The Homeless and Its Characteristics

Homeless is an unfortunate term that is used to describe people who lack a stable place to sleep or live, and they may reside in a variety of places such as doorways, overnight shelters, parks, bus stations, etc. Homelessness has caught the attention of many Americans over the last several years as its numbers have increased and as the characteristics of this population have shifted.

The population of people experiencing homelessness is incredibly diverse. There are many pathways that lead to homelessness, and research and community organizations increasingly recognize the importance of developing programs, services and supports that take into account the distinct challenges faced by specific sub-populations (see Chapter 1 for more on this).

While some individuals become homeless as a result of a crisis event such as natural disaster, war or domestic violence, most fall into housing insecurity because they are severely rent burdened. They pay more than half of their income on housing, and any change in their financial circumstances-reduced hours at work, a health care or utility bill that they can’t afford, an unexpected repair to the unit they’re living in-may make them homeless.

Single adults and youths who have not enrolled in school may experience homelessness because of poverty or a lack of family and community support. They may also become homeless because of mental illness or addictions, but it is important to note that most homeless people are not mentally ill (see Chapter 3 for more on this).

Families with children have the highest incidence of homelessness and are a rapidly growing segment of the overall population. Their numbers are growing because families are being dislocated from their communities due to gentrification and the spread of affordable housing, and they are often forced out of their neighborhoods by foreclosures and other market forces. In addition, they face unique challenges that arise from the need to combine housing and child care in ways that are not always feasible.

Although there are success stories, there is no doubt that the number of homeless children and their parents continues to increase. They are a particularly vulnerable group because of the complexity of their needs, and they are at greatest risk from substance abuse and domestic violence, which have been linked to increased homelessness in this population (see Chapter 4 for more on this). Despite the rising number of homeless families, there is a good deal of evidence that strong leadership and multidisciplinary collaboration can significantly reduce the number of people who are displaced. Prevention, including interventions focused on transition periods like military discharge, aging out of foster care and release from prison, can dramatically reduce the number of homeless children.