Public Health and Homeless Issues


Homeless refers to someone who is living without a permanent place to live, either in a shelter, transitional housing or on the street. Homelessness is a serious and complex issue with no one answer or simple solution, but it is largely driven by poverty and a lack of affordable housing options. People experience homelessness for a variety of reasons, including job loss, family breakups, illness and mental health issues. People often describe homelessness as isolating, stressful and humiliating. Homeless people are disproportionately racialized, low-income, single adults, people with disabilities and foster youth. Many also have lived with or been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as anxiety and depression.

A growing body of research explores homelessness among a range of subpopulations, including homeless families (Bassuk et al., 1984). However, much of this research has focused on urban areas, and little is known about the needs of homeless people in suburban or rural communities.

For example, in a survey of homeless people conducted by Father Joe’s Villages in California, nearly three quarters said that they had lost their housing because of a change in their financial situation. For some, that meant a reduced income from their job, for others it was the need to pay more rent.

The same study found that the vast majority of those surveyed had experienced mental health problems. But Kushel says that’s not because they were mentally ill, but rather because they didn’t have the resources to address their housing problems and avoid homelessness.

Despite the importance of this work, there is still an enormous gap in knowledge about homelessness across America. Many people in the United States have never seen or spoken with a person experiencing homelessness, and they may have misconceptions about who is most affected. For example, some people believe that people who are homeless can choose to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and that they’re unhoused because they’re lazy.

To help close this gap in understanding, many organizations use a public health framework to prevent and end homelessness. This approach involves tackling homelessness at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. For example, primary prevention efforts include initiatives that create structural changes to make housing more affordable and accessible. Secondary and tertiary prevention initiatives focus on intervening in the lives of individuals who are already experiencing homelessness or are at high risk for it. Lastly, people can get involved by writing to their elected officials and letting them know that housing affordability is a priority for them. They can also prioritize voting for candidates who are committed to addressing the national and local housing crisis. In California, for instance, voters can visit the offices of their state representatives and ask them to support bills that would increase the supply of affordable homes. And they can participate in community events like city council meetings to discuss zoning laws that could affect homelessness. These actions, along with other strategies that focus on creating more housing opportunities, can make a difference for all people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so.