Homeless Community in Southeast Washington, D.C.
Homelessness is one of the most pervasive social problems facing the developed world. Thousands of people experience deprivation and have to spend their lives in the street. Homelessness is a complex product of numerous factors and influences, including the lack of available job opportunities, social resources, support, and community ties. However, whether or not the society can eliminate the problem of homelessness is an open question. Washington, D.C. is one of the most problematic urban territories in terms of homelessness. The shortage of affordable housing for large families and the complex employment situation lead to the growth of homeless population. The goal of this paper is to reconsider the trends in homelessness in southeast Washington, D.C. from the conflict and functionalist sociological perspectives.
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Washington, D.C.: The Spirit of Homelessness
Homelessness is one of the most serious social problems in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. is believed to present the gravest picture of social crisis in America (Spencer, 2013). The former General Hospital provides shelter for 372 adults and 600 children without homes (Spencer, 2013). Families are bound to spend their days and nights in the areas slightly bigger than office cubicles (Spencer, 2013). Washington, D.C. is in the midst of the homelessness crisis. The real number of homeless people in southeast Washington, D.C. remains unclear. However, due to the lack of jobs and affordable housing, the number of homeless residents in the past five years increased by 74 percent (Spencer, 2013). Whole families stay in the abandoned D.C. General Hospital, because they have no other place to go (Gowen, 2013).
In January, 2011, surveyors went to explore the streets of Washington, D.C., in order to count homeless people. 11,988 homeless people were found, compared to 11,774 one year earlier (Gowen, 2011). One third of homeless people are children, and many of them also live in homeless families (Gowen, 2011). The economic crisis, poverty, and foreclosure push whole families to live their lives in the street. Certainly, the economic downturn cannot be held solely responsible for the homelessness crisis in Washington, D.C. Apparently, homelessness is a complex phenomenon that does not develop overnight. Numerous factors and influences contribute to the problem of homelessness. The functionalist and conflict sociological perspectives can shed light on the problem of homelessness and the factors underlying it.
Homelessness through the Prism of Functionalism
Functionalism is one of the most essential theories in sociology. Functionalism considers the society and its processes in terms of social systems and social order (Ravenhill, 2008). The goal of sociological functionalism is to explain how certain systems and processes are maintained through the values and shared norms of society members (Ravenhill, 2008). The functionalist perspective treats society as a complex mechanism, whose parts are closely interrelated. It is a macro-approach to sociology, because it considers the meaning of larger social structures and pays minor attention to individuals (Pearson, 2011). Consequently, any change that affects one of the system elements will inevitably alter the balance of the entire system.
Functionalism provides a remarkable prism for the analysis of homelessness. First, the functional value of home needs to be considered. For all society members, home fulfills the function of a shelter, which provides the sense of security, certainty, and confidence. Ravenhill (2008) writes that home is vital to the society's stability and wellbeing; it is intended to facilitate members' socialization and reduce the personal and collective hazards. In the functionalist model of society, home is a macro-structure, an umbrella term that is not limited to housing. In this model, any disruptions in the home processes inevitably lead to similar disruptions in other elements of the system, such as social relations and the society's financial status.
From the functionalist perspective, homelessness is a serious burden, an obstacle to achieving the most ambitious society's goals. Those, who live in the street, are anomic and deviant. Functionalism pays little attention to the actual causes of homelessness; instead, it stigmatizes homeless people for their social failures (Ravenhill, 2008; Levinson, 2004). Functional sociology suggests that homeless people have broken the shared values and standards of societal wellbeing. They have alienated themselves from the most important social institutions (Levinson, 2004). Looking at the homeless people in Washington, D.C., it is clear that homeless people have little connections with the dominant social institutions, including work and social support. However, the vision of homelessness as deviance is quite problematic and even biased. Moreover, many homeless people manage to maintain close connections with their families, especially when their families also become homeless. Functionalism is not the best instrument of sociological analysis, when it comes to homelessness, mostly because it ignores various macro-phenomena, including economic crises that make people homeless.
Homelessness and the Conflict Perspective
The conflict theory is another major sociological framework. The conflict theory posits that society is always in a state of fight over scarce resources (Pearson, 2011). The conflict vision of society is inseparable from the notion of social inequality (Pearson, 2011). The fight over scarce resources always leads to inequality. In a conflict society, numerous interest groups battle for power (Pearson, 2011). Social inequality and the lack of resources also imply that the social growth opportunities are distributed unequally (Pearson, 2011). As a result, individuals who come from wealthier backgrounds have better opportunities to pursue their social goals, than the society members, who have been born in poverty.
Homelessness in the conflict theory can be associated with marginality, when considerable resources are used to support complex systems, including banking and information, leaving thousands of people beyond the boundaries of social growth and wellbeing. The unequal distribution of resources creates a situation, when highly educated workers get most of their system, while low-paid and low-income layers are left alone in their fight for survival. Homelessness in a conflict perspective is a logical product of the continuous fight for scarce resources – some people manage to get more, and many others lose their houses and jobs. "Resources are focused on metropolitan business centers, downtowns, and the residential neighborhoods of the multinational workers, whereas peripheral, low-income neighborhoods experience resource shrinkage" (Levinson, 2004, p.373). As a result, whole communities break down, making their poor residents extremely susceptible to the risks of homelessness.
The situation with homelessness in Washington, D.C. supports the conflict perspective. In the past several years, the metropolitan center managed to keep the number of homeless residents steady, mainly due to the provision of federal support funds (Gowen, 2011). Those funds were used to prevent homelessness and solve the existing housing problems (Gowen, 2011). In other words, when greater social resources are provided, the problem of homelessness becomes less serious. Certainly, the macro-perspective cannot explain all factors of homelessness, especially those at the individual level. However, it can provide relevant guidance to help the growing homeless populations overcome barriers to a better social status.
The statistics of homelessness in southeast Washington, D.C. is absent, but it is clear that the problem of homeless people in the city is serious and pervasive. The functionalist theory suggests that homeless people are deviant; they have distanced themselves from the major social institutions. By contrast, the conflict theory posits that homelessness is a product of the society's fight for scarce resources. The situation in Washington, D.C. supports the conflict perspective and confirms that the provision of various support resources can help reduce the scope of homelessness in the city.
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