The State of Homelessness and How to Help

Cathy Habas
Updated Apr 9, 2021
7 min read

Sometimes home security isn’t a matter of having the strongest locks or the best monitoring system, but simply having a home in the first place. 

As of early 2021, More than half a million Americans sleep in shelters or on the street. Missing from that figure is the untold number of almost-homeless Americans: those sleeping in their cars, on a friend’s couch, or in their own bed the night before an eviction. 

The causes of homelessness are nuanced. Anyone can find themselves in this situation in theory, but in reality, certain populations face a greater risk of homelessness.

Solving the housing insecurity crisis requires collaboration between policymakers, care providers, non-profit groups, and the general public. A few cities already lead by example, demonstrating that homelessness doesn’t have to be a long-term sentence for those who experience it.


An Overview of Homelessness in the U.S.

The U.S. maintains a specific definition of homelessness and coordinates a census of the homeless population on a near-yearly basis. The collected data provides insight into the efficacy of rehousing programs and reveals which populations are consistently affected by homelessness.


Defining Homelessness in the U.S.

According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a person is considered homeless if they do not have “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The HUD also recognizes people in immediate danger of losing such a nighttime residence, unaccompanied youth, and people fleeing violent situations (i.e., domestic violence, stalking) as homeless. Individuals are considered chronically homeless if they have a disabling condition and have been homeless repeatedly or for longer than one year. 

The HUD’s most recent point-in-time census (January 2019) counted over 567,000 homeless people across the United States. Approximately 70% were individuals rather than people in families, 6.5% were veterans, 6.2% were unaccompanied youth, and 16.9% were chronically homeless. 

Just over a quarter of all homeless people in the U.S. live in California: 151,278 as of January 2019. However, Washington D.C. reports the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the U.S., with 93 out of every 10,000 residents meeting the definition of homeless. That’s nearly double New York’s per capita rate (47 out of 10,000), which represents the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation. 


The Demographics of Homelessness 

Data collected by the HUD suggests that men are at greater risk of homelessness than women, since men represent 60% of the homeless population but less than 50 percent of the general population. 

Non-white and non-Asian Americans are also at greater risk of homlessness. For example, African Americans represent approximately 40% of the homeless population but less than 14 percent of the general population; Latinx or Hispanic Americans represent 22% of the homeless population but 18.5% of the general population; Native Americans and Pacific Islanders represent 4.8% of the homeless population but 0.2% of the general population; and multi-racial Americans represent 6.5% of the homeless population but 2.8% of the general population.

Veterans are also more vulnerable to homelessness than non-veterans. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that veterans represent about 11% of the homeless population, but the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 7% of the general adult population are veterans. Of the homeless veteran population, a disproportionate percentage (45%) are African American, Latinx, or Hispanic.


Homelessness Trends in the U.S. and the World

The overall homeless population in the U.S. decreased by 12.3% between 2007 and 2019. But every city and state has its own story. For example, in the same time period, homelessness decreased by about 70% in Michigan but increased by nearly 72% in South Dakota. Disparities like this reflect differences in economic health and community coordination, among other factors.

On the world stage, the U.S. ranks neither the worst nor the best in terms of homelessness. For example, in France, 217 of every 100,000 people are homeless, compared to 177 of every 100,000 in the U.S. But in Portugal, only 20 of every 100,000 people are homeless. In 2017, Japan reported just 5,534 homeless people out of a total population of 126 million — less than five in 100,000. Meanwhile, the number of unsheltered homeless people in England nearly tripled from 2010 to 2017.

We should note that the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development warns against comparing homelessness statistics between countries, as each may use different definitions of homelessness or different counting strategies. So these comparisons may be less useful than they initially appear. But they do serve to illustrate one point: Homelessness exists to some degree in virtually every country.


How Did We Get Here?

Homelessness in America did not happen overnight. Housing security depends on multiple factors, including the amount of housing available in a particular geographic area, the percentage of one’s income earmarked for rent, and the existence of systemic racism. 


Not Enough Housing

Solving the homelessness crisis is theoretically easy: build more housing. “There is a direct correlation between housing scarcity and homelessness,” explains Dr. Gary Painter, Director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute

But in places like Los Angeles, vacancies and building sites are extremely scarce. “We simply haven’t built to match population growth,” he explains. “We actually don’t have enough housing units for our residents to [avoid living] in quite overcrowded conditions, in many cases.” 

Dr. Painter notes that a functional housing market must reflect the local economy. “California has done quite well, continuing to attract people,” he says, “but we’re not building for that economy.” Crucially, new housing hasn’t been built with the incoming population in mind. For example, minimum-wage workers attracted by the local economy need housing they can afford with such an income. 


Rent Burden

Instead, the available housing options that do become available are typically expensive and create “rent burden,” or financial stress caused by paying more than 30% of one’s income toward rent. Some individuals pay more than 50% of their income toward rent, creating a severely unstable situation that puts them at significant risk for homelessness. 

It’s normal for rent to increase steadily over time due to inflation, but average household wages should increase at a similar rate. When they don’t, says Dr. Painter, “that leads to a larger percentage of the population experiencing rent burden.” In fact, rents and wages have grown at such different rates over the last six decades that the percentage of renters paying more than 30% of their income in rent rose from 24% to 49% between 1960 and 2014, according to analysis from ApartmentList.


