Homelessness in the United States

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Homeless American

Homelessness in the United States of America is an area of concern for social service providers, government officials, policy professionals, and society at large.[1] Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2012 annual point-in-time count found that 633,782 people across the United States were homeless, other counts vary widely. In a recent approximation, an estimated 1.6 million unduplicated persons used transitional housing or emergency shelters. Of these people, approximately 1/3 are members of households with children, a nine percent increase since 2007. Another approximation is from a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2007).[2] With 2007 as a benchmark, the data from the report showed a 6.8 percent decline in homelessness among individuals, a 3.7 percent decline of homeless families, a 13.1 percent decline of the unsheltered homeless population, and a 19.3 percent decline in persons experiencing chronic homelessness.[3]

One out of 50 children or 1.5 million children in America will be homeless each year.[4] In 2013 that number jumped to one out of 30 children, or 2.5 million.[5] There were an estimated 57,849 homeless veterans estimated in the United States during January 2013; or 12 percent of all homeless adults. Just under 8 percent of homeless U.S. veterans are female. Texas, California and Florida have the highest numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth under the age of 18; comprising 58% of the total homeless under 18 youth population [6]

Because of turnover in the homeless population, the total number of people who experience homelessness for at least a few nights during the course of a year is thought to be considerably higher than point-in-time counts. A 2000 study estimated the number of such people to be between 2.3 million and 3.5 million.[7][8] According to Amnesty International USA, vacant houses outnumber homeless people by five times.[9]


In 2015, homelessness is considered an epidemic in several American cities. "Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and seven of the 15 City Council members announced they would declare a state of emergency and try to find $100 million to cure what has become a municipal curse." [10] Homelessness in New York City has tripled since January 2000, from approximately 20,000 people using provided nightly shelter services to more than 60,000 in January 2015.[11] These counts do not include those persons who choose to stay away from shelter providers.

During the last decade and more, a transfer of wealth from the poorer classes to the wealthier classes has affected widespread poverty across the country,[12][13][14] later exacerbated by the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Poverty and homelessness have also become methods of 'disruption' used against political activists, such as members of the Occupy Movement. Shut down in 2011 by national security agencies and local police forces collaborating with private business,[15][16] members say they later lost jobs, defaulted on home mortgages, then became homeless.[17] Incidents of domestic violence contribute to homelessness among women, who are often denied police protection and legal recourse.

In 2008, according to the United States Conference of Mayors, the three most commonly cited causes of homelessness for persons and families were a lack of affordable housing (cited by 72 percent) poverty (52%), and unemployment (44%).[18]:19 The suggestions to alleviate homelessness included providing more housing for persons with disabilities (72%), creating more employment opportunities (68%), and building more assisted housing units (64%).[18]:20

Over the past decades, the availability and quality of data on homelessness has improved considerably, due, in part, to initiatives by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and several nongovernmental organizations working with homeless populations. Since 2007, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued an Annual Homeless Assessment Report, which revealed the number of individuals and families that were homeless, both sheltered and unsheltered. It standardized the data collection processes and created more opportunities for government officials and service providers to remedy the problem of homelessness in the United States.[19]

Who are the homeless

According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. (1994),[20] 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 [21] 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)

Definitions and categories

Homeless man in the East Village, New York City.

The United States government acknowledges four categories of people who qualify as legally homeless: (1) those who are currently homeless, (2) those who will become homeless in the imminent future, (3) certain youths and families with children who suffer from home instability caused by a hardship, and (4) those who suffer from home instability caused by domestic violence.[22]

  1. CURRENT HOMELESSNESS: An individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, meaning any of the following three (3) situations:
    • Homeless Without Shelter: The individual or family uses a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for—or ordinarily used as—a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (e.g., car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, camping ground).
    • Homeless With Shelter: The individual or family lives in a supervised, publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (e.g., congregate shelters, transitional housing, hotels and motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state, or local government programs for low-income individuals).
    • Homeless Due to Institutional Release: The individual is exiting an institution where he or she resided for no more than 90 days, and the individual resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution.
  2. IMMINENT HOMELESSNESS: An individual or family who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence, meaning that each of the following three (3) conditions are met:
    • Imminence of Loss: The primary nighttime residence will be lost within 14 days.
    • Lack of Alternate Housing: The individual or family has not arranged for a new primary nighttime residence after the current residence is lost.
    • Lack of Support: The individual or family lacks the resources or support networks needed to obtain other permanent housing (e.g., family, friends, faith-based or other social networks).
  3. YOUTH/FAMILY HOME INSTABILITY CAUSED BY HARDSHIP: An unaccompanied youth under 25 years of age, or family with children, who is not currently or imminently lacking a primary nighttime residence, but who nevertheless suffers from unreliable housing. To qualify as homeless under this category, the youth or family must meet each of the following four (4) conditions:
    • Qualification as Homeless Youth or Family: must meet one of the definitions of homeless under any of the following seven (7) federal statutes:
      1. Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, §5732a(3)[23]
      2. Head Start Act, §9832(11)[24]
      3. Violence Against Women Act, §14043e-2(6)[25]
      4. Public Health Service Act, §254b(h)(5)(A)[26]
      5. Food and Nutrition Act, §2012(m)[27]
      6. Child Nutrition Act, §1786(b)(15)[28]
      7. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, §11434a(2)[29]
    • Lack of Permanent Housing: must have not had a lease, ownership interest, or occupancy agreement in permanent housing at any time during the last 60 days.
    • Persistence of Housing Instability: must have moved primary nighttime residences at least twice during the last 60 days.
    • Presence of an Ongoing Hardship: the lack of permanent housing and persistence of housing instability are expected to continue for an extended period of time due to any of the following six (6) reasons:
      1. Chronic disabilities
      2. Chronic physical or mental health conditions
      3. Substance addiction
      4. Histories of domestic violence or child abuse (including neglect)
      5. The presence of a child or youth with a disability
      6. The presence of at least two (2) barriers to employment, which include any of the following five (5) barriers:
        • Lack of a high school diploma or GED
        • Illiteracy
        • Low English proficiency
        • History of incarceration or detention for criminal activity
        • History of unstable employment.
  4. HOME INSTABILITY CAUSED BY DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Any individual or family who meets each of the following four (4) conditions:
    • Flight from Violence: The individual or family is fleeing or attempting to flee from violence, which includes any of the following:
      1. Domestic violence
      2. Dating violence
      3. Sexual assault
      4. Stalking
      5. Any other dangerous or life-threatening condition that relates to violence against the individual or a family member (including a child).
    • Connection with Housing: The violence or dangerous condition has either:
      • taken place within the individual's or family's primary nighttime residence, or
      • made the individual or family afraid to return to their primary nighttime residence.
    • Lack of Alternate Housing: The individual or family has no other residence to flee to.
    • Lack of Support: The individual or family lacks the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing (e.g., family, friends, faith-based or other social networks).[30]


Juxtaposition of homeless and well off is common on Broadway, New York City.

