such a complex could be placed in resurrected abandoned buildings in the hearts of most cities, and could help the homeless cope with special problems that arise for families or the chronically ill.

Additionally, attempts by governmental agencies to encourage the homeless to accept "mainstream" employment opportunities generally have resulted in failure. One such program, Project Worth in Louisville, Kentucky, found that only five percent of the homeless who entered a special training program were employed one year after schooling (Kilborn 1990). Therefore, instead of seeking to change the patterns of behavior of the homeless, governmental authorities should actively encourage current alternative work such as the recycling performed by the subpopulation discussed by Hill and Stamey (1990). This form of nontraditional employment provides the homeless with a sense of independence and the city/town/suburb with a natural mechanism for dealing with their enduring problems with garbage. To facilitate such endeavors, the authorities should consider subsidizing redemption centers, providing convenient public buildings for the homeless to use as redemption sites, and equipping the homeless with the tools necessary to effectively scavenge.

Of course, such a program is not without problems. The vision of an army of homeless persons rummaging through public garbage containers would frighten most citizens (see Ablow 1991 for an example of fear of the homeless). However, procedures for successful and legitimate search could be established that limit such activities while still providing an opportunity to earn money. An alternative to recycling that may avoid some of these problems but also allow them to maintain their independent lifestyle is the sale of the paper Street News by homeless persons (Adweek 1990; Donaton 1990). Started in New York City in late 1989, the paper is sold exclusively by homeless persons who are allowed to keep 55 cents per copy. In the first four months of operation, the newspaper's sales force grew from 125 to more than 1000 homeless men and women, and plans have been made to expand operations into 15 additional cities including Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Newark, NJ.

The provision of food and water requires different strategies. Such goods need to be made available on a regular basis if the homeless are to survive and continue to function in an independent capacity. The efforts of the government with food giveaway programs and soup kitchens are currently insufficient. Adequate supplies are rarely available in times of peak demand, and the variety or quality of these rations generally is poor. Thus, alternative methods of supply need to be considered.

One possible solution is to encourage private businesses to dispense excess foodstuffs to the homeless on a continuous basis. Many restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores already engage in such activities. However, retailers may be concerned that the homeless will "invade" their establishments in search of food, and consequently frighten their patrons. One way around this problem is to have one or more central locations within a community where retailers can drop off food and the homeless can come to receive provisions. Second Harvest, which collects foodstuffs from manufacturers and grocers, distributes $700 million worth of food annually through such a program (Schlossberg 1989). Local governments can enhance this distribution process by providing public buildings for storage and dissemination, and tax incentives to donating firms.

Obviously, not all of the homeless will be able to take advantage of these opportunities. As mentioned earlier, due to physical and/or mental illness as well as problems associated with substance abuse, some persons may require greater attention. Unfortunately, the current system of support through the municipal shelters and local mental and physical health clinics is inadequate. Many homeless persons would rather risk freezing to death on the streets than stay in the shelters. Further, many make use of community health facilities as a last resort rather than as a means to maintain or improve their functioning. Thus, more humane facilities that treat the homeless with dignity, reduce the "red tape" associated with utilization, safeguard cherished possessions, and facilitate physical and mental health through quality care are needed.

There are no easy solutions to the problems of the homeless. Clearly, more resources are needed. However, a more important change that may be necessary is perceptual (Gibbs 1990). Unless lawmakers as well as private citizens believe that all members of our society have the right to clean, safe, and sanitary shelter, nutritious and palatable food, and consistent and high quality health care provided in a dignified environment that allows for independent living, the outlook for significant reform is doubtful (see Pear 1991 for a pessimistic look at the treatment of the homeless by public officials under a 1987 law designed to provide additional housing options).


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