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Problem of Homeless and Mass Incarceration in USA


Homelessness is the problem that influences the life of the whole society adversely. It especially is critical for the USA as almost half a million of citizens do not have their own houses or flats. They do not have the opportunities that the representatives of the general public have and cannot afford even some basic products. Being put in such condition, homeless individuals have to break the law and commit crimes (such as stealing food) even though they are not intended to do so, which leads to mass incarceration.

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The homeless do not have any safe dwelling and often live in crime-ridden neighborhoods. This influences their behavior and increases the chances of becoming drug or alcohol addicts, which makes homeless individuals even more likely to become incarcerated. Except for that, persons who were imprisoned often have no or underpaid job that does not provide these people with money enough to have a decent residence, which makes them a vulnerable population (Johnson para. 12). Thus, homelessness and incarceration are seen as tightly connected concepts that influence each other and are in a two-fold correlation. In this way, it is important to consider what makes homeless people commit crimes that result in imprisonment.

It is critical for the general public and government to realize the connection between homelessness and incarceration because it is the milestone in the process of solving the problem. One of my main sources is the report prepared by Eric Johnson, a professional correspondent for Reuters, who focuses on the news and politics. I also referred to the article published in the New York Times Drug Addicts among the Homeless. It was written by a well-known science journalist Gina Kolata. One more source is Markowitz’s article published in the peer-reviewed journal Criminology. He is an associate professor and an excellent specialist in the field of sociology.

Except for that, I used an article prepared by a former Los Angeles County Prosecutor. Antonio Moore discussed incarceration of African-American men. I thoroughly investigated the work of two Doctors of Medicine. Gonzalez and Rosenheck are efficient in psychiatry and considered the issue of homelessness and incarceration in this perspective. Lerner-Wren is known as a professional in politics and public affairs; she also was appointed to deal with the decriminalization of people who have mental illnesses, which makes her report on this issue authoritative. Patterson’s work is also useful and reliable, as it is written by an experienced counselor who cooperates with the National Health Service Corporation. The report made by the National Coalition for the Homeless provided decent statistical information, as it is working for several years already with the intention to end homelessness.

Currently, the issue is considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Center for Mental Health Services’ ACCESS program, and self-help groups (Johnson para. 2). It prepares reports and initiates reforms meant to provide homeless people with shelters and subsidized homes. There are also various benevolent associations that gather clothes and give free food to the homeless. They encourage others to help these people, hoping that a wider range of opportunities will prevent them from committing crimes based on survival skills (such as stealing food). This proposal will disclose the connection between homelessness and incarceration that is likely to grant the ability to avoid mass incarceration through the reduction of homeless individuals.

The government and the general public should be well aware of the way homelessness leads to mass incarceration because this knowledge can help them to deal with this issue before it occurs and to split this vicious circle. There are two main reasons that can not only cause homelessness but also lead to incorporation. First of all, it is mental illness. People are not able to control it, and nothing really depends on their will that is why it is impossible to deal with this problem without any external help. Mentally ill individuals are led by their instincts and distorted vision. They do not understand that their actions are bad and illegal or fail to realize this in a particular moment.

Because of the adverse mental or emotional condition, people can conduct violent and property offenses, for which they are punished by law. As a result, more than 15% of convicts in prisons and jails are persons with mental illnesses. As their behavior is not likely to improve with the course of time, they are rarely released on bail and have increased the risk of suicide (Markowitz 49).

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Mentally ill persons often left their homes or just occur to be not able to keep them. Becoming homeless, they do not feel safe anymore, which causes anxiety and aggression. Moreover, they have no control and enter unknown, often socially disorganized environment. These people are mainly arrested for “public order” types of offenses, assaults, and robberies (Markowitz 51). Reduction of aggressive policing approaches and hospitalization with required treatment would be more beneficial in this perspective, and would reduce both crime rates and rates of incarceration.

Substance abuse is one more reason for homelessness and institutional confinement. The proportion of people who have no home due to the drug and alcohol abuse is much higher than of those who are mentally ill. Mainly these people are to blame themselves for their adverse position in the society that is why the representatives of the general public are not willing to help them even though it is the way in which they can protect their families. Working-class people often start using substances because they are not satisfied with their lives.