"In 2004 the United States Conference of Mayors... surveyed the mayors of major cities on the extent and causes of urban homelessness and most of the mayors named the lack of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness.... The next three causes identified by mayors, in rank order, were mental illness or the lack of needed services, substance abuse and lack of needed services, and low-paying jobs. The lowest ranking cause, cited by five mayors, was prisoner reentry. Other causes cited were unemployment, domestic violence, and poverty."

The major causes of homelessness include:[31][32][33][34]

  • The failure of urban housing projects to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing to the poor.[31][32][33][34] Additionally, many workers cannot afford to live where they work, and even in moderately priced communities housing costs require a large portion of household income.[35]
  • The deinstitutionalization movement from the 1950s onwards in state mental health systems, to shift towards 'community-based' treatment of the mentally ill, as opposed to long-term commitment in institutions.[31][32][33][34] There is disproportionally higher prevalence of mental disorders relative to other disease groups within homeless patient populations at both inpatient hospitals and hospital-based emergency departments.[36]
  • Redevelopment and gentrification activities instituted by cities across the country through which low-income neighborhoods are declared blighted and demolished to make way for projects that generate higher property taxes and other revenue, creating a shortage of housing affordable to low-income working families, the elderly poor, and the disabled.[31][32][33][34]
  • The failure of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide effective mental health care and meaningful job training for many homeless veterans, particularly those of the Vietnam War.[37]
  • Deprived of normal childhoods, nearly half of foster children in the United States become homeless when they are released from foster care at age 18.[38][39]
  • Natural disasters that destroy homes: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc. Places of employment are often destroyed too, causing unemployment and transience.[40]
  • People who have served time in prison, have abused drugs and alcohol, or have a history of mental illness find it difficult to impossible to find employment for years at a time because of the use of computer background checks by potential employers.[41]
  • According to the Institution of Housing in 2005, the U.S. Government has focused 42% more on foreign countries rather than homeless Americans, including homeless veterans.[31][32][33][34]
  • People who are hiding in order to evade law enforcement.[31][32][33][34]
  • Adults and children who flee domestic violence.[31][32][33][34]
  • Teenagers who flee or are thrown out by parents who disapprove of their child's sexual orientation or gender identity. A 2010 study by the Center for American Progress shows that a disproportionately high number of homeless youth (between 20–40%) identify as LGBTQ.[42]
  • Overly complex building code that makes it difficult for most people to build. Traditional huts, cars, and tents are illegal, classified as substandard and may be removed by government, even though the occupant may own the land. Land owner cannot live on the land cheaply, and so sells the land and becomes homeless.[31][32][33][34]
  • Foreclosures of homes, including foreclosure of apartment complexes which displaces tenants renting there.[43]
  • Evictions from rented property.[43]
  • Lack of support from friends or family.[31][32][33][34]
  • Individuals who prefer homelessness and wish to remain off the grid for political and ideological purposes. Often self-identified as Gutter Punks or Urban Survivalists. The Department of Housing and Urban Development rarely reports on this counter-cultural movement since Gutter Punks and similar individuals often refuse to participate in governmental studies and do not seek governmental assistance for ideological or political purposes.[44]
  • Lack of resources in place in the communities to help aid in prevention of homelessness before it becomes a crisis.[31][32][33][34]
  • Neoliberal reforms to the welfare state and the retrenchment of the social safety net.[45]

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency shelter in 270 U.S. cities increased 13 percent in 2001 and 25 percent in 2005.[31][32] 22 percent of those requesting emergency shelter were turned away. Traditionally single men have constituted the majority of the homeless. In the 1980s there was a sharp rise in the number of homeless families in certain parts of the United States; notably New York City.[citation needed] Most homeless families consist of a single mother and children. A significant number of homeless people are teenagers and young adults, mostly runaways or street children. A 1960 survey by Temple University of Philadelphia's poor neighborhoods found that 75 percent of the homeless were over 45 years old, and 87 percent were white.[46] In 1986, 86 percent were under age 45, and 87 percent were minorities.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the most common demographic features of all sheltered homeless people are: male, members of minority groups, older than age 31, and alone. More than 40 percent of sheltered homeless people have a disability. At the same time, sizable segments of the sheltered homeless population are white, non-Hispanic (38 percent), children (20 percent), or part of multi-person households (33 percent). Approximately 68 percent of the 1.6 million sheltered homeless people were homeless as individuals and 32 percent were persons in families.[47]

In 2008 more than 66 percent of all sheltered homeless people were located in principal cities, with 32 percent located in suburban or rural jurisdictions. About 40 percent of people entering an emergency shelter or transitional housing program during 2008 came from another homeless situation (sheltered or unsheltered), 40 percent came from a housed situation (in their own or someone else's home), and the remaining 20 percent were split between institutional settings or other situations such as hotels or motels. Most people had relatively short lengths of stay in emergency shelters: 60 percent stayed less than a month, and a 33 percent stayed a week or less.[47]

Costs of dealing with homelessness

In 2013, a Central Florida Commission on Homelessness study indicated that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person to cover "salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues. This did not include "money spent by nonprofit agencies to feed, clothe and sometimes shelter these individuals". In contrast, the report estimated the cost of permanent supportive housing at "$10,051 per person per year" and concluded that "[h]ousing even half of the region's chronically homeless population would save taxpayers $149 million during the next decade — even allowing for 10 percent to end up back on the streets again." This particular study followed 107 long-term-homeless residents living in Orange, Osceola or Seminole Counties.[48] There are similar studies showing large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado from focusing on simply housing the homeless.[49]

Efforts to alleviate homelessness

More affordable housing

Homeless individuals report a lack of affordable housing as the number one reason for becoming homeless.[50] Many non-profit organizations are in operation to serve this need—for example, the National Low Income Housing Coalition—but most lack the funding necessary to create enough housing. Several proposed policy measures are designed to secure such funding, such as the National Housing Trust Fund, but these have not been signed into law.

