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  • Writer's pictureJ. Wilson

What causes homelessness?

When Housing is Out of Reach More than at any other time, there is a lack of housing that low income people can afford. Without housing options, people face eviction, instability and homelessness.

Housing Affordability and Homelessness

The nation is currently facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history. Not surprisingly, those living in poverty are the most significantly affected.

In the 1970s, communities had plenty of affordable housing. That meant that when a family or individual experienced a crisis and lost housing, they could quickly find another place to live. But by the mid-1980s, the supply of low-cost housing had shrunk significantly. Since then, rents have continued to rise and lower-income people in particular have experienced slow or stagnant wage growth.

Today, 8 million extremely low-income households pay at least half of their income toward housing, putting them at risk of housing instability and homelessness.

The Solution to Homelessness: Housing

The solution to homelessness is straightforward: housing. By connecting people experiencing homelessness to housing and services, they have a platform from which they can address other areas that may have contributed to their homelessness — such as employment, health, and substance abuse.

Homeless Assistance Programs

There are two homelessness-focused housing models that have been demonstrated to effectively end homelessness. They are:

  • Permanent supportive housing: Permanent supportive housing pairs long-term rental assistance with supportive services. It is targeted to individuals and families with chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental health issues, or substance use disorders who have experienced long-term or repeated homelessness.

  • Rapid re-housing: Rapid re-housing provides short-term rental assistance and services. The goals are to help people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency, and stay housed.

Public Housing and Voucher Programs

Administered by HUD, public housing and voucher programs provide decent and safe affordable housing for low-income people and play a critical role in reducing homelessness.

  • Housing Choice Voucher Program (commonly known as “Section 8“) has become the dominant form of federal housing assistance. The program, which provides vouchers to low-income households to help them pay for housing in the private market, has been found to sharply reduce homelessness.

  • Public housing is federally-funded housing that is rented at subsidized rates to eligible low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

While both public housing and housing vouchers are proven to end homelessness, only one in four households that are eligible for such assistance receive it due to lack of funding.

Tackling the Affordable Housing Crisis

In many places across America, there is simply not enough available affordable housing. Without this housing stock, many homeless Americans are likely to continue to cycle in and out of homelessness.

The priority now must be to expand the supply of affordable housing. To do this, there is a need to increase HUD’s ability to serve and house low-income individuals.

Income and Housing Affordability Low income households often do not earn enough to pay for food, clothing, transportation and a place they can call home.

Low-Income, High Risk

Low-income households are typically unemployed or underemployed due to a number of factors, such as a challenging labor market; limited education; a gap in work history; a criminal record; unreliable transportation or unstable housing; poor health or a disability.

For those who are low-income but employed, wages have been stagnant and have not kept pace with expensive housing costs. The typical American worker has seen little to no growth in his/her weekly wages over the past three decades. Too little income combined with the dwindling availability of low-cost housing leaves many people at risk for becoming homeless.

Solutions to Filling the Income Gap

Those who are homeless face significant obstacles to finding and maintaining employment. Finding a home is a critical first step. Job training and placement programs, such as those funded by the federal government, also provide the tools some people need to secure stable, long-term employment. Improving access to supportive services, such as childcare subsidies and transportation assistance, would also go a long way in helping people stay employed, achieve housing stability and remain housed.

When Work Is Not an Option

Many of those who experience homelessness are unable to work due to a disability, or are not able to quickly earn the money they need for rent. If eligible, these individuals may be able to receive cash assistance from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or similar programs described below.

Connecting Homelessness and Health Health and homelessness are inextricably linked. Health problems can cause a person’s homelessness as well as be exacerbated by the experience. Housing is key to addressing the health needs of people experiencing homelessness.

Health and Homelessness

An acute physical or behavioral health crisis or any long-term disabling condition may lead to homelessness; homelessness itself can exacerbate chronic medical conditions. A person can become chronically homeless when his or her health condition becomes disabling and stable housing is too difficult to maintain without help.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, people living in shelters are more than twice as likely to have a disability compared to the general population. On a given night in 2017, 20 percent of the homeless population reported having a serious mental illness, 16 percent conditions related to chronic substance abuse, and more than 10,000 people had HIV/AIDS.

Conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS are found at high rates among the homeless population, sometimes three to six times higher than that of the general population.

People who have mental health and substance use disorders and who are homeless are more likely to have immediate, life-threatening physical illnesses and live in dangerous conditions. Also, more than 10 percent of people who seek substance abuse or mental health treatment in our public health system are homeless.

The issue of opioid abuse has risen to a level of national crisis as the number of people abusing prescription drugs and heroin has dramatically risen, and the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths has tripled since 2000. While the epidemic is notable for affecting people from any race, gender, socioeconomic status, its effects are felt in unique and notably harmful ways by people who are experiencing homelessness. Substance use disorders are known risk factors for homelessness, and substance abuse and overdose disproportionately impact homeless people.

Health Care Access

Treatment and preventive care can be difficult to access for people who are experiencing homelessness. This is often because they lack insurance or have difficulty engaging health care providers in the community.

