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According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. (1994), a person is considered homeless if he or she "lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and ... has a primary nighttime residency that is: (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations... (B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings." Human Rights Watch (2010) identified emancipated teenagers in California as a new homeless population.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 5th Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress estimated that 1.56 million people, or one in every 200 Americans, experienced homelessness and found shelter between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009 (p. iii). On a single night in January 2009, 643,000 people were homeless. Nearly two-thirds stayed in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program and the other third were living on the street, in an abandoned building, or another place not meant for human habitation (p. 19). A typical sheltered homeless person is a single, middle-aged man and a member of a minority group. Of all those who sought emergency shelter or transitional housing during 2009, the following characteristics were observed:

  • 78 percent of all sheltered homeless persons are adults.
  • 61 percent are male.
  • 62 percent are members of a minority group.
  • 38 percent are 31-to-50 years old.
  • 64 percent are in one-person households.
  • 38 percent have a disability.
    (Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 2009)

    Causes of Homelessness

    Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 20-25 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty. Below is an overview of current poverty and housing statistics, as well as additional factors contributing to homelessness. A list of resources for further study is also provided.


    Recently, foreclosures have increased the number of people who experience homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless released an entire report discussing the relationship between foreclosure and homelessness. The report found that there was a 32% jump in the number of foreclosures between April 2008 and April 2009. Since the start of the recession, six million jobs have been lost. In May 2009, the official unemployment rate was 9.4%. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 40 percent of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters and 7 million households living on very low incomes (31 - 50 percent of Area Median Income) are at risk of foreclosure.


    Poverty is a state of deprivation, or a lack of the usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. The most common measure of poverty in the U.S. is the "poverty threshold" set by the U.S. government. This measure recognizes poverty as a lack of those goods and services commonly taken for granted by members of mainstream society. The official threshold is adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index.Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped. If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets. Two factors help account for increasing poverty: eroding employment opportunities for large segments of the workforce and the declining value and availability of public assistance.

    Eroding Work Opportunities

    Reasons why homelessness persists include stagnant or falling incomes and less secure jobs which offer fewer benefits. Low-wage workers have been particularly have been left behind as the disparity between rich and poor has mushroomed. To compound the problem, the real value of the minimum wage in 2004 was 26% less than in 1979 (The Economic Policy Institute, 2005). Factors contributing to wage declines include a steep drop in the number and bargaining power of unionized workers; erosion in the value of the minimum wage; a decline in manufacturing jobs and the corresponding expansion of lower-paying service-sector employment; globalization; and increased nonstandard work, such as temporary and part-time employment (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999). To combat this, Congress has planned a gradual minimum wage increase, resulting in minimum wage raised to $9.50 by 2011.

    Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers: in every state, more than the minimum wage is required to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent. A recent U.S. Conference of Mayors report stated that in every state more than the minimum-wage is required to afford a one or two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing. Unfortunately, for 12 million Americans, more then 50% of their salaries go towards renting or housing costs, resulting in sacrifices in other essential areas like health care and savings.

    The connection between impoverished workers and homelessness can be seen in homeless shelters, many of which house significant numbers of full-time wage earners. In 2007, a survey performed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 17.4% of homeless adults in families were employed while 13% of homeless single adults or unaccompanied youth were employed. In the 2008 report, eleven out of nineteen cities reported an increased in employed homeless people.

    With unemployment rates remaining high, jobs are hard to find in the current economy. Even if people can find work, this does not automatically provide an escape from poverty. Spikes in the unemployment rate bring people into poverty and homelessness. Drops in the unemployment rate do not necessarily mean people are escaping poverty and homelessness. Often they do not.

    Decline in Public Assistance

    The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness. Until its repeal in August 1996, the largest cash assistance program for poor families with children was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the federal welfare reform law) repealed the AFDC program and replaced it with a block grant program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). In 2005, TANF helped a third of the children that AFDC helped reach above the 50% poverty line. Unfortunately, TANF has not been able to kept up with inflation. In 2006-2008, TANF case load has continued to decline while food stamp caseloads have increased

    Moreover, extreme poverty is growing more common for children, especially those in female-headed and working families. This increase can be traced directly to the declining number of children lifted above one-half of the poverty line by government cash assistance for the poor (Children's Defense Fund and the National Coalition for the Homeless, 1998). As a result of loss of benefits, low wages, and unstable employment, many families leaving welfare struggle to get medical care, food, and housing.

