Homeless Awareness and Prevention

Homeless is a state of being that occurs when a person or family lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. People experiencing homelessness often live on the streets, in shelters or in abandoned buildings. They may also stay with friends or relatives or reside in motels or cars. Homeless people frequently suffer from mental health issues and substance use disorders. They are at higher risk of exposure to illness, especially infectious diseases such as the flu and COVID-19.

In the United States, homelessness is a persistent and complex problem. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), on any given night 653,104 Americans were homeless, up from 624,268 in 2023. The number of families with children who were homeless rose by 35 percent, and the number of veterans who were homeless increased by 17 percent. The rise in homelessness has largely been tied to the ongoing affordable housing crisis, with significant increases in sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations across the country.

There is growing recognition among experts that the causes of homelessness are multifaceted and must be addressed through a combination of strategies. Those strategies include increasing funding for research; training the next generation of leaders on the subject; and providing more resources to communities struggling to address the issue.

It has been long recognized that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty, but there are other causes as well. A large body of academic research has found that housing costs are the most powerful predictor of homelessness. Homelessness increases when rents rise to levels that low-income households cannot afford. Interventions that reduce housing costs or increase incomes of homeless households generally lead to reductions in homelessness.

While addressing the root causes of homelessness is important, there is an equally compelling argument to focus more attention on prevention. This means not just helping those who are already on the street, but identifying those most likely to become homeless and offering them help before they get there. For example, Koh and her colleagues have found that offering services like job readiness and housing assistance to veterans before they discharge from the military can significantly reduce their chances of becoming homeless within a year.

The national picture can be misleading, as the experiences of individual communities and jurisdictions vary. Some places are managing disproportionately large homeless populations, while others have populations that are smaller than would be expected. Examining the reasons for these variations can provide insights for homelessness prevention efforts elsewhere. For example, the city of Houston began to see a decline in its homeless population when mayor Annise Parker coordinated 100 regional nonprofits and the federal government to offer affordable housing, boost the local economy, and build more low-cost apartments. These efforts are now being replicated in other communities around the country.