Every night, hundreds of thousands of people in America don’t have a permanent, safe place to stay. Homelessness can look like living in a car, hopping from shelter to shelter, or staying temporarily with different people. While collecting accurate data is challenging, there are certain facts human rights advocates should know about homelessness in the United States.
Homelessness in the United States has many causes, but the outcomes always include a lack of safety and vulnerability to other serious issues. Without major changes, homelessness in the US is expected to increase.
#1. There are about half a million people experiencing homelessness in the United States
While homelessness is a global issue, the United States has faced a sharp rise in recent years. In January 2020, 580,466 people were experiencing homelessness. That included people staying in shelters and on the streets. It’s difficult to know if this number is completely accurate. Why? The number comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time (PIT) count. PIT is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on one night in January. That can limit the accuracy of the count. Also, unsheltered youth often don’t seek out traditional homelessness assistance programs, so they can easily be undercounted.
#2. Homelessness has many causes
In the United States, several factors intersect and build on one another to create conditions that lead to homelessness. Poverty is a major cause. While affordable housing has decreased, wages haven’t kept up. This churns up a perfect storm of high housing prices, low pay, and reduced public assistance. A lack of affordable healthcare drives homelessness, as well. Several studies show a close link between healthcare costs and bankruptcy, which can quickly lead to homelessness. While addiction and mental illness can also cause people to lose their housing, research shows addressing poverty, wages, affordable housing, and healthcare costs would significantly reduce homelessness.
#3. Certain groups are at a higher risk of homelessness
According to HUD data, certain groups are more likely to experience homelessness than others. Out of 10,000 men, 22 are homeless, while 13 out of 10,000 women are homeless. HUD data also finds that race and ethnicity affect risk; racial and ethnic groups that have faced marginalization – like Black Americans and Native Americans – experience increased rates. This makes sense considering the long-standing discrimination and inequalities in American society. What about disabled people? According to data described in a 2022 “Immigration and Human Rights Law Review” article, disabled individuals have a higher risk for homelessness. 20% of people with disabilities live in developed countries, but those same countries don’t provide sufficient housing. In the United States, the number of disabled people experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness increased by 8.5% from 2018 to 2019.
#4. LGBTQ+ youth are uniquely vulnerable
For a few reasons, LGBTQ+ youth are at high risk for homelessness. Of the roughly 1.6 million young people who experience homelessness each year, up to 40% identify as LGBTQ+. According to a 2013 Child Trends article, these young people are also more likely to experience homelessness at a younger age than other unsheltered youth. Rejection from family is a common reason. About 50% of teens report getting a negative reaction when they come out, while 1 in 4 get kicked out of their homes. Without safe, stable options, these rejected kids often end up on the streets and vulnerable to violence, criminal activity, and other serious outcomes. Books on homelessness like No House to Call My Own, which was written in 2015 by Ryan Berg, help educate advocates on what LGBTQ+ youth face and how to provide the best care.
#5. Veterans face increased risks, but there’s been significant progress
In the United States, veterans face the usual risks for homelessness – a lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment – but they also have higher risks for mental illness, substance abuse, and social isolation. Historically, these factors have made veterans more likely to experience homelessness than non-veterans. In 2009, The National Coalition for the Homeless found that veterans made up 23% of the homeless population. 47% were from the Vietnam War era, which severely affected returning soldiers. According to a VA survey, half a million of those who served in Vietnam suffered from PTSD, high rates of suicide, divorce, and substance abuse. The real number is likely much higher as surveys tend to only reflect a portion of the truth. Since 2009, progress has been made. In November 2022, HUD published a press release announcing a 55.3% reduction in veterans experiencing homelessness since 2010.
#6. Many cities address homelessness by criminalizing it
Unfortunately, many places in the United States respond to homelessness by categorizing it as a crime. That doesn’t mean laws directly say “being homeless makes you a criminal,” but cities have created webs of laws that end up essentially criminalizing homelessness. “Hiding Homelessness: The Transcarceration of Homelessness” from the California Law Review lays out several examples, including bans on sleeping outside, camping, standing near a building for too long, receiving food, and so on. For unhoused people, it becomes nearly impossible to avoid breaking these laws.
Consequences include harassment from law enforcement, criminal charges, and jail time. Framing homelessness as a crime also increases the likelihood that unhoused people will be treated poorly and face even more marginalization. It also penalizes people who want to help. In October 2022, an Arizona woman was arrested for sharing food with unhoused people in a park. Why? The city had passed an ordinance that forbade people from sharing prepared food in parks for “charitable purposes.” Before her arrest, the retired restaurant owner had been distributing free food for four years.
#7. Homelessness is a health issue
Being homeless can have catastrophic effects on a person’s health. According to a 2019 fact sheet from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, unhoused people have higher rates of illness and die around 12 years earlier than the general U.S. population. Issues include a lack of safe places to store essential medications, an increased vulnerability to communicable diseases on the streets or in shelters, and poor nutrition. Even seemingly minor issues, like cuts, can easily develop into infections. Homelessness also has a major effect on a person’s mental health. While mental illness is a risk factor for homelessness, being homeless makes existing conditions worse and increases mental strain on those who were healthy before. In turn, poor mental health makes a person more vulnerable to substance use, reckless behavior, self-harm, and suicide. When addressing homelessness, the United States needs to understand the health impacts.
#8. Many unhoused people in the United States have jobs
There’s a very common misconception that if unhoused people just got jobs, they could get off the streets. However, in the US, thousands of unhoused people are already employed. In a 2017 survey, 8% of unhoused individuals said they were working part-time, seasonal, or temporary jobs. 27% of unhoused adults with children said they worked part or full-time jobs. In 2018, 10% of the nearly 5,000 unhoused people in San Diego, California said they were working. This number is likely higher because many unhoused people don’t come forward about their housing status. Unhoused people who are working are also likely to hide their status from employers and coworkers to avoid discrimination. A recent analysis also found that most people who experience homelessness get government benefits. The fact that so many unhoused people are working and/or getting benefits already clearly demonstrates that existing support isn’t enough to prevent homelessness.
#9. Homelessness is very stigmatized in the United States
While the causes of homelessness are closely linked to poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and soaring healthcare costs, huge portions of American society see homelessness as a personal issue. The rhetoric around homelessness can be deeply dehumanizing. Narratives about moral failings, laziness, filth, danger, and so on abound. It’s not uncommon to hear public figures talk about homelessness using phrases like “zombie apocalypse” or see news broadcasts film piles of trash or tents while they talk about homelessness like it was an infestation.
A 2021 Psychology Today article highlights a research study on perceptions of homelessness using Twitter. Beliefs about unhoused people being “dirty” were very common, as well as “socially deviant,” “lazy,” violent,” “criminal,” and so on. It was also very common for Twitter users to believe unhoused people brought it on themselves and therefore didn’t deserve help. This widespread dehumanization makes it easier for cities to criminalize homelessness and create us versus them narratives. This fuels further discrimination and violence against the homeless population.
#10. There are effective solutions to ending homelessness
Solutions like framing housing as a human right (which is described in one of the essays in this article) and tackling the roots of homelessness are effective. However, the United States lacks a cohesive, national housing policy. Homelessness solutions are currently left to state and local governments and organizations, which creates a patchwork of efforts with inconsistent results. According to the Coalition for The Homeless, which is the country’s oldest advocacy and direct organization for unhoused people, long-term housing assistance is the best solution. Federal housing assistance, permanent supportive housing, and “housing first” are cost-effective and proven to reduce homelessness.