    People with disabilities, too, must struggle to obtain and maintain stable housing. In 2006, on a national average, monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment rose to $715 per month which is a 113.1% of a person’s on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly income (Priced Out in 2006). For the first time, the national average rent for a studio apartment rose above the income of a person who relies only on SSI income. Recently, only nine percent of non-institutionalized people receiving SSI receive housing assistance (Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, 2005).

    Lack of Affordable Housing

    Nearly 19 million U.S. households pay over half their income on housing, and hundreds of thousands more have no home at all. Access to decent, affordable housing would provide critical stability for these families, and lower the risk that vulnerable families become homeless. Across the U.S., 10.9 million low-income renter households and 7.5 million low-income homeowner households are severely cost burdened - paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Another estimated 610,000 people (or 400,000 households) were homeless in 2013. This may underestimate the scale of the crisis because the industry lacks complete data on all forms of housing instability – households that miss rent payments, move involuntarily or doubleup because they cannot afford to live on their own.

    The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that in 2011, an average low-income family with children spent $1,400 a month on all expenses, including housing and discretionary spending. Families that devote over half their spending on housing are left, on average, with only $565 to cover all other monthly expenses.

    Students who experience homelessness or hypermobility17 have been shown to perform below other low-income peers throughout elementary school. In the 2011-12 school year, over 1.1 million school children or youth were identified as homeless. These children are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, repeat grades, perform poorly in school, disengage in the classroom, and suffer from learning disabilities and behavior problems. These students may struggle to catch up due to high stress, disrupted school attendance and broken bonds with teachers and friends. These factors are compounded by the impact of traumas often associated with homelessness (family violence, economic crises, etc.).

    When low-income students move to a new home address – even once – during their elementary school years, it can have a long-lasting, negative effect on their educational achievement. A recent study of over 8,000 primarily low-income urban students in Tennessee found that for every residential move before second grade, students’ math and reading test scores dropped relative to their peers. Moreover, the achievement gap was not made up over time. Researchers found that early childhood mobility led to poorer academic achievement throughout elementary school. This is especially concerning because the study also showed that poorer children were much more likely to move multiple times, compared to their more advantaged peers.

    Homeless children are more likely than their housed, low-income peers to be hospitalized, have delayed immunizations and high lead levels in their blood. They have high rates of developmental delays, emotional and behavioral difficulties, and a myriad of problems associated with high stress levels. To compound these problems, studies indicate that the majority of homeless children have witnessed or been the victim of violence or trauma.

    With access to affordable housing, families have to make fewer trade-offs between paying for primary health care or housing. Studies have shown that families living in affordable housing are able to dedicate more than twice as much of their income to health care and insurance, and are significantly less likely to forgo needed doctor’s visits and medications due to a lack of money.

    Drug Addiction

    Although obtaining an accurate, recent count is difficult, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2003) estimates, 38% of homeless people were dependent on alcohol and 26% abused other drugs. Alcohol abuse is more common in older generations, while drug abuse is more common in homeless youth and young adults (Didenko and Pankratz, 2007). Substance abuse is much more common among homeless people than in the general population.

    Substance abuse is often a cause of homelessness. Addictive disorders disrupt relationships with family and friends and often cause people to lose their jobs. For people who are already struggling to pay their bills, the onset or exacerbation of an addiction may cause them to lose their housing. A 2008 survey by the United States Conference of Mayors asked 25 cities for their top three causes of homelessness. Substance abuse was the single largest cause of homelessness for single adults (reported by 68% of cities). Substance abuse was also mentioned by 12% of cities as one of the top three causes of homelessness for families. According to Didenko and Pankratz (2007), two-thirds of homeless people report that drugs and/or alcohol were a major reason for their becoming homeless.

