The “A-B-Cs” of Homelessness

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can’t solve.   

— Linda Lingle

We’ve all seen them – the homeless, standing in an intersection, cardboard sign in hand, asking for help; a group of men milling about a community park waiting for dusk to hit so they can sleep undisturbed by the police; a mother with a young child at her side standing outside a store with a cardboard sign stating that “anything would help.”  We also see the makeshift shelters along highways and urban alleys . . . .  These are the modern images of the homeless, but the history begins at the earliest inception of our country.  Kenneth Kusner (2002) notes that there were reports of “vagrancy” as early as 1640 in America (p. 13).  In the early days of our country, the ravages of war could be blamed for many who found themselves homeless (Kusner, 2002).  Joblessness was also blamed for homelessness, as was illness and old age (Kusner, 2002).  These early contributors to homelessness still exist today and, like our ancestors, we have very mixed attitudes regarding those who are homeless.  Many, in our history and today, think of the homeless as lazy, alcoholics, or drug users and tend to blame the person for his/her situation.  It is time to stop painting homelessness with a broad and unflattering brush and examine the variables that are responsible for each individual’s consequences.  One of the hallmarks of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is that we do not use “cookie cutter” approaches to change a person’s situation; we individualize our approaches.  We need to do away with the labels and preconceived notions of homelessness and examine the variables leading to each individual’s situation.


Continuums of Care (CoC) are organizations that provide for a variety of services in a specific geographic location (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD], 2017).  While coordinating services for those who are homeless, they also conduct Point-in-Time “estimates” of the homeless – both sheltered and unsheltered – on one day in “the last week of January: each year” (HUD, 2017, p. 1).  These estimates provide a point of comparison regarding the growth or decline in homelessness with previous years (HUD, 2017).  The 2017 statistics are staggering.  According to the estimates, 553,742 individuals were homeless in the United States (HUD, 2017, p. 1).  Of these, 184,661 were families with children; 40,799 were unaccompanied youth (under 18-years and 18-years to 24-years); 40,056 were veterans; and 86,962 were those with a history of homelessness (usually those with disabilities) (HUD, 2017, p. 1).  These numbers paint a stark picture of the homeless situation in America, but we need to put “stories” with the numbers to begin to understand this situation.

Their Stories

Heather, from Sacramento, had full custody of her three children when she was injured in a bicycle accident in 2011 (Doering, 2016).  With a laceration to her liver and a damaged kidney, she was bleeding internally (Doering, 2016).  At the time of the accident, she was staying with “friends” (Doering, 2016).  When released from the hospital, she discovered that the “friends” had found her key to her storage building and had taken all of her things (Doering, 2016).  The father of her children also moved to gain custody of the children while she was in the hospital (Doering, 2016).  She lost everything of earthly value to her (Doering, 2016).

Sara Jean has made her home on Venice Beach in California (Doering, 2016).  Only 18- or 19-years-of-age, she doesn’t want to talk about how she ended up trying to survive on her own while still a child (Doering, 2016).  While she would not share her story, she did share some of her poems.  They are worth sharing:

I never lost count of the stars; I just lost track of my reason to count them.

I still look at them every night and pretend I am as important as that little speck in the sky.

But my light doesn’t shine so far, and there are a million lights just like mine.

(as cited in Doering, 2016).

The personal stories of veteran homelessness are hard to find.  However, we know there are over 40,000 veterans who struggle with issues of survival on the streets every day (HUD, 2017).  While many have found services that have allowed them to obtain housing, there are many more who do not realize that they have a right to such services.  Returning home and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder; physical injuries; and the challenges of acclimating to day-to-day living is then complicated by the need to obtain work, pay for medical bills, and stave off impending homelessness.  Michael, a father of three, found himself on the streets after he lost his job (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016).  Thankfully, a program, Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), was able to secure a housing voucher for Michael, but others are still out there – fending for themselves in what must seem like insurmountable circumstances (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016).

When one thinks of homelessness, college students rarely come to mind; however, 150,000 students who submitted their Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to obtain Pell Grants for college reported that they “have been” or are “at risk of becoming homeless” (Field, 2017).  Jill describes her 6-weeks of living out of her truck during college as her “internship” that “shaped” her “perspective” (Wang, 2016).   She talks about not being able to do “it all,” i.e., “paying for tuition, housing, books . . . .” (Wang, 2016).  It forced her to make decisions she didn’t anticipate having to make.  During this difficult time, she ate “fast food, snack bars” and had food stamps (Wang, 2016).  She recounts bathing “at the campus gym or friends’ houses” (Wang, 2016).  One can only wonder how she was able to maintain the drive to keep pursuing her dream of a college education.

These stories are not isolated ones.  And, while a glimpse at personal stories allows us to obtain perspective at the widely varying experiences, it doesn’t help us to identify possible solutions to the problem.  For that, we must turn to behavior analytic approaches – specifically, identifying the antecedents and responses that lead to homelessness.

The Variables that Contribute to Homelessness

Ultimately, most homelessness is a result of lack of sufficient funds, but the causes for that lack are varied, i.e., medical bills; job loss – or a reduction in hours worked; divorce forcing one to make do on 1 income instead of 2; increase in expenses; etc.  Whatever the cause of the insufficiency in discretionary funds, that insufficiency influences day-to-day, and moment-by-moment, decisions.

Let us consider the deficit in funds as a setting event that, depending upon its duration, influences other setting events, such as the development of anxiety when one must repeatedly choose what bills to pay and gamble on the results of those decisions.  Setting events, while not discriminative stimuli, influence one’s response to discriminative stimuli (Wahler & Fox, 1981).  Considering the “context” of responses to discriminative stimuli is important to understanding the progression of events leading to homelessness (Killu, 2008, p. 142).

