People Who Are Homeless in the United States

Homeless are individuals without a safe, affordable place to live. They may spend the night in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, on the street, or in other places not meant for human habitation. Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes and solutions. People who are homeless experience a range of issues that must be addressed in order to end their homelessness and get them into stable housing.

The most common cause of homelessness is lack of income. For families, this means not having enough earned or unearned income to cover the cost of housing. For single adults, it may mean having no job at all or working for wages below the poverty line. A recent study found that people who are homeless, or “houseless,” often have severe rent burdens, meaning that more than half of their income goes toward paying their rent. A loss of income can lead to homelessness in a matter of weeks. Unanticipated health care or repair costs, a reduction in hours at work, or a sudden increase in rent can all lead to homelessness.

Many of those experiencing homelessness are people who have been formally diagnosed with mental health or substance use issues. One in five of those interviewed in a large statewide study done by the UC San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative wanted, but could not access, treatment for these conditions.

A number of federal initiatives have helped to combat homelessness in the United States. The first was the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which was passed in 1977 and defines homelessness to make it eligible for federal funds. The act also provides a variety of housing assistance and support services for persons experiencing homelessness.

While some populations have experienced significant reductions in homelessness, overall rates remain alarmingly high. The 2022 Point-in-Time (PIT) count saw record high levels of homelessness among individuals, particularly among people who are experiencing chronic homelessness. The majority of those individuals are people who are living alone, rather than in families. Within the population of individuals, men are far more likely to experience homelessness than women. This reflects holes in the social safety net, challenges within feeder systems, and barriers to rehousing that must be addressed.

People who are homeless also vary by race and ethnicity, gender, and age. People of color, especially those in the African American community, have higher rates of homelessness than other groups. They are more likely to be veterans, and they are more likely to experience unsheltered homelessness than those who are white. Those who identify as transgender or nonbinary are also more likely to experience homelessness, and their rates have increased dramatically since 2015. These population subgroups all have unique needs that must be addressed in order to end their homeless. Continuums of Care (CoCs) must develop strategies and programs that are informed by the specific circumstances and barriers they face. This includes working closely with local communities to identify the most effective ways to collaborate to meet those needs.