A new study portrays homeless people in shelters in Maryland as suffering more from economic problems than from drug or alcohol abuse, although researchers acknowledge that many causes of homelessness are related.
Advocates for the homeless plan to use these findings to lobby for higher taxes to support expanded programs for housing and jobs.
The study helps settle the question, "Are they worthless bums, or are they trying to find jobs and housing?" said Norma T. Pinette, director of Action for the Homeless, which released the study yesterday.
Most homeless people are "engaged in productive activities trying to improve their situation," she said.
Dr. Anne B. Shlay of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, who carried out the research, acknowledged that many causes of homelessness, such as substance abuse, low income, lack of affordable housing, evictions and domestic problems may be linked. "Acute poverty is a manifestation of an array of factors," Dr. Shlay said.
The study does not include people living on the street, or those who move in with friends or family after losing their homes.
The study of the demographics of those occupying homeless shelters in Maryland was based on what shelter providers knew of their clients.
Of the 159 providers in the state, 117 shelters responded, ranging from emergency shelters to transitional housing. The study covered 2,903 homeless people who were staying in those shelters at some point during the week of Sept. 22-28, when the survey was taken.
Among the key findings:
* People living in shelters were working at changing their circumstances. Of the adults, 34 percent were reported to be looking for housing as their main activity, with 13 percent seeking jobs. And 18 percent were employed; 8 percent involved in obtaining education; 2 percent in job training; and 11 percent in drug treatment or in drug- and alcohol-support groups.
* Most had insufficient income. Of the adults, 18 percent were working and 37 percent were on public assistance, with a few more receiving other kinds of government benefits. But 13 percent had no income.
* Economic factors were found to be the main reasons for homelessness, as determined by shelter providers sifting through a variety of reasons given by their clients. Twenty-seven percent were unable to find affordable housing, 3 percent were jTC under-employed, 12 percent had incomes too low and 9 percent were unemployed. Other major reasons included drug or alcohol dependency, 13 percent; evictions, 11 percent; domestic abuse, 9 percent; mental illness, 9 percent; and family breakup, 3 percent.
* Children with their families made up 33 percent of shelter dwellers, although single men remained the largest group of homeless people -- 36 percent.
* Shelters turned away 1,276 people. The reason in 80 percent of those cases was lack of space. About 7 percent of those seeking help were denied because of their bad behavior. Some people were turned away because the shelter was inappropriate for the client.
Among solutions proposed by the homeless advocates are restoring state money cut from public assistance grants, creating more shelters, building more low-income housing and expanding services for health and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.