Demographics and Social Characteristics of the Homeless


People who are homeless lack a fixed, regular place to live, either because they do not have a home to go to or because their homes have been destroyed by fire or other disasters. People who are experiencing homelessness may also be living in motels or other hotels, staying with friends, or squatting in abandoned buildings. Many people are homeless because they have lost their jobs and cannot afford to pay their rent or mortgages. Others are unable to find work, and still others become homeless because of problems with their mental health or addictions.

Homeless people often suffer from poor physical and mental health, due to lack of access to healthcare services and the stress of living without a home. They are at increased risk of illness and injury because they sleep outside, often in damp and cold weather. Many also experience the effects of trauma, which can lead to emotional and behavioral problems.

Most of the people who are homeless are men, but women and children are also at risk. Homelessness affects all races, but it is more prevalent among people of color and those who have a history of incarceration or who are alcoholics or drug addicts. There is also a great deal of variation in the causes of homelessness, but one factor common to all is that housing costs have been increasing faster than wages.

The majority of the population experiencing homelessness lives in cities. There is a large number of local programs to help the homeless, including shelters, meals, job training and financial assistance. Many programs provide free clothes, furniture, small appliances, school supplies and other personal items. Some offer educational classes, such as ESL and computer skills, and provide financial help and employment services to assist with finding a job.

Homelessness is a complex issue with many different causes and solutions. Some of the most effective approaches are targeted to specific groups of people, such as individuals who are at risk of a mental health crisis, and involve intensive support from specialized providers. Other successful efforts are based on preventing homelessness in the first place, by helping individuals get back into housing as quickly as possible.

There is a wide range of estimates of the number of homeless people in the United States, from a low of 200,000 to over 2 million (see Table 1-1). Research on the demographic and social characteristics of homelessness has been conducted at a variety of sites–shelters, streets, single room occupancy hotels, and community organizations–and on a broad range of topics, including subpopulations of the homeless, such as the mentally ill.

People who are homeless frequently face discrimination on the basis of their housing status and are denied access to many important public benefits, including income supports and health care. Only a few States have laws that allow homeless persons to claim rights against public authorities based on their status, and only a few courts have ruled on the issue of enforceable homelessness rights.