The article “Biltmore building set to take on tenants” was published in The Globe and Mail on February 12, 2014 (Woo S3), which raised several relevant sociological topics, including social inequality, social class, social stratification, poverty and homelessness. Social inequality is expressed in modern society through structured system of stratification, “the ranking of entire groups of people that perpetuates unequal rewards and live chances in a society” (Newman 328), which in industrialized societies is seen in social class, “a group of people who share a similar economic position in society based on their wealth and income” (330). There are two types of social inequality: inequality of conditions, and inequality of opportunities. Housing falls under the category of inequality of conditions, which also includes income, wealth, and material goods. Woo summarizes the debate around a new low-barrier housing project in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, which was created as transition program (between a shelter and permanent housing) in the former Biltmore Hotel building. Using this article, we shall examine these concepts from a sociological perspective and with a focus on North American society, specifically exploring the issue of homelessness, why it occurs and what can be done to eradicate it.
In order to examine social inequality, we must look at why stratification exists. There are two prominent viewpoints in sociology: the structural-functionalist perspective and the conflict perspective. The structural-functionalists believe that because social inequality is inevitable found in all societies in some form, that it must be somehow necessary for the structure to function. However, to counter this point, we must question the assumptions that needs are being met: who’s needs, and for whose benefit? The structural-functionalist approach is reflected in classical theorist Karl Marx’s viewpoint that “capitalistic societies tend to create conditions favorable to class polarization” (Delany 227). It should be noted that Marx had more opinions about the concept of ‘class consciousness’ that cannot be fully explored in this short paper. The other viewpoint of social inequality is the conflict perspective, where theorists believe that social inequality is neither a necessity nor a source of social order, but a reflection of unequal distribution of power and resources in society, which creates conflict. Stratification allows those in a dominant position to exploit their position.
People who are considered homeless are part of the lower class or underclass, and are below the poverty line, which in the United States is defined by how much of the household income is spent on food. However, because these definitions are flexible (essentially arbitrary), it can be difficult for researchers to gather an accurate portrayal of poor populations. Also, if the problem is not visible to the general population, many will not consider it a social problem. The poverty line, being defined by income spent on food, does not take into consideration the fact that housing affordability is a major driver of inequality. In a Tyee series on housing, Andrew MacLeod stated that, “In Vancouver, nearly half of households pay more than the 30 per cent of their income for housing” (30 Jan 2014) and that doesn’t include homeowners who pay for mortgage, utilities, and property tax. In addition to housing affordability, there are other factors that pose as barriers to homeless people. Due to changes in the economy in postmodernism, there is a lack of unskilled or semiskilled jobs available, thereby making employment a significant hurdle for many poor and homeless people (Hurst, 234). As well, since the 1980s, there has been a deinstitutionalization of mental illnesses, as well as declining public assistance for at-risk populations. There is also a large amount of feminization and racialization of poverty, with a higher percentage of those living in poverty to be female, often single mothers, and/or non-White (Henslin, 204). With a lack of public services and support for things like childcare or medical disabilities, many of these further affect systemic homelessness from a macro level, making it difficult or barring poor and homeless populations from raising their social class.
The ‘solution’ to homelessness is not simple; it is a complex issue with a number of societal causes and individual factors. However, the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness (RSCH) recommends solutions that focus on “providing the homeless and at-risk with a stable home” first and foremost, followed by “supporting people through challenges like employment training, establishing freedom from abuse, and becoming physically well” (RSCH, “The Solution”). Citing a 2008 study from Streetohome Foundation, RSCH stated that, “providing an individual with supportive housing costs nearly 50% less than providing services to someone who is chronically homeless”. The City of Vancouver states that more affordable housing and supportive and social housing are part of their goals to end homelessness. However, critics are quick to point out that although developers are encouraged to build ‘market rental’ units, this does not include ‘affordable housing’ or ‘social housing’, both of which also have arbitrary definitions. The flexibility of these definitions is visible in the final draft of the Local Area Planning Process (LAP) for the Downtown Eastside, which the Vision-led City Council will be using to replace the current definition of social housing and low-cost housing. An urban planner quoted in The Tyee stated that, “Unless there is massive government intervention, or some third-party intervention to change the playing field, you’re going to see increasing unaffordability as opposed to heading in the direction of affordable housing” (2 Dec 2013). A 2007 study from Calgary found that “homelessness cost Canadian taxpayers between $4.5 and $6 billion annually”, which included health care, criminal justice, social services, and emergency shelter (Hombs 105). Citing a local planning concept paper in 2000 from the National Alliance to End Homelessness in the United States, Hombs stated that they needed to close the ‘front door’ by “increasing accountability in mainstream programs” and open the ‘back door’ out of homelessness “by increasing housing opportunities, building infrastructure in housing, services and income supports” (9-10). In 2005 the first ever Canadian Conference on Homelessness was held in Toronto in an effort to help cities adopt 10-year plans, share policy research, and tools for groups and individuals (Hombs). These plans called for national goals relating to objectives, metrics and plans to eradicate homelessness. It is still too early to determine any longterm effects of these plans, except that since 2010 the annual Vancouver Homeless Count has remained stable at approximately 1,600 persons (“Vancouver Homeless Count 2013”). The Metro Vancouver’s Homelessness Count, conducted every three years by RSCH, will be taking place March 11-12, 2014.
Considering the prospect of change in social inequality, some theorists believe that socioeconomic mobility is possible within society. Marx and Weber believed that social class was socially constructed—Marx by economic parameters, and Weber through a variety of variables (Delaney). However, although an open system of stratification in societies allows people to move within social classes, thereby achieving status, it can be difficult to break completely from ascribed statuses based on the status quo or ‘norms’ of the society in which one lives. Bourdieu believed that people possess certain kinds of capital—economic, social, symbolic, and cultural—that affected their status and class position in society (Allan). Bourdieu believed that social change was then rooted in symbolic struggles, whereby individuals and groups transform the categories constructed, through which the social world is perceived (181). However, this sense of ability for social change, Bourdieu’s approach of constructivist structuralism, overestimates the degree of agency one has when they are in a lower class position. Neckerman, in the introduction to research papers from the Russell Sage – Carnegie project on social inequality, states that inequality can “rise in quantitatively distinct ways” (xix) where economic changes have different social consequences, for example the poor may fall behind or the rich can spring ahead, thereby increasing inequality. Neckerman uses examples such as difference in education, childcare arrangements, and even a family’s initial class position in society. Several research papers in the hefty volume explore how the political system and public policy play a strong part in socioeconomic inequality, in fact maintaining the status quo or inadvertently increasing inequality by focusing attention on other social issues without considering the full implications.
In examining the causes and issues surrounding social inequality and homelessness, we have addressed the possibility of change and reduction. However, Hurst notes that “US policy has been more concerned with addressing the poverty of individuals than the social inequality of society” (346), which raises a whole number of issues about macro versus micro solutions and causes. Income levels, which are tied to education and qualification, demographics such as age, gender, and race, at-risk populations such as the mentally ill, addicts, and victims of violence, are all factors in the cause of homelessness (Henslin). From the viewpoint of postmodernism, poverty and homelessness cannot be pinpointed to a single causality, but can be seen as part of a social system in the structure of society and the unequal conditions it creates.