As a result, they make their friends and relatives turn their backs upon individuals they used to care about. Becoming addicted, people stop working and spend all their money on the substances (Kolata para. 11). They start leaving on the streets in the criminal districts because there are more chances to get a new dose there. The same purpose makes addicts conduct crimes and leads to imprisonment. Except for that, they are often not aware of the things they do and become much more aggressive.

In some cases, both reasons of becoming homeless and incarcerated can be found. Dual diagnoses increase the chances of criminal behavior and imprisonment. Gonzalez and Rosenheck state that these people show poorer adjustment and have less clinical improvement than others (437). Thus, they are even more likely to commit crimes and be imprisoned. These people face much more difficulties than others if they want to start a new life and enter the society again. As a rule, they turn out to be unable to alter the situation significantly and are arrested over and over.

Still, it should be taken into account that incarceration can also lead to homelessness. Individuals who have already spent some time in a prison or jail often face society’s reluctance to accept them regardless of the sentence and its justness. Thus, people who were released often cannot find a job that could provide them with the money needed for a residence, clothes, and food. As a result, they have nothing to do but to live on the street or in shelters.

Understanding the correlations between homelessness and crime rates, as well as its connections to the mental disorders and substance abuse in the context of how homeless lifestyle is beneficial to American society. It can help to create a guideline for the government and the general public on how to reduce the number of both homeless people and those who are imprisoned. When it is followed, crime statistics is likely to become more positive, and the USA will be safer than now. Living conditions will improve for the whole population. Less money will be needed to supply prisons, and the workforce can be cut in this sphere, which will have a positive influence on the economy.

However, there are some advantages of the imprisonment of homeless individuals because it is an effective way to make the streets safer and prevent crimes. Except for that, some homeless people prefer to be imprisoned as it allows them to spend time in a warm building with some conveniences and food that are not available on the streets. Still, imprisonment seems to be the most radical intervention that should be omitted if possible.

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Prisons were created to ensure the safety of the general public and prevent criminal from committing crimes. However, it turned out that the number of people who are imprisoned increases greatly with the course of time. Moore even noticed that there are more sentenced African-Americans than educated ones, which proves that something is wrong with the current system (para. 3). Nicole Porter claimed that countries have an opportunity to control crime rates. They develop policies that allow to influence prison populations and select individuals who should be mainly incarcerated.

Between 1965 and 1990, a period during which overall and violent crime rates tripled in Germany, Finland, and the United States, German politicians chose to hold the imprisonment rate flat, Finnish politicians chose to substantially reduce theirs, and American politicians generally enacted policies that sent more people to prison, along with lengthened prison terms (Moore para. 6).

The main reason why such tendencies are seen is the reduced hospital capacity. Both kinds of the homeless population, those who abuse substances and have mental illnesses, require treatment that should be provided in special facilities. As it turned out, this is not decently maintained since the second half of the 20th century, and many people were put behind the bars. This information can be supported by the study in New York. It was found that “the percentage of patients with prior arrests increased from 15 percent in the 1946 to 1948 period to 32 percent in 1969 and to 40 percent by 1975” (Markowitz 48). Ten years later this number was up by 17%. Such changes can be explained by the criminalization of people with mental illnesses.

They were imprisoned even though the majority of the jails had no access to mental health services in the 1990s. As a result, these individuals received no appropriate care and continued to act in the way they used to when being released, which lead to repeated incarceration. The first attempts to solve this issue were made in 2003 by the President’s New Freedom Commission. The delivery of mental health care improved but the situation did not change significantly. In 2015, a collaborative project was created (Lerner-Wren para. 2). Considering its purpose, it will be likely to bring a change in mental health in the USA, which can improve the situation with homelessness and imprisonment.

It is also vital to pay attention to the problem of substance abuse and its connection to homelessness. Patterson states that this issue has been familiar to the US for hundreds of years but it started to attract more attention recently as more kinds of drugs became illegal and their variety increased greatly (para. 7). Except for that, technological development provided an opportunity to create forged IDs and licenses.

