The Growing Problem of Homelessness

The term “homeless” describes people who lack permanent and affordable housing. They may live on the street, in shelters or missions, in motels, hotels, camping grounds, cars and other places not meant for human habitation. People can also be homeless if they are living in substandard housing, including homes that don’t meet local health and safety codes or have mold, vermin infestations and unsafe ventilation.

Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes. It’s often linked to poverty, high housing costs and a lack of access to jobs that pay enough to afford rent or mortgage payments. It can also be caused by the loss of a job, especially if the worker’s wages are too low to afford the cost of living in their community.

People with mental illness, addictions and other challenges are at greater risk of experiencing homelessness than others. But there are also societal factors that can contribute to homelessness, such as gaps in the social safety net, challenges in feeder systems and barriers to rehousing. Women, families with children and people who identify as LGBTQ are all disproportionately represented among America’s homeless population.

A common myth is that homelessness only affects the mentally ill or those with substance abuse issues, but the reality is much more complicated than that. People are at risk of becoming homeless even if they don’t have mental or physical disabilities. Some of them are simply caught up in a vicious cycle: they lose their jobs, can’t find other employment and, unable to pay their rent or utilities, get evicted. Then, if they can’t find another place to live, they end up on the streets.

The number of Americans experiencing homelessness is growing — particularly among certain groups. Since 2015, the share of unsheltered homeless people has increased significantly in states where housing costs are highest and poverty is most prevalent. This includes California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, all of which have seen increases in their homeless populations that exceed 35 percent. Other groups that have seen significant increases in homelessness include people who are African-American (38 percent), Latino (77 percent) and American Indian (61%).

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 653,104 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in January 2023. Those numbers are up from the prior year and represent a yearly increase of more than 150,000 people.

The causes of homelessness are numerous, and no single solution will work for everyone. But there are some things that all communities can do to reduce the number of people who are without a roof over their heads. Start with identifying and acting on the root causes of homelessness, which are often tied to poverty, lack of access to good-paying jobs and discriminatory housing practices. This will help create a more inclusive society and help all Americans thrive. To do that, we must work together to ensure that everyone has a safe, secure and affordable place to call home.