Comprehensive health care

Homeless individuals report mental illness as being the number three reason for becoming or staying homeless.[50] Such illnesses are often closely linked with the fourth reason—substance abuse—and therefore it is generally accepted that both of these issues should be treated simultaneously. Although many medical, psychiatric, and counseling services exist to address these needs, it is commonly believed that without the support of reliable and stable housing such treatments remain ineffective. Furthermore, in the absence of a universal health-care plan, many of those in need cannot afford such services. Proposed legislation such as the Bringing America Home Act are intended to provide comprehensive treatment for many homeless mental and substance abuse patients.

Homeless assistance programs

The homeless community of the United States is aided in many ways from governmental and non-governmental organizations. Non-governmental organizations help the homeless by advocating or by physical and financial aid. Organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness go to government officials and offices to speak on behalf of the homeless community calling for policy changes or for the creation of policy to help end homelessness. Government agencies respond. The following programs and policies acknowledge the phenomenon of homelessness, provide help to the homeless, and prevent further growth of the homeless population.


Many programs that are designed to assist the homeless population have incorporated some type of housing program for their clients. Whether it is a transitional, permanent or even emergency housing program, the assistance is often provided for a very low cost and maybe even free. In the United States each year, there are around 3.5 million people who live their lives without shelter or a stable occupation. For 2006 alone, $28.5 billion was allotted to homeless programs ran through HUD (Housing and Urban Development), $1 billion was given for Section 8 housing, and $1.4 billion was used for Homeless Assistance Grants. As one example, Volunteers of America is an agency that believes preventing family homelessness is a critical part of their organization. Through them, transitional housing and emergency shelters are available to those who are in desperate need. There have been instances in which volunteer support networks have sprung into place which communicate via the Internet; for example, a Facebook-coordinated 800-member volunteer group named Helping Other People Everyday, or H.O.P.E., rallied to support a man who had been homeless for four years; within a month, the formerly homeless man got medical care, new clothes, a cane, a haircut, meals and a train ticket to be reunited with his daughter.[51]


The two main types of housing programs provided for homeless people are:

  • Transitional
Transitional housing programs are operated with one goal in mind – to help individuals and families obtain permanent housing as quickly as possible. Transitional housing programs assist homeless for a fixed amount of time or until they are able to obtain housing on their own and function successfully in the community, or whichever comes first.[52][53][54]
  • Permanent
For a significant number of homeless Americans with mental or physical impairments, often coupled with drug and/or alcohol use issues, long-term homelessness can only be ended by providing permanent housing coupled with intensive supportive services. Permanent housing provides a "base" for people to move out of poverty.

Some shelters and associated charitable foundations have bought buildings and real estate to develop into permanent housing for the homeless in lieu of transitional Housing.[55]

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Administration have a special Section 8 housing voucher program called VASH (Veterans Administration Supported Housing), or HUD-VASH, which gives out a certain number of Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers to eligible homeless and otherwise vulnerable US armed forces veterans.[56] The HUD-VASH program has been successful in housing many homeless veterans.[57]

Substance abuse prevention

Without supportive services, housing is not often enough to end homelessness. Various agencies, in fact all homeless prevention agencies and programs include substance abuse recovery and prevention programs. Objectives are to provide substance abuse counseling and access to treatment centers.


For a significant number of homeless Americans with mental or physical impairments, often coupled with drug and/or alcohol use issues, long-term homelessness can only be ended by providing permanent housing coupled with intensive supportive services.


There are several policies dealing with homelessness. In 1980 the government decided to start sending funding to the homeless, but it was not until 1984 that shelters were built to accommodate and feed them. As it was shown though seventy percent required the homeless to attend a religious ceremony and spend only a couple of nights there. In the 1987 McKinney Act the problem with homelessness became known as a huge social problem. Later on, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110) amended the program explicitly to prohibit states that receive McKinney-Vento funds from segregating homeless students from non-homeless students, except for short periods of time for health and safety emergencies or to provide temporary, special, supplementary services. The Chronic Homelessness Initiative. The Bush Administration established a national goal of ending chronic homelessness in ten years, by 2012. The idea of a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness began as a part of a 10-year plan to end homelessness in general adopted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) in 2000. The following year, then-Secretary Martinez announced HUD's commitment to ending chronic homelessness at the NAEH annual conference. In 2002, as a part of his FY2003 budget, President Bush made "ending chronic homelessness in the next decade a top objective." The bi-partisan, congressionally mandated, Millennial Housing Commission, in its Report to Congress in 2002, included ending chronic homelessness in 10 years among its principal recommendations. By 2003, the Interagency Council on Homelessness had been re-engaged and charged with pursuing the President's 10-year plan. The Administration has recently undertaken some collaborative efforts to reach its goal of ending chronic homelessness in 10 years. On October 1, 2003, the Administration announced the award of over $48 million in grants aimed at serving the needs of the chronically homeless through two initiatives. The "Ending Chronic Homelessness through Employment and Housing"[58] initiative was a collaborative grant offered jointly by HUD[59] and the Department of Labor (DOL).[60] The initiative offered $10 million from HUD and $3.5 million from DOL to help the chronically homeless in five communities gain access to employment and permanent housing. Section 8 is the core housing program that helps extremely low-income families accommodate the gap between their incomes below 30 percent of the median income for each community. The government assists homeless families by awarding grants and vouchers. Vouchers are available to the families who are most needy and they are used to pay for housing found in the private market. Currently there are policy changes in who receives vouchers and there will be a reduction in the amount of vouchers granted to the homeless population.

On May 20, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009. The HEARTH Act amends and reauthorizes the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act with substantial changes. The HEARTH Act of 2009 consolidated HUD's competitive grant programs, created a Rural Housing Stability Program, changed HUD's definition of homelessness and chronic homelessness, supplied a simplified match requirement, increased prevention resources and increased in the emphasis on performance. The primary purpose of the legislation was to define homelessness terms: "homeless," "homeless individual," "homeless person," and "homeless individual with a disability."

Housing First

Housing First has met with success since its initial implementations in 2009 by providing relatively no strings-attached housing to homeless people with substance abuse problems or mental health issues. Housing First allows homeless men and women to be taken directly off the street into private community-based apartments, without requiring treatment first. This allows the homeless to return to some sense of normalcy, from which it is believed that they are better-poised to tackle their addictions or sicknesses. The relapse rate through these types of programs is lower than that of conventional homeless programs.[61][62]

Housing First was initiated by the federal government's Interagency Council on Homelessness. It asks cities to come up with a plan to end chronic homelessness under the assumption that if homeless people are given independent housing immediately with some social and financial support, then there will be reduced needs for emergency homeless shelters.[63][64]

Paradigm shift

A significant shift has occurred in homeless services over the past five years[needs update] which has changed the emphasis from "managing the problem of homelessness" with emergency shelters, soup kitchens and health clinic to ending homelessness by housing individuals who are experiencing homelessness. In 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness[65] released "A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years" which encouraged communities to develop and implement 10-year plans to end homelessness in their communities.

