Mentally ill people turned out of institutions, crack-cocaine use on the rise, more poverty, public housing a shambles: as attempts to explain homelessness multiply so do the homeless—and we still don’t know why. The first full-scale economic analysis of homelessness, Making Room provides answers quite unlike those offered so far by sociologists and pundits. It is a story about markets, not about the bad habits or pathology of individuals.
One perplexing fact is that, though homelessness in the past occurred during economic depressions, the current wave started in the 1980s, a time of relative prosperity. As Brendan O’Flaherty points out, this trend has been accompanied by others just as unexpected: rising rents for poor people and continued housing abandonment. These are among the many disconcerting facts that O’Flaherty collected and analyzed in order to account for the new homelessness. Focused on six cities (New York, Newark, Chicago, Toronto, London, and Hamburg), his studies also document the differing rates of homelessness in North America and Europe, and from one city to the next, as well as interesting changes in the composition of homeless populations. For the first time, too, a scholarly observer makes a useful distinction between the homeless people we encounter on the streets every day and those “officially” counted as homeless.
O’Flaherty shows that the conflicting observations begin to make sense when we see the new homelessness as a response to changes in the housing market, linked to a widening gap in the incomes of rich and poor. The resulting shrinkage in the size of the middle class has meant fewer hand-me-downs for the poor and higher rents for the low-quality housing that is available. O’Flaherty’s tightly argued theory, along with the wealth of new data he introduces, will put the study of homelessness on an entirely new plane. No future student or policymaker will be able to ignore the economic factors presented so convincingly in this plainspoken book.