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Homelessness in the US: Facts, Causes, Ways To Support

The United States has a population of over 330 million, but while the country prides itself on being the land of opportunity, many people struggle to afford housing. According to a report from 2023, a full-time worker would need to earn $28.58/hour to afford a two-bedroom rental in the United States. Housing is only affordable for about half of renters in the United States. With housing costs so high, millions are on the brink of homelessness. In this article, we’ll explore five facts about homelessness, what causes it and how you can support the end of homelessness.

Five facts about homelessness everyone should know

Homelessness is complicated. Here are five basic facts that help break down the scale of this issue:

#1. Over half a million people experience homelessness in the United States – and the number is increasing

In 2024, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that 653,100 people were homeless in January 2023. This represents an all-time high of people living on the street, in cars, and in abandoned buildings. The US currently uses the Point-In-Time Count, which calculates the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night once a year. This methodology is flawed. According to a study referenced by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the true number of people experiencing homelessness could be 2.5-10.2 times higher than the PIT.

#2. The United States criminalizes homelessness

The United States treats people experiencing homelessness like criminals. While there’s no legislation that outright states, “It’s illegal to be homeless,” plenty of laws criminalize the everyday actions associated with being homeless. Cities frequently pass measures against daytime camping, loitering, panhandling, lying down and sleeping in public and more. Even certain types of public architecture, like curved benches that make it impossible to lie down and metal spikes beneath underpasses, send a clear message. Punishments include camp sweeps, fines and jail time, which pushes people further into crisis. People who want to help their houseless neighbors can face criminalization, too. From 2013-2015, 26 cities passed bans on sharing food, which directly affected individuals and charities that hand out meals.

#3. Homelessness makes a person more vulnerable to violence

While people experiencing homelessness are often treated as inherently dangerous or violent, they are more likely to be victims of violence. According to a 2014 report, 14-21% of people experiencing homelessness were victims of violence, while in the general population, just 1-3% report being the victim of a violent crime. People experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable for several reasons. For one, a locked door is one of the most basic and effective safety measures, which people experiencing homelessness do not have. Those looking to cause trouble see those experiencing homelessness as easy targets, and while some public spaces might be safe during the day, things can change once the sun sets. Homelessness also makes people more vulnerable to police brutality; from 2020-2022, law enforcement was responsible for over 35% of non-fatal beatings.

#4. Homelessness affects health

Experiencing homelessness is catastrophic for a person’s health. Those without shelter have a higher risk for diseases like COVID-19, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, as well as mental illness, heart disease, lung disease and substance use disorders. According to a 2017 study, the average lifespan of a male experiencing homelessness is 56.27 years old, while it’s just 52 years old for women experiencing homelessness. These increased risks are connected to exposure to harsh weather, limited access to healthcare, exposure to violence and chronic stress.

#5. Gender and sexuality influence a person’s risk – and experience – of homelessness

In the United States, 21.5 men and 8.3 women out of 10,000 people in the general population experience homelessness. While more men are homeless, the number of women who are homeless has been increasing. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, homelessness among women increased by 17% from 2016 to 2020. Women on the street are more likely to endure assault, PTSD and trauma, and are often forced to use survival sex, which is the exchange of sex for food or a place to sleep. LGBTQ+ people face unique risks, as well. According to the Trevor Project, 28% of LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness or unstable housing at some point in their lives. The percentages increase for transgender girls (38%), transgender boys (39%) and nonbinary youth (35%).

Five causes of homelessness

Every person or family who experiences homelessness has their own story, but certain causes drive most of the homelessness in the United States. Here are five:

#1. Poverty

Poverty and homelessness go hand-in-hand. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ annual report, 12.8% of the United States population was experiencing poverty in 2021. This increases a person’s risk of homelessness, especially if their total income falls beneath the poverty threshold and they’re paying 50% or more of their income on rent. The longer someone struggles to afford education, healthcare, food, rent or a mortgage payment, the more likely it is they’ll lose their housing at some point.