Key effective programs include:

  • Shelter Plus Care – a federal program that provides housing subsidies and are matched by local funds to provide long-term supportive services (typically case management). Experience demonstrated that many individuals who have been homeless for a significant time often lose their housing shortly after placement. The Shelter Plus Care program provides long-term supports including working with the landlord to keep the individual housed.
  • Housing First – a service paradigm that assumes that individuals who are homeless are "ready" to be housed immediately and with appropriate supports can retain their housing. The Pathways to Housing project in New York demonstrated a five-year housing retention rate of 88 percent among formerly homeless individuals with serious mental illness. Homeless people seeking help are often required to participate in substance abuse, mental health, and life skills programs of a year or more regardless of whether those are factors in their case. Many people only need decent housing to get back on their feet. Central City Concern's (Portland, Oregon) Shoreline Project allows homeless unemployed men to move into SRO type single person studios and find a job within 70 days; it's been a great success with expected expansion of the program in 2007.
  • Assertive Outreach – a form of engagement and outreach that emphasizes building a bond of trust between the case worker and the individual. Engagement is highly individualized with the pace dictated by the individual in need. Case workers do not force rules, regulations or program services until they are requested. Typically used to engage homeless, mentally ill individuals.

In September 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts, after some arrests and shootings, and in anticipation of the cold winter ahead the Boston Common homeless outreach began, targeting Boston Common homeless in a federally mandated Housing First initiative. Thomas Menino, Boston's mayor, said "The solution to homelessness is permanent housing." [66]

Homeless bills of rights legislation

In June 2012, Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island signed a bill into law which gives homeless people in that state some clearer rights than before.[67]

Statistics and demographics

Completely accurate and comprehensive statistics are difficult to acquire for any social study, but especially so when measuring the ambiguous hidden, and erratic reality of homelessness. All figures given are estimates. In addition, these estimates represent overall national averages; the proportions of specific homeless communities can vary substantially depending on local geography.[68]

2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress

Perhaps the most accurate, comprehensive, and current data on homelessness in the United States is reported annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR), released in June of every year since 2007. The AHAR report relies on data from two sources: single-night, point-in-time counts of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations reported on the Continuum of Care applications to HUD; and counts of the sheltered homeless population over a full year provided by a sample of communities based on data in their Management Information Systems (HMIS).[47]

Other statistics

Homeless children in the United States.[69] The number of homeless children reached record highs in 2011,[70] 2012,[71] and 2013[72] at about three times their number in 1983.[71]

Total number

Over the course of the year (October 2009-September 2010), the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report found that 1,593,150 individuals experienced homelessness[73][74] Most were homeless temporarily. The chronically homeless population (those with repeated episodes or who have been homeless for long periods) decreased from 175,914 in 2005 to 123,833 in 2007.[75]

Familial composition

According to the NCHWIH report:[76]

  • 51.3% are single males.
  • 24.7% are single females.
  • 23% are families with children—the fastest growing segment.
  • 5% are minors unaccompanied by adults.
  • 1.37 million (or 39%) of the total homeless population are children under the age of 18.

Marital status

According to the 2014 NCHWIH report:[76]

  • 24% are married.
  • 76% are single.
  • 67.5% are single males within the single percentage.
  • 32.5% are single females within the single percentage.


According to the 2010 SAMHSA report, among long-term stayers (persons staying six months or more) in emergency shelters in 2008:[73]

  • 56.6% were Black/African-American
  • 28.7% were Hispanic/Latino

According to the 2014 NCHWIH report:[76]

  • 42% are African American (over-represented 3.23x compared to 13% of general population).
  • 38% are Caucasian (under-represented 0.53x compared to 72% of general population).
  • 20% are Hispanic (over-represented 1.25x compared to 16% of general population).
  • 4% are Native American (over-represented 4x compared to 1% of general population).
  • 2% are Asian-American (under-represented 0.4x compared to 5% of general population).

Mental health

According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:[73]

  • 26.2% of all sheltered persons who were homeless had a severe mental illness
  • About 30% of people who are chronically homeless have mental health conditions.

According to analyses of data from the 1996 NSHAPCxiv:[77]

  • Over 60% of people who are chronically homelessness have experienced lifetime mental health problems

Substance abuse

According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:[73]

  • 34.7% of all sheltered adults who were homeless had chronic substance use issues
  • About 50% of people who are chronically homeless co-occurring substance use problems.

According to analyses of data from the 1996 NSHAPCxiv:[77]

  • Over 80% have experienced lifetime alcohol and/or drug problems


According to the 1996 Urban Institute findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (UIHAC) report[78]

  • 53 percent have less than a high school education
  • 21 percent have completed high school
  • 27 percent have some education beyond high school.


According to the 1996 UIHAC report[78]

  • 44 percent did paid work during the past month. Of these:
  • 20 percent worked in a job lasting or expected to last at least three months.
  • 25 percent worked at a temporary or day labor job.
  • 2 percent earned money by peddling or selling personal belongings.

A 2010 longitudinal study of homeless men conducted in Birmingham, Alabama, found that most earned an average of ninety dollars per week while working an average of thirty hours per week[79]


According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:[73]

  • 71% reside in central cities.
  • 21% are in suburbs.
  • 9% are in rural areas.


According to the 2010 SAMHSA report:[73] Research on shelter use in New York City and Philadelphia concluded that

  • People experiencing transitional homelessness constitute 80% of shelter users
  • People experiencing episodic homelessness comprise 10% of shelter users.

In New York City

  • Transitionally homeless individuals experience an average of 1.4 stays over a 3-year period, for a total of 58 days on average over the 3 years.
  • Episodically homeless individuals, on average, experience 4.9 shelter episodes over a 3-year period totaling 264 days with an average length of stay of 54.4 days.

Data from the 1996 NSHAPC show that about 50% of people who were homeless were experiencing their first or second episode of homelessness, which typically lasted a few weeks or months to one year.