To discover how setting events; immediate and delayed reinforcers/punishers; and motivating operations (MO) can come together to influence decisions, let’s observe a few hypothetical choices of a single mother of two young children who is working, but is not making enough to pay all of the bills.  It is the third week of the month and the rent is due the end of next week.  Mom has been late with the rent for the last few months and last month, she paid the rent a full three weeks late.  The landlord wasn’t happy.  She shakes her head as if trying to rid herself of her concerns about money when she realizes it is 6:30 p.m. and the children are milling about in the kitchen cabinets looking for something to eat.  They only had toast for breakfast (MO).  The pantry contains just a few cans of vegetables and there is no meat in the fridge.  Mom is definitely feeling the pressure!  She can go without food for a while, but the children cannot. While keeping a roof over the family’s head is a priority, so is feeding the children.  In this case, the immediacy of the need to feed the children trumps the delayed consequence of not paying the rent.  Eating is an immediate need and the delayed problem of eviction is somewhere in the murky future.  One will deal with that situation when it comes.  Paying the car payment and buying gasoline is also one of those decisions that must be weighed in the light of immediate versus delayed consequences.  To keep her job, she must keep the car – another stressful decision made.

As Mom moves through the month, one stressful decision after another is made, each one influenced by the immediacy and urgency of the need.  And, as those decisions are made, the ability to pay the rent at the end of the month becomes more and more remote.  How much longer will the landlord patiently wait for the rent to be paid?  This question keeps Mom up at night – another setting event that will influence her decisions in the days that follow.


The young mother and her children in our hypothetical scenario will become another number in the homeless statistics – unless she has a support system to which she can turn.  Due to the many different types of homelessness, it is difficult to determine the average duration of homelessness.  Those who live on the streets, as opposed to living in shelters, are impossible to number.  With that said, there are some statistics regarding average length of stay in emergency shelters; transitional housing; and permanent supportive housing.  The National Coalition for the Homeless (2009) reported that the average stay for men in emergency shelters was 69 days; the average for women was 51 days; and for families, the average stay was 70 days (para. 5).  Single men stayed an average of 175 days in transitional housing; single women stayed an average of 196 days; and families stayed an average of 223 days (The National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009, para. 5).  Those staying in permanent supportive housing averaged the longest stay “with 556 days for single men; 571 days for single women; and 604 days” for families (The National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009, para. 5).

While there are many supports offered once an individual or family becomes homeless, the statistics of the duration of homelessness tell a bleak story of the challenges of climbing out of homelessness.  There are also high costs associated with these supports.  Estimates of tax payer cost for each person living on the streets for one year can range from $35,000 to $150,000 in public services (Moorhead, 2012).  Considering the cost in quality of life of the homeless and tax payer dollars, it seems logical to address the problems leading to homelessness before homelessness becomes a reality.

Prevention through Antecedent Modification

We will always need the services that are currently being offered to help those who, for whatever reasons, find themselves homeless; but, for each person we transition from dependence to independence, there are many more who step in to take their places.  We must put services in place that will prevent homelessness if we are ever going to reduce the numbers of homeless in America.

Meeting basic needs is a great place to start.  Remember our single mother of two?  Her priorities were keeping her children fed and keeping her job.  Certainly, food stamps can act as an antecedent modification to prevent hunger, but many who work and have their own automobiles, do not qualify for food stamps.  Services must be designed to mitigate life events that lead to homelessness. Let’s explore some possibilities:

  1. Food vouchers based upon family size and income that stay in place for a minimum of 3-months – to be extended based upon individual circumstances at the end of the 3-month period (for those who do not qualify for food stamps).
  2. Gasoline cards with preset limits for 3-months – to be extended based upon circumstances at the end of the 3-month period.
  3. Day care vouchers for families meeting specific criteria.
  4. Rent/mortgage subsidies for those meeting specific criteria.
  5. Vocational training/secondary and post-secondary education.

Above and beyond the provision of supports to meet basic needs that, if in place, can allow individuals and families to work to stabilize their situations, psychological counseling and medical care should also be provided.

While this sounds like a costly endeavor (and it is), the benefits to individuals and to our society far outweigh the costs.  The latest estimate of the yearly tax dollars supporting someone living on the streets is $40,000.  Multiply that by the current estimates of homelessness, 553,742, and you are spending over 22 billion dollars every year.  George Washington Carver said, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”  We must have a vision of a society in which we set our fellow man up for success.  Working to prevent homelessness is just one way we can change our world.

Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it.

John D. Rockefeller


Doering, J. (2016). Homeless interviews. Retrieved from

Field, K. (2017, February 26). Colleges struggle to help their hungry and homeless students. Retrieved from

Killu, K., (2008). Developing effective behavior intervention plans: Suggestions for school personnel. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43, 140-149.

Kusmer, K. L. (2002). Down and out, on the road: The homeless in American history.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Moorhead, M. (2012, March 12). HUD secretary says a homeless person costs taxpayers $40,000 a year. Retrieved from

The National Coalition for the Homeless. (2009). How many people experience homelessness? Retrieved from

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2017). The 2017 annual homeless assessment report (AHAR) to congress. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2016). Journeys through homelessness and housing instability end positively for three Beckley veterans. Retrieved from

Wahler, R. G. & Fox, J. J. (1981). Setting events in applied behavior analysis: Toward a conceptual and methodological expansion, 14, 327-338.

Wang, F. (2016, September 7). Homeless in college? One former student shares her story. Retrieved from


Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University.  Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.

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