Homelessness, in the broadest sense of the term, refers to people who do not have a safe and stable place to live. They might sleep on the street, in a shelter or a transitional housing program, or on someone’s couch. Regardless of how they live, they don’t have an adequate income or means to pay their rent, or they are living with a mental illness or disability that makes it difficult to work or live independently. While many homeless individuals get back on their feet relatively quickly, a significant number do not. These individuals are considered chronically homeless, and they need specialized support services to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

Despite the common perception that everyone experiencing homelessness is an “unstable” or “transitional” individual, there are several distinct subgroups within this population. In the United States, a majority of those experiencing homelessness are single adult men and women. Other subgroups include families with children, youths and elderly persons. The demographic makeup of these groups can vary greatly depending on where and when the data is collected, as the characteristics of homelessness often fluctuate over time.

For example, the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has reshaped the population of homeless individuals, as has a growing focus on the need to address health-related issues among those struggling with psychiatric disabilities and substance use disorders. These trends have led to a shift in the focus of research and policy efforts towards more holistic solutions, including community-based care, job training and housing assistance, with a particular emphasis on those who experience persistent mental illness or co-occurring disorders.

These factors have also impacted the underlying causes of homelessness. A lack of access to high-wage jobs, over-incarceration and discriminatory housing practices are all key contributing factors, which will require thoughtful solutions with an equity lens rather than quick superficial fixes (such as offering free one-way bus tickets out of town).

The numbers of those experiencing homelessness can be difficult to accurately track. Many cities and towns conduct a point-in-time count, which involves documenting the number of people sleeping on the streets, in shelters or other places not suitable for habitation, on a given night. These counts are mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for organizations that receive federal assistance funds. However, the accuracy of this data is impacted by the difficulty of tracking those who do not frequent shelters or other forms of public assistance.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that on any given night in the United States, 735,000 individuals are homeless. While the homeless population experienced a brief pause during the pandemic, the numbers have been rising since 2017 in part because of a shortage of affordable housing and a sharp rise in rental prices. The Biden administration has stepped up its efforts to tackle the crisis, but there is still much more work to be done. Many homeless people struggle to maintain employment and afford the cost of housing, and are at risk for long-term chronic homelessness unless they receive appropriate interventions.