Effects of homelessness


Homelessness has a tremendous effect on a child's education. Education of homeless youth is thought to be essential in breaking the cycle of poverty.[citation needed] The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act mandates equal opportunity to a free public education to homeless students. This act is supposed to break down the barriers homeless students have to receiving an education. These barriers include residency restriction, medical record verification, and transportation issues. Once a student surpasses these barriers, they are still subject to the stigma of being homeless, and the humiliation they feel because of their situation. Some families do not report their homelessness, while others are unaware of the opportunities available to them. Many report that maintaining a stable school environment helps the students because it's the only thing that remains normal.[80] Many homeless students fall behind their peers in school due to behavioral disorders, and lack of attendance in school.[81]

Since the housing market fall out there has been a rise in the number of homeless students. NAEHCY or the National Association for the Education of Homeless for Children and Youth, has reported a 99% increase in homeless students within a three-month period (San Diego).[82]

Of 1,636 schools, 330 reported no increase, 847 reported an increase of half, and 459 reported an increase of 25% or more. Due to the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act many school districts are struggling to provide the necessary services, such as rising transportation needs and the greater severity of services.

One of the biggest challenges our district faces is providing transportation to students who are experiencing homelessness. There are few approaches that our district can utilize to provide transportation for these students. Our city has only one taxi cab service and no public bus system. Our cab company is small and simply cannot fulfill all of our transportation requests. When it's possible, we add students to existing bus routes or set up a contractual agreement with the student's parent/guardian. However, there have been many situations where none of these options have worked. Another challenge our district faces is providing proper outer-wear for students who are homeless. Being that we live in central Wisconsin and have long, cold winters, all students need proper outerwear to go outside. Proper outerwear includes snow boots, hat, mittens, snow pants, and a winter jacket that has a working zipper or buttons on it. This expense adds up quickly and is hard to provide to the increasing number of homeless students.[82]

This is especially worrisome since homeless students are 1) 1.5 times more likely to perform below grade level in reading; 2) 1.5 times more likely to perform below grade level in spelling; and 3) 2.5 times more likely to perform below grade level in math.[82] There are a few worries that there will be false reports of homeless students, but mostly it's not an issue.[80]


There has been concern about the transmission of diseases in the homeless population housed in shelters, and the people who work there, especially with tuberculosis.[83]

A 2011 study led by Dr. Rebecca T. Brown in Boston, Massachusetts conducted by the Institute for Aging Research (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School), Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program found the elderly homeless population had "higher rates of geriatric syndromes, including functional decline, falls, frailty and depression, than seniors in the general population and that many of these conditions may be easily treated if detected". The report was published in the Journal of Geriatric Internal Medicine.[84]

Public attitudes

Many advocates for the homeless contend that a key difficulty is the social stigma surrounding homelessness. Many associate a lack of a permanent home with a lack of a proper bathroom and limited access to regular grooming. Thus, the homeless become "aesthetically unappealing" to the general public. Research shows that "physically attractive persons are judged more positively than physically unattractive individuals on various traits…reflecting social competence." [85] In addition to the physical component of stigmatization exists an association of the homeless with mental illness. Many people consider the mentally ill to be irresponsible and childlike and treat them with fear and exclusion, using their mental incapacitation as justification for why they should be left out of communities.[86] There is anecdotal evidence that many Americans complain about the presence of homeless people, blame them for their situation, and feel that their requests for money or support (usually via begging) are unjustified. In the 1990s, particularly, many observers and media articles spoke of "compassion fatigue" a belief that the public had grown weary of this seemingly intractable problem. A common misconception persists that many individuals who panhandle are not actually homeless, but actually use pity and compassion to fund their lifestyles, making up to $20 an hour and living luxurious lives.[87] This exception to the rule seems more prevalent due to media attention, but in reality, only a few cases exist.[88] Public opinion surveys show relatively little support for this view, however. A 1995 paper in the American Journal of Community Psychology concluded that "although the homeless are clearly stigmatized, there is little evidence to suggest that the public has lost compassion and is unwilling to support policies to help homeless people."[89] A Penn State study in 2004 concluded that "familiarity breeds sympathy" and greater support for addressing the problem.[90]

A 2007 survey conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization that helps leaders and their citizens navigate through complex social issues, found that 67 percent of New Yorkers agreed that most homeless people were without shelter because of "circumstances beyond their control," including high housing costs and lack of good and steady employment. More than one-third (36 percent) said they worried about becoming homeless themselves, with 15 percent saying they were "very worried." More interestingly, 90 percent of New Yorkers believed that everyone has a right to shelter, and 68 percent believed that the government is responsible for guaranteeing that right to its citizens. The survey found support for investments in prevention, rental assistance and permanent housing for the homeless.[91]

Public Agenda has also concluded, however, that the public's sympathy has limits. In a 2002 national survey, the organization found 74 percent say the police should leave a homeless person alone if he or she is not bothering anyone. Yet, contradictingly, 71 percent say the police should move the homeless if they are keeping customers away from a shopping area and 51 percent say the homeless should be moved if they are driving other people away from a public park.[92]

Criminalization of homelessness

Various laws have both directly and indirectly criminalized the homeless[93] and people attempting to feed homeless people outdoors.[94] At least 31 cities have criminalized feeding the homeless.[95][96]

In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized the United States for the criminalization of homelessness, noting that such "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" is in violation of international human rights treaty obligations.[97][98][99][100]


Measures passed "prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws."[101] Violators of such laws typically incur criminal penalties, which result in fines and/or incarceration.

In April 2006 the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that "making it a crime to be homeless by charging them with a crime is in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments."[102][103] However, on October 15, 2007, the Court vacated its Opinion when, on appeal the parties settled the case out of court.[104]

The City could not expressly criminalize the status of homelessness by making it a crime to be homeless without violating the Eighth Amendment, nor can it criminalize acts that are an integral aspect of that status. Because there is substantial and undisputed evidence that the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles far exceeds the number of available shelter beds at all times, including on the nights of their arrest or citation, Los Angeles has encroached upon Appellants' Eighth Amendment protections by criminalizing the unavoidable act of sitting, lying or sleeping at night while being involuntarily homeless.

… the Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

… By our decision, we in no way dictate to the City that it must provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets of Los Angeles at any time and at any place within the City. All we hold is that, so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds, the City may not enforce section 41.18(d) at all times and places throughout the City against homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public.

In August 2007, in Boston, Massachusetts, the city took action to keep loiterers, including the homeless, off the Boston Common overnight, after a series of violent crimes and drug arrests.[105]

In August 2012, a federal district judge in Philadelphia ruled that laws prohibiting serving food to the homeless outdoors were unconstitutional.[106]

On June 19, 2014 the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down a 1983 ordinance in the city of Los Angeles which "bans people from living in cars or recreational vehicles on city streets or in parking lots" as being "unconstitutionally vague ... Unlike other cities, which ban overnight parking or sleeping in vehicles, Los Angeles' law prohibits using cars as 'living quarters; both overnight and 'day-by-day, or otherwise.'"[107]

Homeless rights advocates are pushing for "Right to Rest" bills in several states in 2015, which would overturn laws that target homeless people for sitting, eating, and sleeping in public places.[108]

Crimes against homeless people

The past two decades have seen a growing number of violent acts committed upon people experiencing homelessness—the rate of such documented crimes in 2005 was 30% higher than of those in 1999.[101] 75% of all perpetrators are under the age of 25.

