Homeless in the United States

Homeless is a term used to describe people who lack shelter, whether they live on the streets or in shelters and other types of temporary housing. Homelessness can be caused by a variety of factors, including a loss of employment, the breakdown of a family, a lack of affordable housing or mental illness. Almost one in three low-income Americans are “housing cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. In the past decade, a sharp increase in housing costs, coupled with a reduction in federal aid programs, has increased homelessness nationwide.

In the United States, homeless people are typically referred to as “street” or “street-involved.” The most common form of homelessness involves families with children, but the majority of individuals experience homelessness in other ways such as living in cars, on sofas or in tents, and some are chronically homeless. People experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of infectious diseases, including Viral Hepatitis C (VHC), Tuberculosis (TB), Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). People who are homeless also have higher rates of non-infectious diseases such as heart and lung disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Historically, the characteristics of individuals experiencing homelessness have varied by region and time period. For example, in the aftermath of World War II, the typical person experiencing homelessness was a white male who lived in cheap hotels and flophouses often known as Skid Row in poor neighborhoods of major cities. In the late 1970s and 1980s, gentrification of urban centers, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, high unemployment and the emergence of HIV/AIDS contributed to an increase in the number of homeless men (Rossi, 1989).

The current increase in homelessness is being driven by a lack of affordable housing in many communities and rising rental and food costs. In addition, a recent decline in federal assistance programs, including emergency rental relief, eviction moratoriums and stimulus checks, has also contributed to the rise in homelessness. The plight of homeless people is particularly acute in large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the cost of housing has been disproportionately high.

A recent study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the number of sheltered homeless persons has increased in all 25 cities examined, with most reporting annual increases ranging from 15 to 50 percent (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1987). In rural areas, the homelessness rate is primarily due to rural poverty and low levels of employment. Those experiencing homelessness in rural areas are more likely to be white than those in urban areas. In addition, Native American and migrant workers are much more likely to be homeless in rural areas than those in urban areas. In addition, those experiencing homelessness in rural areas are more likely than their counterparts in urban areas to be racial minorities. This is partly because fewer people are employed in the farming industry and there are fewer opportunities for other jobs.