    In many situations, however, substance abuse is a result of homelessness rather than a cause. People who are homeless often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their situations. They use substances in an attempt to attain temporary relief from their problems. In reality, however, substance dependence only exacerbates their problems and decreases their ability to achieve employment stability and get off the streets. Additionally, some people may view drug and alcohol use as necessary to be accepted among the homeless community (Didenko and Pankratz, 2007).

    Breaking an addiction is difficult for anyone, especially for substance abusers who are homeless. To begin with, motivation to stop using substances may be poor. For many homeless people, survival is more important than personal growth and development, and finding food and shelter take a higher priority than drug counseling. Many homeless people have also become estranged from their families and friends. Without a social support network, recovering from a substance addiction is very difficult. Even if they do break their addictions, homeless people may have difficulty remaining sober while living on the streets where substances are so widely used (Fisher and Roget, 2009). Unfortunately, many treatment programs focus on abstinence only programming, which is less effective than harm-reduction strategies and does not address the possibility of relapse (National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 2007).

    Since substance abuse is both a cause and a result of homelessness, both issues need to be addressed simultaneously. According to Didenko and Pankratz (2007), stable housing during and after treatment decreases the risk of relapse. Substance abuse on its own is inadequate and needs to be combined with supported housing opportunities. In addition to housing, supported housing programs offer services such as mental health treatment, physical health care, education and employment opportunities, peer support, and daily living and money management skills training. Successful supported housing programs include outreach and engagement workers, a variety of flexible treatment options to choose from, and services to help people reintegrate into their communities (National Mental Health Association, 2006). Supported housing programs that include substance abuse services would help homeless people treat their addictions and re-establish residential stability.

    Mental Illness

    Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005). Despite the disproportionate number of severely mentally ill people among the homeless population, increases in homelessness are not attributable to the release of severely mentally ill people from institutions. Most patients were released from mental hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, yet vast increases in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s, when incomes and housing options for those living on the margins began to diminish rapidly. According to the 2003 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report, most homeless persons with mental illness do not need to be institutionalized, but can live in the community with the appropriate supportive housing options (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). However, many mentally ill homeless people are unable to obtain access to supportive housing and/or other treatment services.

    The homeless population, especially homeless persons with serious mental illness, has increased steadily since the 1970s. This is seen in all major cities but also in smaller cities and towns. For example, in Roanoke, Virginia, the homeless population increased 363 percent between 1987 and 2007, and 70 percent were receiving mental health treatment or had in the past. In 2006, Markowitz published data on 81 US cities, looking at correlations between the decreasing availability of psychiatric hospital beds and the increase in crime, arrest rates, and homelessness. As expected, he found direct correlations. This is consistent with past studies in Massachusetts and Ohio that reported that 27 and 36 percent of the discharges from state mental hospitals had become homeless within six months. It is also consistent with a study in New York that found that 38 percent of discharges from a state hospital had “no known address” six months later.

    In recent years, as states have continued to close down state psychiatric beds, there are suggestions that the problem is getting worse. In Massachusetts, the homeless population increased by 14 percent from 2010 to 2013. In Seattle in 2013, the mayor called the number of untreated mentally ill persons on the streets “an emergency.” In Albany, GA in Feb 2014, it was reported that “the closure of Southwestern state mental hospital in Thomasville has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking help at Albany homeless shelters.”

    State governments across the United States are slashing funding for services for the mentally ill. The unsurprising result is more mentally ill people without homes. Mother Jones reports that “between 2009 and 2012, states cut a total of $4.35 billion in public mental-health spending from their budgets.” South Carolina cut nearly 40 percent of its budget for mental health. In Illinois it was close to 32 percent.

    Helping homeless people with mental health problems isn’t a question of finding and spending more money. We already are spending that money, to fund prisons, shelters, emergency rooms, and other safety-net institutions. The question is directing the money to the right place: supported housing programs, where people get both housing and help with their mental illness and with day-to-day life. All it takes is the political will at the state level. Sadly, political will is in very short supply these days.

