Homeless is a state of being without a fixed, regular and adequate place to live. It can happen to people in all socioeconomic statuses, and is a result of many complex factors. These include lack of affordable housing, loss of employment or income, and a wide range of physical and mental health issues. It is also often the result of poor choices, such as an abusive relationship or alcohol or drug addiction. It is important to remember that a person can be homeless for only a short amount of time, and many people who are homeless do get back on their feet within a year if they receive the proper assistance and support.

The term is often used to describe people who are either without a home or living in unstable housing situations, including transitional shelters and supportive housing programs. However, the majority of homeless individuals are unsheltered—meaning that they sleep outside or in their cars, tents, or other places not fit for human habitation. The official definition of homelessness in the United States includes both those who are residing in temporary shelters and those who live on the streets or in other unsheltered locations, such as abandoned buildings, parks, or under bridges. These individuals do not have access to safe and affordable housing options, and they often face significant barriers to obtaining stable employment, such as past criminal convictions or a lack of training and/or credentials.

A common myth is that homelessness is a choice, and the people experiencing it can simply pick themselves up by their bootstraps if they try hard enough. But, research suggests that the causes of homelessness are much more complicated than a single individual’s actions or lack thereof.

This is why it’s so critical to understand and address the root causes, which are often tied to inequality and discriminatory policies and practices. Some of the most challenging issues to address include a lack of access to high-wage jobs, over incarceration rates, and discriminatory housing practices.

Homelessness is an issue that affects all ages, races and genders, though the underlying problems tend to be more prevalent in certain communities or across specific groups of people. For example, the disproportionately high rates of homelessness among black and Latino youth are due to a range of structural causes, including discriminatory educational and employment opportunities.

A common myth is that all homeless people are single individuals, but in reality, the vast majority of homeless people are families. This is partly because of the way that homelessness data is collected—the majority of homeless services systems use a “point-in-time” count, which is a one-night snapshot of the population sheltered in emergency shelters or other supportive housing programs. This method of counting does not account for the people who live in other unsheltered settings, such as under bridges or in cars, and it can be difficult to track their progress over time. Additionally, local community circumstances vary, so a town may have a shortage of housing options for families and a surplus of beds for individuals.