The New York State Inebriate Asylum was the first to consider substance abuse as an illness and develop the ways in which it can be treated. It happened in 1864, and in 1996, the Office of Drug Control Policy found out that the number of addicts increased greatly among young populations. While drugs and alcohol were primarily used to improve people’s healthcare condition (reduce pain and kill harmful organisms in the water), they soon became widespread. The 20th century turned out to be a milestone due to the chemical and drug development (Patterson para. 22). Today the number of addicts is believed to reduce due to the laws and limitations, but it remains rather high. These people leave their working places and families and spend all their money on alcohol or drugs even though they cannot afford a place to live.


Homelessness is claimed to be one of the most general pathways to imprisonment among people with mental illnesses. The surveys show that the majority of mentally ill individuals who are imprisoned do not have their own residence. Many mentally ill homeless persons could be prevented from committing crimes if they received decent care. Still, professionals notice a lack of community treatment programs and believe that there are not enough specialists who can help such people. Mentally ill homeless individuals create neighborhood disorder and generate fear.

That is why many states implemented aggressive policing approaches that lead to mass incarceration. This population includes people from 15 to 34 years old. These individuals are rather strong physically, and they maintain an active way of life, which increases the possibility of crime commitment and arrest. Markowitz states that 30% of the mentally ill are found guilty of a violent offense and about 20% committed robbery (50). At the same time, the hospital capacity effect does not exceed 40%, which proves that it fail to pay a vital role in dealing with homeless individuals and preventing mass incarceration.

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The stereotype exists that homeless individuals are those who abuse substances. It is not always true to life, of course, but the report prepared by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2003 proves that such view has its own ground. Almost 40% of homeless people were claimed to be dependent on alcohol. These were mainly the representatives of the older generations. Youth and young adults give preference to other substances, which can be proved by the fact that more than 25% abused drugs (National Coalition for the Homeless 1). 68% of American cities claimed that this issue is their main reason for increased homelessness for single adults and 12% for families.

Moreover, according to the report, two-thirds of the homeless admitted that they lost their residences because of such addiction. Almost 20 million people did not receive required treatment in 2005, which allowed their survival skills to get the better of them and lead to incarceration (National Coalition for the Homeless 1). The issue turns out to be critical because addicted people are not able to control themselves. For example, Norman Moore quit his job and “spent his $10,000 pension in a month, using the money for fast women and drugs” (Kolata para. 11). Thus, it turns out to be clear that the problem of homelessness cannot be solved without external help, and mass incarceration will not be prevented.


Having appropriate home is one of the human basic needs. It is discussed in different perspectives, including home as a native country, friendly society, a place where one feels calm and protected but the meaning of a decent residence seems to me the most vital one. Having no home, individuals tend to lose the sense of being human and yield to their instincts and survival skills. They become rather vulnerable and subconsciously separate themselves from the rest of the society. Being addicted to drugs or alcohol and suffering from mental illnesses, these people turn out to be not able to control themselves.

They commit crimes to get money for goods, food or substances, to protect themselves and their property or just because they cannot realize that their actions are wrong. Taking into account the fact that such populations cannot change the situation themselves and require treatment, it is critical to make the government and the representatives of the general public aware of the issue so that they can initiate programs and reforms to end homelessness and prevent mass incarceration.

Works Cited

Gonzalez, Gerardo, and Robert Rosencheck. Outcomes and Service Use among Homeless Persons with Serious Mental Illness and Substance Abuse. Psychiatric Services 53.4 (2002): 437-446. Print.

Johnson, Eric. More than 500,000 people homeless in the United State: Report, 2015.

Kolata, Gina. Drugs Addicts among the Homeless: Case Studies of Some Lost Dreams, 1989.

Lerner-Wren, Ginger. The Criminalization of Mental Illness: Be a Voice for Justice. 2015.

Markowitz, Fred. “Psychiatric Hospital Capacity, Homelessness, and Crime and Arrest Rates.” Criminology 44.1 (2006): 45-72. Print.

Moore, Antonio. The Black Male Incarceration Problem Is Real and It’s Catastrophic, 2015.

National Coalition for the Homeless. Substance Abuse and Homelessness, 2009.

Patterson, Eric. History of Drug Abuse. n.d.

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