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Differences in the Sub-Culture of the Homeless

Having been homeless myself and since many people are one emergency away from being homeless themselves, I should take an opportunity to touch on it a bit. This is an updated manuscript I wrote in 2013 regarding the subculture of the homeless. 

The homeless in America live differently than the conventional, mainstream society. They have a culture that is hidden from conventional society. A homeless person is an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. There are many different classifications of homeless people. The homeless in recent years have much more access to technology than ever before. Some homeless people have access to religions that attempt to improve their situation. The ability to obtain clothing and food are variables that impact each homeless group differently. Housing options, finding work, crime, race, and other sociological issues are constant challenges. The homeless do not have access to the same luxuries many Americans enjoy. Even lower-class Americans have so many more luxuries than the most comfortable homeless. I hope to reveal how America views the hidden culture of the homeless inaccurately. By understanding how the homeless is affected by living in the shadows of conventional society, America can understand what causes them to look at aspects of daily life differently, what causes them to struggle, and how to obtain various levels of success.

Conventional society places a lot of social pressure on the homeless to remain hidden, whether society knows it or not. Generally speaking, the homeless are constantly on the move to change their location on a daily basis to avoid being seen. There is a constant pursuit of money, food, and supplies. The homeless are limited in what they can own because they are limited only to what they can carry. They can augment their possession carrying capacity with stolen shopping carts and duffle bags, but this only goes so far.

Women and men often live very segregated lives. Some women are even raped and abused on a regular basis. There are some people that team up together to enhance their lives. However, this can make it harder when two people don’t pull their own weight. This is survival mode for them. Some would say there is a hierarchy to the homeless. Some can appear to lead others, sometimes to benefit them, sometimes not.


In conventional society, there are many distinctions and classifications. The hidden culture of the homeless is no exception. Every distinction in homeless has its own variables and some share some common variables.

Recently Dislocated

Recently Dislocated are people that have found themselves homeless due to some immediate life changing event in their lives. When these people hit the streets, they are understandably frightened by the strange new world and culture that they have entered. It is hard to find people that they can trust and they are unaware how, if at all, they will survive.

The Recently Dislocated will reject the social identity of a street person and will attempt to inform others that they are not like the other street people that they are seen with. If these people are able to develop and manage their non-street relationships they will be more likely to leave the streets and be reintegrated into conventional society. However, if they are forced into increasing their associations with other homeless, their chances of leaving the street diminish. This is a critical time. Failure to make attempts at reintegrating into conventional society marks the beginning of the transition into Straddler status.


Outsiders – Tramps, Hoboes, & Bums

Mentally Ill.


Homeless people have access to everything from laptops and iPhones, to government-provided phones and everything in between. Many homeless people use gadgets to stay connected, aid in job searches, or pursue their own creative interests. A government program for low-income households recently expanded to give free cell phones with 250 minutes and 250 texts a month to people who earn less than $15,000 a year. 


It may be hard to find a solid religious preference throughout the homeless community. Some feel like they have been abandoned by modern religion. However, there are stories of some members of the homeless community who feel compelled by the Christian god to spread their faith. Some religions have made an effort to reach out to the homeless but they have had very poor results in making a lasting impact on this community. Some churches try to bus in the homeless to church services and feed them or offer showering opportunities. For most of the homeless who make it to these meeting on Sunday mornings at the church as part of their weekly routine, the appeal is not so much to participate in the gospel service as it is a solid Sunday meal and an opportunity to shower. Not all of the homeless find value in the meals. For some of them, the gospel service provides the attraction. It gives some a “spiritual lift” for the rest of the week. When a homeless person feels that society is rejecting them, this can be a strong motivator.


Most homeless people rely on charity and donations for their clothing, which means that they tend to wear anything they can get their hands on. Goodwill and Salvation Army are good places for the homeless to find clothing. Because homeless people spend a lot of their time outdoors, their clothing needs usually reflect this by being grungy, tattered, and dirty. It’s not uncommon to see homeless people wearing several layers of clothing to keep warm in the winter. Lack of access to proper clothing options is one of the reasons that the homeless remain homeless. Finding their clothes second-hand and not being able to properly maintain these clothes results in little to no potential job possibilities. Since homeless cannot find and possess certain clothing, their opportunities to advance their lives become limited. 


Most people would initially think the many homeless people go hungry. In fact, America is full of obese homeless people. This is a testament to the amount of food that Americans throw away in this country. Just because homeless people are getting enough food to live, that doesn’t mean the food they eat is sufficiently nutritious. For the homeless, getting the food they need can be a big challenge. Where people who are homeless get food really depends on the town or city they live, the laws that exist in that city, and the kinds of services that are available for people who are homeless. Most homeless obtain their food through a variety of strategies. This includes purchasing food with money that they earn. They may also get food from other people, including friends or people passing by. Some homeless people obtain discarded food from restaurants. People suffering from chronic food deprivation are more likely to steal food or eat food thrown away by others. Many may obtain snacks and meals at charitable food programs.