Most communities have Federally Qualified Health Centers and more specifically, Health Care for the Homeless Clinics, which provide some basic health services without substantial cost. The advent of the Affordable Care Act has also opened up options by allowing states to expand their Medicaid programs to cover people with very low incomes.

Housing as the Solution

When housing is a platform, people with a substance abuse disorder who are experiencing homelessness have the opportunity to engage in treatment fully without the additional stress of living on the streets. Housing stability is a key contributor to long-term recovery and reduces relapse for people who are homeless.

For chronically homeless people, the intervention of permanent supportive housing provides stable housing coupled with supportive services as needed – a cost-effective solution to homelessness for those with the most severe health, mental health and substance abuse challenges.

Escaping Violence Many survivors of domestic violence become homeless when leaving an abusive relationship.

Domestic Violence and Homelessness

A domestic violence experience is common among youth, single adults, and families who become homeless. For many, it is the immediate cause of their homelessness. Survivors of domestic violence may turn to homeless service programs seeking a safe temporary place to stay after fleeing an abusive relationship. Others may turn to homeless service programs primarily because they lack the economic resources to secure or maintain housing after leaving an abusive relationship.

On a single night in 2019, homeless services providers had more than 48,000 beds set aside for survivors of domestic violence.

Solutions: Crisis, Short- and Long-Term Housing Services

The immediate need of a survivor fleeing domestic violence is safety. Some survivors may be able to safely stay in their own home with some additional financial support through rental assistance while others may require a stay in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program before re-entering their own independent housing.

Short- or long-term rental assistance can be used to help survivors exit shelter and regain housing. Having an affordable place to call home is crucial for this population, to both reduce their risk of homelessness as well as the possibility of future violence. Research indicates that families that receive a housing subsidy after exiting homelessness are far less likely to experience interpersonal violence than those that do not.

Beyond addressing their immediate safety and housing needs, survivors of domestic violence require supportive services that can help them heal from the trauma of abuse and improve their economic security and well-being.

Impact of Racial Disparities Most minority groups in the United States experience homelessness at higher rates than Whites, and therefore make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population.

The most striking disparity can be found among African Americans, who represent 13 percent of the general population but account for 39 percent of people experiencing homelessness and more than 50 percent of homeless families with children. This imbalance has not improved over time.

What Are the Causes?

From slavery to segregation, African Americans have been systemically denied rights and socioeconomic opportunities. Other minority groups, including Indigenous and Latinx people, share similar histories. The disproportionality in homelessness is a by-product of systemic inequity: the lingering effects of racism continue to perpetuate disparities in critical areas that impact rates of homelessness.


Poverty, and particularly deep poverty, is a strong predictor of homelessness. Black and Latinx groups are overrepresented in poverty relative to their representation in the overall population, and are most likely to live in deep poverty, with rates of 10.8% and 7.6% percent, respectively. [1]

Segregation/Rental Housing Discrimination

Redlining – systemic housing discrimination supported by the federal government decades ago – is a root cause of the current wealth gap between White households and households of color. Redlining discouraged economic investment, such as mortgage and business loans, in Black and Brown neighborhoods.

The effects are still with us today: African Americans still live disproportionately in concentrated poverty[2] or in neighborhoods where they are regularly exposed to environmental toxins, and have limited access to quality care, services, nutritious food and economic opportunities. People that become homeless are likely to have lived in these types of neighborhoods.

For most minority groups, the transition to neighborhoods with less crime, no environmental hazards, and close proximity to services, are often met with challenges. A study by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)[3] on racial discrimination found that people of color were often shown fewer rental units and denied more leases in comparison to White people. White people, on the other hand, were frequently offered lower rents. Deposits and other move-in costs were also quoted as “negotiable,” making it easier for White people to secure units.


The racial disparity in incarceration rates has continuously worsened. The rate for African Americans has tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is more than six times the rate of White incarceration.[4] These racial disparities are no accident. Black and Brown people are at far greater risk of being targeted, profiled and arrested for minor offenses, especially in high poverty areas.

The implications of overcriminalization are far-reaching: A criminal history can keep people from successfully passing background checks to secure both housing and employment. People exiting jails and prisons often face significant problems in accessing safe and affordable housing and their rate of homelessness is high.

Access to Quality Health Care

People of color are far more likely to lack health insurance than White people, especially in states without Medicaid expansion. Even with expansion, overall about 30 million people are uninsured, with about half of them being people of color.

The lack of health insurance for people with chronic medical conditions and/or untreated serious mental illness can place them at risk of becoming homeless or being precariously housed. For example, people with mental health disabilities are vastly overrepresented in the population of people who experience homelessness. Of the more than 550,000 people in America who experienced homelessness on a given night in 2017, 1 in 5 had a behavioral health issue. While the rate of serious mental illness may not vary by race, studies show African Americans have more difficulty accessing treatment.

The Homelessness System’s Response

Any effort to end homelessness in the United States must address the range of issues that have resulted from racial inequity. This includes assuring affordable, stable housing for all. Systems, programs, and individuals that serve people experiencing homelessness should monitor their outcomes in order to eliminate disparities in the way that they provide services.

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