    Veterans Returning Home

    In January 2014, communities across America identified 49,933 homeless veterans during point-in-time counts, which represents 8.6 percent of the total homeless population. This represents a substantial decrease (67.4 percent) in the number of homeless veterans counted only five years previously in 2009. Though veterans continue to remain overrepresented in the homeless population in America, these recent decreases demonstrate the marked progress that has been made in ending veteran homelessness.

    Veterans are more likely than civilians to experience homelessness. Like the general homeless population, veterans are at a significantly increased risk of homelessness if they have low socioeconomic status, a mental health disorder, and/or a history of substance abuse. Yet, because of veterans’ military service, this population is at higher risk of experiencing traumatic brain injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), both of which have been found to be among the most substantial risk factors for homelessness. Among the recent Iraq and Afghanistan cohort of veterans—who are more frequently female than their older counterparts—an experience of sexual trauma while serving in the military greatly increases the risk of homelessness. Additionally, veterans often experience difficulty returning to civilian life, particularly those without strong social support networks, and may not have skills that can be easily transferred to employment outside of the military. Veterans face the same shortage of affordable housing options and living wage jobs as all Americans, and these factors—combined with the increased likelihood that veterans will exhibit symptoms of PTSD, substance abuse, or mental illness—can compound to put veterans at a greater risk of homelessness than the general population.

    Homeless veterans can receive assistance both from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provided they have an eligible discharge status, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), regardless of discharge status. In a joint supportive housing program between the two departments (HUD-VASH), Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers housing vouchers are combined with case management and supportive services at VA medical centers. Since 2008, nearly 70,000 VASH vouchers have been awarded to Public Housing Authorities across the US. Evaluation of the HUD-VASH program has found a number of positive outcomes for participants, including an increase in employment and income, the number of days housed, and social networks. Additionally, the HUD-VASH program has been found to have a one-year cost savings of approximately on $6,000 per participant on health services.

    In 2012, VA introduced the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, with the parallel goals of both preventing veteran homelessness and rapidly re-housing veterans and veteran families who do fall into homelessness. The program provides a variety of time-limited services and financial assistance. In its first two years, the SSVF program aided almost 100,000 individuals in over 61,000 households, spending $2,480 per household; after being housed, only 9.4 percent of veteran families returned to homelessness one year after exiting the program, and only 15.5 percent returned to homelessness two years after exit.

    In January 2015, New Orleans became the first major city to announce that it had ended veteran homelessness. Throughout 2015, other communities are sure to follow. The success of the HUD-VASH, SSVF, and other programs targeted to veterans, combined with the dedication and commitment of America’s communities prove that ending veteran homelessness is possible.

    Solutions to Homelessness

    Many ideas have been implemented by non-profit groups, government programs (local, state and federal), as well as various activist groups across the nation. One such organization is Food Not Bombs

    Food Not Bombs is gaining momentum throughout the world. There are hundreds of autonomous chapters sharing free vegetarian food with hungry people and protesting war and poverty. Food Not Bombs is not a charity. This energetic all volunteer grassroots movement is active throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. For over 30 years the movement has worked to end hunger and has supported actions to stop the globalization of the economy, restrictions to the movements of people, end exploitation and the destruction of the earth and its beings.

    Even the Activist collective known as Anonymous has taken this issue seriously, and into its own collective hands. While actually eliminating homelessness is a problem even Anonymous can't tackle with confidence, making sure some people have food, warm clothes, and some basic tools like flashlights is the kind of thing that appeals to a very wide swathe of the population. These operations, or Ops rather, go by many different names across the country... from #OpSafeWinter , #OpFeedTheHomeless and here in Cincinnati, OH #OpHelpingHands.

    If you prefer to donate resources and funds to a charity, check out Great Non Profits.org before making a donation. This site has ratings for various charities. Do not think for a moment, that as one person, you cannot alter or change someone's life for the better. Even if you are just giving spare change or a few bucks to someone in need, every little bit helps. While pressure is needed on every level of government to help end this problem once and for all, we can ease the burden and pains of others ourselves.


    McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act
    Impact of Affordable Housing on Families and Communities: A REVIEW OF THE EVIDENCE BASE
    National Coalition for the Homeless
    Mental Illness Policy Org
    National Alliance to End Homelessness