The Causes and Prevalence of Homelessness

Homelessness is a serious problem that affects individuals and families across the nation. Individuals experiencing homelessness live in a variety of places, including doorways and overnight shelters, on the streets, or even in vehicles and parks. Homelessness has a disproportionate impact on minorities and women. While a number of people experience a single episode of homelessness, others struggle with chronic homelessness, defined as having experienced four or more periods of homelessness within a year.

Despite the wide range of causes, there are many strategies to prevent and end homelessness. Individuals can help by donating money or resources to organizations that provide services for homeless people, volunteering with these organizations, or becoming an advocate. Educating community members on the causes and prevalence of homelessness can help reduce the stigma associated with this issue and improve awareness about available services.

The term “homeless” refers to those without a stable housing situation, which may be a result of poverty, lack of income, discrimination, or other issues. Often, a lack of affordable housing is the root cause of homelessness. Many people living in poverty are “rent burdened,” meaning that they spend more than half of their monthly income on rent or mortgage payments. A loss of income, a medical emergency, or an unexpected expense can quickly lead to eviction and homelessness.

Research has generally focused on the effects of homelessness in urban areas, and there is a paucity of information about rural and suburban experiences of homelessness. However, there is growing recognition that a lack of affordable housing and an inability to afford existing rental homes are serious problems for some communities. The housing crisis has also exacerbated the needs of people with mental health conditions, who are more likely to be displaced from their homes and have difficulty accessing affordable housing.

Although homelessness is a complex and widespread problem, a few success stories have emerged. These examples illustrate that strong leadership, collaborative partnerships, and adequate resources can significantly reduce the numbers of people experiencing homelessness. In addition, preventive measures that focus on transition periods such as military discharge, aging out of foster care, or release from prison can have a significant impact.

Statistical data on the prevalence of homelessness are based on annual point-in-time counts (PIT) of sheltered and unsheltered people conducted by local Continuums of Care. The PIT count occurs in January of each year and is an unduplicated estimate of the total number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night. PIT data are compared to state, county, and city population figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This chapter describes the demographic characteristics of homeless adult individuals, family households, runaway and throwaway youths, the elderly, and those living in rural areas. It also discusses the challenges to effective homelessness interventions and provides an overview of the current state of knowledge about the problem of homelessness in America.