In recent years, largely due to the efforts of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and academic researchers, the problem of violence against the homeless has gained national attention. In their report: Hate, Violence, and Death on Mainstreet USA, the NCH reported 386 violent acts committed against homeless persons over the period, among which 155 were lethal. The NCH called those acts hate crimes (they retain the definition of the American Congress). They insist that so called bumfight videos disseminate hate against the homeless and dehumanize them.

The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, San Bernardino in conjunction with the NCH found that 155 homeless people were killed by non-homeless people in "hate killings", while 76 people were killed in all the other traditional hate crime homicide categories such as race and religion, combined.[109] The CSHE contends that negative and degrading portrayals of the homeless contribute to a climate where violence takes place.

Various studies and surveys indicate that homeless people have a much higher criminal victimization rate than the non-homeless, but that most incidents never get reported to authorities. A 2007 study found that the number of violent crimes against the homeless is increasing.[109][110] In 2013 there were 109 attacks on homeless people, a 24 per cent increase on the previous year, according to the NCH. Eighteen people died as a result of the attacks. In July 2014 three boys 15, 16 and 18, were arrested and charged with beating to death two homeless men with bricks and a metal pole in Albuquerque.[111]

Historical background


Many towns and cities had an area which contained the poor, transients, and afflicted, such as a "skid row". In New York City, for example, there was an area known as "the Bowery", traditionally, where alcoholics were to be found sleeping on the streets, bottle in hand. Rescue missions offering "soup, soap, and salvation", a phrase introduced by The Salvation Army,[112] sprang up along the Bowery thoroughfare, including the oldest one, The Bowery Mission. The mission was founded in 1879 by the Rev. and Mrs. A.G. Ruliffson.[113]

The Bowery Mission at 36 Bowery in New York City in the 1880s

The mission's parent organization, Christian Herald, once published "Christian Herald And Signs of Our Times". In relating the formation and origin of the mission in its edition of March 27, 1895 it said: "Fifteen years ago, Rev. A.G. Ruliffson and Mrs. Ruliffson, long engaged in mission work in New York, decided to open an eastside mission for men."

At the time the Bowery Mission was established it was located at 36 Bowery, a location that in an earlier time in New York City, played a role in the New York City Draft Riots, when the building was used as a saloon. An examination of the Annual Reports for the first decade of the mission, and period New York City newspapers starting in 1881, suggest that an 1880 date for the mission is more likely than 1879. To cite examples from period newspapers, The New York Tribune's article, "The Bowery Mission, A Sketch of its Career", dated March 14, 1898 opens with "The Bowery Mission was started in 1880 at No.36 Bowery by a number of men who were interested in mission work." An even earlier article appearing in The New York Tribune on November 8, 1880, "A Bright Spot In The Darkness", declared "The Bowery Evangelical Mission, at No.36 Bowery, was opened yesterday afternoon with a prayer-meeting, at which some 150 persons were present." The present location of the Bowery Mission at 227–229 Bowery dates to 1909 when an abandoned coffin factory was converted to a mission.

In smaller towns, there were hobos, who temporarily lived near train tracks and hopped onto trains to various destinations. Especially following the American Civil War, a large number of homeless men formed part of a counterculture known as "hobohemia" all over America.[114][115]

Jacob Riis wrote about, documented, and photographed the poor and destitute, although not specifically the homeless, in New York City tenements in the late 19th century. His ground-breaking book, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, raised public awareness of living conditions in the slums, causing some changes in building codes and some social conditions.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression caused the return of the homeless. There were two million homeless people migrating around the country. One visible effect of the depression was the advent of Hoovervilles. Residents lived in shacks and begged for food or went to soup kitchens. Authorities did not officially recognize these Hoovervilles and occasionally removed the occupants for technically trespassing on private lands, but they were frequently tolerated out of necessity.

1960s and 1970s

In the United States, during the late 1970s, the deinstitutionalization of patients from state psychiatric hospitals was a precipitating factor which seeded the homeless population, especially in urban areas such as New York City.[116]

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was a pre-disposing factor in setting the stage for homelessness in the United States.[117] Long term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals into Single Room Occupancies and sent to community health centers for treatment and follow-up. It never quite worked out properly and this population largely was found living in the streets soon thereafter with no sustainable support system.[118][119]

In 1965, The Diggers, a community-action group dedicated to the concept of everything being free of charge, established soup kitchens and free health-care facilities in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. This also began a movement of people that began to travel for political reasons as well as for personal choices. This is where the beginnings of the American nomadic caravans became popular, living homelessly, but happily.

In 1969 the Pine Street Inn was founded by Paul Sullivan on Pine Street in Boston's Chinatown district and began caring for homeless destitute alcoholics. In 1980, it moved to larger facilities on Harrison Avenue in Boston due to growing needs of the homeless population.[120][121]

In 1974, Kip Tiernan founded Rosie's Place in Boston, the first drop-in and emergency shelter for women in the United States, in response to the increasing numbers of needy women throughout the country.

In 1979, a New York City lawyer, Robert Hayes, brought a class action suit before the courts, Callahan v. Carey, against the City and State, arguing for a person's state constitutional "right to shelter". It was settled as a consent decree in August 1981. The City and State agreed to provide board and shelter to all homeless men who met the need standard for welfare or who were homeless by certain other standards. By 1983 this right was extended to homeless women.


The number of homeless people grew in the 1980s, as housing and social service cuts increased and the economy deteriorated. The United States government determined that somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 Americans were then homeless.[122] There were some U.S. federal initiatives that aimed to help, end and prevent homelessness, however, there were no designated homeless-related programs in the Office of Management and Budget.[123]

The History of the United States (1980–1991) illustrates that this was a time when there was economic distress, high unemployment, and was the period when chronic homelessness became a societal problem. In 1980, federal funds accounted for 22% of big city budgets, but by 1989 the similar aid composed only 6% of urban revenue (part of a larger 60% decrease in federal spending to support local governments).[124] It is largely (although not exclusively) in these urban areas that homelessness became widespread and reached unprecedented numbers.

