Facts on Homelessness

How Do We Define Homelessness? A person who is homeless does not have a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This person may be sleeping on the streets, with friends or family, in cars or abandoned buildings or in shelters. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of homeless includes a person who has no place to go, no resources to obtain housing, and is either being evicted within a week, discharged within a week from an institution, such as a hospital, or fleeing domestic violence.

What Causes Homelessness? Causes of homelessness commonly cited by researchers, government agencies and social workers include:

* Lack of affordable housing and inadequate housing assistance
* Poverty from low-paying jobs and minimal government assistance
* Mental Illness
* Lack of affordable health care
* Domestic violence
* Substance Abuse

Housing: A lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs have contributed to the current housing crisis and to homelessness.

Lack of affordable health care: For families and individuals struggling to pay the rent, a serious illness or disability can start a downward spiral into homelessness, beginning with a lost job, depletion of savings to pay for care, and eventual eviction. Many people living in poverty don’t have any health insurance. The coverage held by many others would not carry them through a catastrophic illness.

Domestic violence: Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. 34% of cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1998). Nationally, approximately half of all women and children experiencing homelessness are fleeing domestic violence (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2001).

Mental Illness: Approximately 22% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness. According to the Federal Task Force on Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness, only 5-7% of homeless persons with mental illness need to be institutionalized; most can live in the community with the appropriate supportive housing options. However, many mentally ill homeless people are unable to obtain access to supportive housing and other treatment services.

Addiction disorders: The relationship between addiction and homelessness is a complex issue. While rates of alcohol and drug abuse are disproportionately high among the homeless population, the increase in homelessness over the past two decades cannot be explained by addiction alone. Many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless, but people who are poor and addicted are clearly at increased risk of homelessness. Homeless people often face insurmountable barriers to obtaining health care, including addictive treatment services and recovery supports. The following are among the obstacles to treatment for homeless persons: lack of health insurance; lack of documentation; waiting lists; scheduling difficulties; lack of transportation; ineffective treatment methods; and lack of supportive services.

Education & AdvocacyHow Do We End Homelessness? Homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances which require people to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs. Homelessness is a complex problem that we cannot end without long-term effective solutions that deal with the root causes. To break the cycle of homelessness: we need a concerted effort to ensure jobs that pay a living wage, adequate support for those who cannot work, appropriate facilities and services for persons with substance-abuse and mental illness, strengthen the system of shelter services that enable people to make the transition to stability, affordable housing, and access to health care.


Urban homelessness is characterized by:

* Single adult men – 41%
* Families with children – 40%
* Single women – 14%
* Unaccompanied youth – 5%
* Families headed by a single parent – 66%

(U.S. Conference of Mayors: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities, 2003)

The majority of people who are homeless are male (68%) and between the ages of 25 and 44 (63%). (Department of Health and Human Services: Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve Technical Report 1999)

Veterans comprise 23% of the homeless population and only 13% of the entire U.S. population. (National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and US Census Bureau 2002)

It is estimated that 49% of the homeless population is African-American, 35% is white, 13% is Hispanic, 2% is Native American and 1% is Asian. (U.S. Conference of Mayors: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities 2003)

Over 60% of the homeless community has at least a high school degree and 24% have attended college. (Department of Health and Human Services: Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve Technical Report 1999)

According to a survey conducted by the US Conference of Mayors in 25 cities nationwide, 30% of all shelter requests went unmet in 2002. Of all request by families, 33% went unmet. (U.S. Conference of Mayors: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities 2003)