#2. Affordable housing shortage

Affordable housing is very hard to find in the United States, and when housing costs go up, so do rates of homelessness. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, a record number of renters are spending more than 30% of their income on housing and utilities, which makes the affordability crisis “the most fundamental driver” of the rise in homelessness. Buying a home is also expensive; in the first quarter of 2024, the median home sales price in the US was $420,800.

#3. Lack of affordable healthcare

Expensive housing isn’t the only driver of homelessness; expensive healthcare is another contributor. According to KFF, about 6% of the adults in the US owe over $1,000 in medical debt, while 1% owe more than $10,000. When people have debt, it can affect their ability to get a lease or a mortgage, according to NPR, while paying back debt can mean failing to make rent or a mortgage payment. Expensive healthcare can also discourage people from seeking care, which makes health conditions worse, more expensive and more likely to lead to homelessness.

#4. Domestic violence

Domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness for women and children. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, around 80% of single mothers experiencing homelessness have also experienced domestic violence. Poverty plays a role; women who experience poverty are at higher risk of domestic violence, creating a perfect storm of risk factors for homelessness. Finding housing after abuse can be a challenge, especially if the violence leads to an eviction. While housing discrimination against abuse survivors is usually illegal, it still happens. Taking legal action against discrimination is often too expensive or complicated, so many survivors are left without much recourse, and end up homeless.

#5. Racial inequality

When you look at statistics of homelessness, racial disparities are impossible to ignore. A 2023 Cornell study found that from 2007-2017, the lowest rate of homelessness among Black Americans was four times higher than the highest prevalence for white people. American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities are also more likely to experience homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness identifies several reasons, such as historical and structural racism that’s led to higher rates of poverty for ethnic minorities, housing discrimination, incarceration and worse healthcare.

Five ways to support the end of homelessness

Ending homelessness is one of the biggest challenges facing the United States today. Here are five ways you can support progress:

#1. Advocate for affordable housing

A lack of affordable housing is a main driver of homelessness, so advocating for more is a great way to get involved. Learn about the affordable housing policies in your area, join a local advocacy group and research how to engage with policymakers, the media and other community members. The National Low Income Housing Coalition offers a free guide that gives an overview of housing programs and tools for anyone interested in advocacy.

#2. Support policies that prevent homelessness

People become homeless for many reasons, but the lack of a comprehensive, reliable social safety net affects everyone at risk. You can support the end of homelessness by supporting policies and programs that prevent it in the first place. The Homeless Leadership Coalition, a group working in Central Oregon, lists several services that help prevent homelessness, such as rental and mortgage assistance, utility assistance, legal advocacy and other forms of financial aid. Advocating for higher wages, better unemployment services and affordable healthcare is also helpful.

#3. Donate essential supplies and money

People experiencing homelessness and the organizations that serve them need supplies and financial donations. Items like clothing, furniture, cooking supplies, books, computers, and toys are often needed, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, while service providers also benefit from electrical work, transportation and building materials. When in doubt, a financial donation is one of the best ways to support an organization. Money gives providers the flexibility to choose where the funds are most needed.

#4. Volunteer for organizations

You don’t have to work for a nonprofit, government agency or service provider to help end homelessness. Most organizations, especially nonprofits, need volunteers. There are many ways to get involved, like doing street outreach, working at a shelter, building homes (with an organization like Habitat for Humanity), helping at an event, working with kids and so on. Look up nonprofits or grassroots groups in your area and see if they need volunteers!

#5. Push back against the dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness

People experiencing homelessness endure persistently cruel dehumanization. Criminalization is a big part of it, while the media often paints unhoused people as an infestation, a plague and even a horde of “zombies.” When discussing the issue, pundits lean on lurid descriptions of garbage, tents, disease and crime. Homelessness is a human rights issue, but dehumanization encourages neglect, discrimination and violence. You can support the end of homelessness by pushing back against harmful narratives and refusing to dehumanize anyone struggling to find shelter.