Most notable were cuts to federal low-income housing programs. An advocacy group claims that Congress halved the budget for public housing and Section 8 (the government's housing voucher subsidization program) and that between the years of 1980 and 1989 HUD's budget authority was reduced from $74 billion to $19 billion.[124] Such alleged changes is claimed to have resulted in an inadequate supply of affordable housing to meet the growing demand of low-income populations. In 1970 there were 300,000 more low-cost rental units (6.5 million) than low-income renter households (6.2 million). By 1985, the advocacy group claimed that the number of low-cost units had fallen to 5.6 million, and the number of low-income renter households had grown to 8.9 million, a disparity of 3.3 million units[125]

The 1980s also saw a continuing trend of deinstitutionalizing mental-health treatment. It is believed[who?] that a large percentage of these released patients ended up in the homeless system.

Many existing shelters and soup kitchens had to expand their facilities to accommodate the larger number of homeless. For example, in 1980, the Pine Street Inn had to move to larger facilities on Harrison Avenue in Boston[120][121] and in 1984, Saint Francis House had to move its operation from the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street to an entire ten-floor building on Boylston Street.[126]

The January 2, 1984 issue of Newsweek magazine had a front cover of the Reynolds family in Galveston, Texas, with the cover title, "Homeless in America", thereby bringing the homelessness issue to continued national attention.

In response to the ensuing homelessness crisis of the 1980s, concerned citizens across the country[who?] demanded that the federal government provide assistance. After many years of advocacy and numerous revisions, President Reagan signed into law the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987—this remains the only piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of homeless people.

By the mid-1980s, there was also a dramatic increase in family homelessness. Tied into this was an increasing number of impoverished and runaway children, teenagers, and young adults, which created a new sub-stratum of the homeless population.

In 1985, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program was founded to assist the growing numbers of homeless living on the streets and in shelters in Boston and who were suffering from lack of effective medical services.[127][128]


The McKinney-Vento Act paved the way for service providers in the coming years. During the 1990s homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other supportive services sprouted up in cities and towns across the nation. However, despite these efforts and the dramatic economic growth marked by this decade, homeless numbers remained stubbornly high. It became increasingly apparent that simply providing services to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness (i.e. shelter beds, hot meals, psychiatric counseling, etc.), although needed, were not successful at solving the root causes of homelessness.


Throughout this decade, homeless service providers and the Federal government have been able to reduce chronic homelessness and homelessness among Veterans with targeted efforts and interagency cooperation on initiatives like the HUD-VASH program.[129] The 2000s, however, saw a new population of those experiencing homelessness: families with children. While an emerging problem at the beginning of the decade,[130] the problem continued to persist through 2010. At the close of the decade the trend continued unabated, with the number of individuals in homeless families increasing from 431,541 in 2007 to 535,447 in 2009.[129]

Another emerging concern at the onset of this decade was the disproportionate representation of the LGBTQ community among the population of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. In 2002, activist and youth advocate Carl Siciliano founded the Ali Forney Center—a homeless shelter in New York City that is dedicated specifically to providing aid and shelter to homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth. The center takes its name from a homosexual teenager who lived on the streets for much of the 1990s. While homeless, Ali Forney protected other LGBTQ homeless youth by performing HIV prevention and awareness work. He also urged the NYPD to investigate the murders of several homosexual homeless youth whom he had befriended during his time on the street. In 1997, Ali Forney was himself murdered by an attacker who has not yet been identified. However, Ali's outreach and advocacy work inspired Carl Siciliano to found an organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth in New York. The Ali Forney Center provides both emergency and transitional housing for homosexual homeless youth, whose numbers account for anywhere between 20–40% of the 2.1 million homeless youth in America. The percentage of LGBTQ homeless youth is much higher than that of the general population, which runs between 5–10%.[42] The work of the Ali Forney Center is one example of the ways that the social service community has responded to the needs of growing sub-populations of those experiencing homelessness.

In 2001, the NAEH along with the U.S. ICH encouraged communities to create and implement state and local strategic plans to prevent and end homelessness, focusing on Housing First initiatives to house the chronically homeless population who have many barriers to stability, a cost-benefit analysis of state- and local-level resources, best practice engagement and service innovations, and prevention.[131] Many communities and states across the country have created these plans and have set up measurable goals and targets for the short- and long-term.[132]

There were about 643,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons nationwide in January 2009. About two-thirds of those stayed in emergency shelters or used transitional housing programs, with the remaining living on the street in abandoned buildings or other areas not meant for human habitation. About 1.56 million people, or about 0.5% of the U.S. population, used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009.[133] Around 44% of homeless people were employed.[134]

In February 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was part of the President's effort to save or create 3.5 million jobs in the United States to mitigate the effects of the economic recession begun in 2008. Part of the Act addressed homelessness prevention, in which he allocated an additional $1.5 billion to HUD for the "Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP)." The purpose of HPRP was to assist individuals and families who are otherwise healthy and not chronically homeless in escaping homelessness or preventing homelessness of the vulnerable population. HPRP grant monies were distributed to localities in the same formula used for Emergency Shelter Grants (ESG) in amounts not to exceed $500,000 and must be used within three years. Primary grantee activities include short-term and medium-term rental assistance and housing relocation and stabilization services, including mediation, credit counseling, security or utility deposits, utility payments, moving cost assistance, and case management.[135][136]

On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act into Public Law (Public Law 111-22 or "PL 111-22"), reauthorizing HUD's Homeless Assistance programs. It was part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009. The HEARTH act allows for the prevention of homelessness, rapid re-housing, consolidation of housing programs, and new homeless categories. In the eighteen months after the bill's signing, HUD had to begin implementing the new McKinney-compliant programs.[137][138] In late 2009, some homeless advocacy organizations, such as the National Coalition for the Homeless, reported and published perceived problems with the HEARTH Act of 2009 as a HUD McKinney-Vento Reauthorization bill, especially with regard to privacy, definitional ineligibility, community roles, and restrictions on eligibile activities.[139] However, at the close of 2010 HUD reported that many communities had successfully used HPRP funds to assist those in need in their communities, and reported that the program prevented homelessness for nearly 750,000 Americans.[140]

The Federal government contains one agency that focuses on the issue of homelessness in America, and it has had a much greater role in the policy community since its revitalization at the beginning of the decade and its continued appropriations in the HEARTH Act. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH),a federal agency contained in the Executive Branch, was established in 1987 as a requirement of the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987. Since its revitalization in 2001 as an agency independent from the Executive Office of the President and reauthorization in 2009, USICH serves as the coordinating body of all 19 federal agencies and their programs and initiatives to serve the homeless population.[141] Its mission is to, "coordinate the Federal response to homelessness and to create a national partnership at every lever of government and with the private sector to reduce and end homelessness in the nation while maximizing the effectiveness of the Federal Government in contributing to the end of homelessness."[142] USICH has taken on a much greater role in Federal-level initiatives to end homelessness in the United States since exiting the Executive Office of the President and notably since the enactment of the HEARTH Act, in which it was mandated that USICH provide leadership in developing a national strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness.[143] Since its authorization as an independent agency, USICH been able to work with stakeholders across all government sectors and at all levels to promote collaboration and best practices within the homeless service provider community.