In reality, one in every 45 children in the U.S. is homeless. This means more than 1.6 million children in the U.S. are homeless. There are many families suffering through the pains of homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has identified 77,157 families experiencing homelessness as of January 2012. The challenges that these families face are exponential when compared to individual members of the homeless community. Many of the values found in a sheltered family exist in a homeless one. Many times, the mother and father of a family feel the burden of providing for children much more than families with more opportunities. Keeping each member of the family safe also presents additional challenges.

A Sociological Perspective of the Homeless Middle Class

A recent report suggests that the middle class are the emerging group of homeless. The economic downturn and the government’s deep cuts to welfare have driven up homelessness over the last few years, raising the number of middle class people living on the streets.

Symbolic Interactional sociologists

Symbolic Interactional sociologists would say that the homeless population as a whole is ostracized from higher socio-economic groups because of some actual exchanges that occur between homeless individuals and those in literally any other economic class considered to be better off than the homeless individual.

Social Functionalist

Conflict Theorists


Many cities offer sheltering options for the homeless. However, most homeless people refuse to use these services. This is mainly due to the issues that exist within them. Most homeless people have issues with trust and safety. So, grouping these people together can create conflict. Many people say that fights break out in these shelters. Also, countless thefts happen in the shelters and these problems discourage people from seeking this as a possible option. The public thinks that they are helping to fix the homeless problem by offering shelters and food but many homeless do not use these services due to the problems that exist within them like theft and violence. In addition, for most, having to get up so early is just the grim conclusion to a bad night. It’s not easy to drift off to sleep in a noisy, smoke-filled room crammed with strangers.

Most homeless resort to finding places to sleep on the street. Separating themselves from the elements usually results in sleeping in cardboard boxes. This is a common sight that most of us are familiar with. The problems posed for the homeless by the erosion of marginal space in downtown area are magnified by the limited availability of such space in other accessible are of the city and by the widespread distributions of caretaker organizations and commercial facilities that figure in their survival routines.


It is the unavailability or inaccessibility of regular work that makes work one of the central dilemmas in the lives of the homeless. Most would assume that the homeless do not work because they are lazy. People in support of this would argue that the large numbers of unskilled jobs are available and that the homeless are simply unwilling to take them, suggesting that these people are unemployed and on the streets because they are undisciplined and slothful. If this is true, then what are the skill levels of the homeless? Are there really enough decent paying jobs for which the homeless qualify? Do the homeless really fail to pursue these jobs? 

The Texas Employment Commission (TEC) discovered that of the homeless that are working, 81% identified as blue collar. Twelve percent of these people had occupations in lower level food service jobs, including cooks, dishwasher, and waiter. Occupational self-identification can be used as an indicator of occupational skill. It is clear that the vast majority of homeless are unskilled or semi-skilled at best.

As far as jobs are concerned, the TEC surveyed want ads for jobs in this skill set. They found only 4.7 percent of the 2,371 listings that could be counted as real job possibilities for the homeless. In light of this finding, to presume that the want ads contain an abundance of jobs that the homeless qualify for appears to be unfounded. The odds are stacked against the homeless in securing regular work. Nevertheless, many homeless people are persistent in their pursuit of work. In spite of its irregular character and low pay, day labor has several advantages for the homeless compared to regular work. A laborer is paid in cash on the same day that they work. In addition, transportation is provided to and from the work site for most day labor jobs. Also, acquisition of a day labor job seldom requires a clean appearance.

Income Supplement

Some homeless people receive some kind of institutionalized income supplements. These are often known as Social Security, Social Security Disability, and unemployment compensation. There are other programs that the homeless take advantage of such as food stamps, WIC – a food supplement program for women, and Supplemental Security Income. Many homeless people receive an income supplement directly from their families rather than from the government. However, due to the lower class status of the homeless and their families, lack of familial support is common.

Shadow Work

Another type of work is seen but rarely talked about: Shadow Work. Shadow Work is a way for the homeless to make money but not in a traditional sense. As in conventional society, the sale and exchange of goods and services are central forms of shadow work. These goods and services are sometimes legal, like personal possessions and junk, but that is not all ways the case. Sometimes shadow work involves illegal exchange like selling drugs and prostitution. Homosexual prostitution is more prominent simply because there are more homeless men than women. It is pursued more often by the younger homeless community.


A common sight of the pursuit of money is soliciting donations in public places. This happens through panhandling and begging. Both strategies are used by outsiders, particularly with tramps and traditional bums. These strategies involve attempts to persuade others to part with money, often quite small amounts, without providing anything tangible in return. Even some homeless feel that begging would bring on considerable shame and embarrassment, especially if they still possess a strong work ethic, as conventional society would understand it.




One can’t assume that the homeless are in need of help. For the most part, life in this culture is business as usual. It may appear strange or foreign to a conventional society. It is clear that there are some huge disadvantages to being homeless in comparison. However, many homeless people do not want the life shared by most people. There are those that do. It is clear that once the mind frame of a person has made the transition from the norms and values of conventional society to that of the homeless culture, statistics show that it is very difficult for that person to return to their previous lifestyle. This isn’t to say that it cannot be done, but there are some inherent challenges. Homelessness is an attitude. It is a way of life. For some, they have to adapt and for others they are born into it. Some people never accept it and one can hope that they find the means to leave that life. Either way, hopefully there is a way to live harmoniously with one another.


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