Historical and Systemic Discrimination 

People of color are overrepresented in the homeless population, and this didn’t happen by chance. For example, the United States used to ban people of color from residing in certain areas through the now-illegal act of “redlining.” Although this practice has ceased and been duly admonished, some neighborhoods continue to be segregated by proxy

Systemic racism has pervaded the labor markets, housing market, criminal justice system, healthcare industry, and education sector throughout the United States since colonial times. Every instance of institutional racism contributes to the racial wage gap, which makes people of color more likely to face the driving force of homelessness: economic hardship.

In addition, people of color are more likely to be arrested than white people, even when they commit the same crimes. Because landlords conduct criminal background checks on housing applicants, the appearance of an arrest record (with or without conviction) could make it difficult to secure housing. The HUD recently clarified that an arrest record should not be used to deny tenancy, which is a step in the right direction. 


What Can We Do About Homelessness in the U.S.?

Homelessness in the U.S. is not insurmountable. In fact, a handful of communities have demonstrated incredible success in ending veteran and chronic homelessness. But there’s still much work to be done.


Housing Ends Homelessness

Homelessness experts often repeat the mantra, “Housing ends homlessness.” New units must be built where there’s a lack of housing, and the rent for those units must also be affordable. Boulder, Colorado tackled this problem by instituting a “Inclusionary Housing” policy, which states that 25% of newly developed units must be permanently affordable housing. 

Other areas rely on federal housing assistance programs. Additional funds are always needed to move more people into housing. Proposed federal grant programs that would expand funding and reach underserved populations include:

  • The Basic Assistance for Students in College (BASIC) Act
  • The Emergency Family Stabilization Act
  • The Ending Homelessness Act
  • The Eviction Crisis Act
  • The Fighting Homelessness with Services and Housing Act
  • The Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers Act
  • The Housing is Infrastructure Act

Some of these have yet to be debated. The general population can help by calling their representatives and asking them to sponsor or support these bills.


Caring for the Chronically Homeless

Caring for the chronically homeless “is an area where we actually have really strong research and evidence on how to help people,” explains Dr. Painter. “They do need housing first. You can’t treat them before they get housing. You have to put them in housing and then provide the support services there.” 

But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for caring for chronically homeless people. They all have different needs, which must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. When communities make a commitment to find and understand each homeless individual and collaboratively care for them, chronic homelessness can virtually disappear. 

Five communities in the U.S. have already realized such a fantastic achievement: 

  • Rockford, Illinois
  • Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Bergen County, New Jersey
  • Abilene, Texas
  • Bakersfield, California

The nationwide program Built For Zero trains communities in a basic framework proven to end veteran and chronic homelessness. Contact them to learn more.


Addressing Underlying Causes of Homelessness

Preventing homelessness is another important piece of the puzzle. One solution — backed by  research published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — involves raising the federal minimum wage to ease rent burden.

But solving long-established racism and discrimination in our society to diminish homelessness doesn’t have such a clear solution. Still, efforts are being made to remove institutionalized obstacles. For example, the proposed Ensuring Equal Access to Shelter Act and the Fair Chance at Housing Act both aim to protect minority groups (LBGTQ+ and those with arrest records, respectively) from discrimination pertaining to shelter or housing assistance. 


Changing Public Perceptions

Homelessness carries a stigma, and educating the public about the true forces behind homelessness may improve community cooperation and support. 

Dr. Painter hopes to dismantle the misconception of a nomadic homeless population. “I think there’s a pervasive notion that if you’re nice to the homeless, by providing them what they need, then somehow you’re going to attract more people who are homeless to your community,” he explains. In reality, data shows that homeless people are “as likely to have lived in the county the year before as anyone else.” 

In short, homeless people typically stay in the communities they’re already familiar with. They need support from their neighbors, not admonishment. 

One way people can assist the homeless population in their community is to work with a local housing organization to rent out spare bedrooms at an affordable rate. Although this might feel daunting, it can make a significant difference in someone’s life.


Resources for Anyone At Risk of Becoming Homeless

Homeless does not have to mean shelter-less or helpless. If you or someone you know is currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, use the following resources for assistance. 

  • National Hotline for Homeless Veterans: 1-877-4AID VET (1-877-424-3838)
  • National Runaway and Homeless Youth Safety Hotline: 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929)
  • True Colors United National Hotline for Homeless LGBTQ+ Youth: 1-212-461-4401
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233)
  • The Salvation Army Hotline: 1-844-458-HOPE (4673)
  • Coalition for the Homeless’ Eviction Prevention Hotline: 1-212-776-2039
  • Housing and Urban Development Housing Counseling Hotline: 1-800-569-4287
  • Dial 211 for local essential care services
  • Contact your local Continuum of Care program: View Directory Here
  •  View the National Coalition for the Homeless’ online directory of service providers: View Directory Here

Cathy Habas

Cathy Habas is a home security writer for Over the last six years, she's covered home security, home improvement, and landscaping for sites like Reviews.

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