The Global Problem of Homelessness


Homeless are individuals and families who lack a safe and affordable place to live. A lack of housing is one of the leading causes of homelessness, along with poverty, unemployment and substandard living conditions. Other contributing factors are speculation in real estate, privatization of civic services and urban “gentrification”, natural disasters, destruction or displacement caused by war, as well as economic changes such as the increasing cost of rent and rising income inequality. Homelessness also impacts women, children and youth in particular. It can also have a negative impact on health and well-being.

While the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased globally, a precise figure is difficult to determine. Different definitions and methodologies of homelessness lead to a range of estimates, with some authorities reporting significantly higher numbers than others. The Homeless Definitions Working Group of the United Nations Human Rights Council, for example, has identified six definitions of homelessness and concludes that the number of homeless people in the world is likely between 100 million and 300 million, depending on which criteria are used (see A/HRC/31/54).

Moreover, a lack of data about specific groups of people who experience homelessness results in inadequate policy responses. For example, research on homelessness has largely focused on urban areas. Consequently, little is known about homelessness in rural and suburban communities. This gap in knowledge is particularly concerning given that, at the local level, resources and systems are often adapted to meet the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

The report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, addresses this issue by drawing attention to the intimate connection between the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing and virtually all other human rights. It explores the diverse social, cultural, economic and linguistic contexts in which homelessness is experienced, as well as the complex relationship between its various forms: deprivation of access to adequate housing; severe and persistent exclusion and discrimination; loss of dignity; and extreme vulnerability and precarity.

There is a growing recognition that the current situation of homelessness in many countries is not sustainable and that the underlying drivers need to be addressed in order to achieve sustainable solutions. However, the implementation of this agenda requires a comprehensive approach to policymaking at both the national and local levels.

The number of people experiencing homelessness on any given night is highly variable across states and metropolitan areas. In general, the greater the population of a city, the larger its homeless population. The HUD Point-in-Time Count for 2022, for instance, reported that the homeless population of Salem County, New Jersey, was only about 20 while that of Los Angeles was more than 170,000. This variation in the size of homeless populations can have profound implications for resource allocation and system planning.