Homeless man soliciting employment, Ypsilanti, Michigan

The first year of the new decade saw a renewed commitment from the Federal government in its efforts to prevent and end homelessness with the creation and release of Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.[144][145] Opening Doors is a publication of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which worked with all Federal agencies and many state and local stakeholders on its creation and vision, setting a ten-year path for the nation on preventing and ending all types of homelessness. This Plan was presented to the President and Congress in a White House Ceremony on June 22, 2010.[146]

The Vision of the Plan is: "No one should experience homelessness – no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home."

This document focuses on four main goals:

  • Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in the next five years (2015)
  • Prevent and end homelessness among Veterans in five years (2015)
  • Prevent and end homelessness for families, children and youth in ten years (2020)
  • Set a path to ending all types of homelessness

The 2011 point-in-time count by HUD took place during the last two weeks of January 2011,[147] and data reported at that time and gathered from service providers in local communities was used to compile the 2010 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report which was released in the middle of 2011.

Situations in specific U.S. cities and states

Chicago, Illinois

Over the years, the city of Chicago, Illinois has gained a reputation as the city with the most homeless people, rivaling Los Angeles and New York, although no statistical data have backed this up. The reputation stems primarily from the subjective number of beggars found on the streets rather than any sort of objective statistical census data. Indeed, from statistical data, Chicago has far less homeless per capita than peers New York, and Los Angeles, or other major cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston, among others, with only 5,922 homeless recorded in a one night count taken in 2007.[148]

Denver, Colorado

While Mayor of Denver, Colorado, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper made dealing with the issues that underlie homelessness a top priority on his Mayoral agenda, speaking heavily on the issue during his first "State of the City" address in 2003. While Denver's homeless population is much lower than other major cities, the homeless residents have often suffered when without shelter during Denver's infamously cold winters. Now officials have said that this number has risen over the past few years.[149]


Homeless advocate and urban designer Michael E. Arth proposed building a Pedestrian village for the adult homeless in Volusia County near Daytona Beach, Florida in 2007.[150][151][152] As of 2009, Arth was still working toward trying to consolidate most of the scattered 19 local agencies into an attractive community that would be designed to more effectively address the needs of the chronically adult homeless and the temporarily adult homeless, as well as others who may be having difficulty fitting into the pervasive, automobile-dominated culture. He writes that the current "piecemeal approach" inefficiently spreads out services and work opportunities, and aggravates the problem by polarizing citizens who might otherwise be inclined to help. In response to critics who say that such a village would be like a concentration camp, Arth points out that the U.S. already concentrates their citizens into prisons at 7–8 times the rate of Canada or Europe. "There should be alternative between living on the street and being locked up that addresses the needs of the chronically and temporarily adult homeless." His proposed "Tiger Bay Village" would have a community garden and orchard, a place to hire certified workers, and a work crew to help build and maintain the village. "Little shops in the village center could process and rehabilitate donated clothes and furnishings to be sold to the public." Housing would range from multi-bed barracks to small Katrina cottages depending on a person's contributions to the village, special needs, and income. Arth claims that this would cost less and be far more effective than any of the other solutions tried elsewhere.[153]

Indianapolis, Indiana

In[154] Indianapolis, Indiana, as many as 2,200 people are homeless on any given night, and as many as 15,000 individuals over the course of a year. Indianapolis is notable among cities of similar size for having only faith-based shelters, such as the century-old[155] Wheeler Mission. In 2001, Mayor Bart Peterson endorsed a 10-year plan, called the[156] Blueprint to End Homelessness, and made it one of his administration's top priorities. The plan's main goals are for more affordable housing units, employment opportunities, and support services. The Blueprint notwithstanding, Indianapolis has criminalized aspects of homelessness, such as making panhandling a misdemeanor; and the[157] City-County Council has twice (in April 2002, and August 2005) denied the zoning necessary to open a new shelter for homeless women.

Los Angeles, California

In its January 2013 census, Los Angeles County counted 39,463 people sleeping on the street or in homeless shelters.[158] When including persons sleeping on private property with permission to stay no more than 90 days, the estimated number of homeless in Los Angeles County is 57,737.[158] The number of people in the latter category, called "precariously housed" or "at risk of homelessness", was estimated by means of a telephone survey. The number of homeless in Los Angeles County, including the precariously housed and at risk of homelessness, was 51,340 in 2011, of which 23,539 were in the City of Los Angeles, and 4,316 were in the 50 block area east of downtown Los Angeles informally known as Skid Row.[159] It is estimated that 190,207 people are homeless in Los Angeles County at least one night during the year.[160]

The 2013 census notes that 31.4% of the homeless in Los Angeles County are substance abusers, 30.2% are mentally ill, and 18.2% have a physical disability. The census also notes that 68.2% of the homeless are male, 38% are African American, 37% are Caucasian, 28% are Hispanic, and 57.6% are between 25 and 54 years old.[161] By 2015, there were an estimated 44 thousand homeless living in Los Angeles.[162]

On a given night, about 12,934 homeless people stay in a shelter.[158] The number includes families staying in motels on emergency vouchers.

In 2015, the LA Times reported that the city of Los Angeles spends roughly 100 million a year on homelessness, with a majority of that money going to the LAPD.[163]


In December 2007, Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, announced that the one night homeless count had revealed that the actual number of homeless living in the streets was down.[164]

In October 2008, Connie Paige of The Boston Globe reported that the number of homeless in Massachusetts had reached an all-time high, mostly due to mortgage foreclosures and the national economic crisis.[165]

In October 2009, as part of the city's Leading the Way initiative, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston dedicated and opened the Weintraub Day Center which is the first city-operated day center for chronically homeless persons. It is a multi-service center, providing shelter, counseling, health care, housing assistance, and other support services. It is a 3,400-square-foot (320 m2) facility located in the Woods Mullen Shelter. It is also meant to reduce the strain on the city's hospital emergency rooms by providing services and identifying health problems before they escalate into emergencies. It was funded by $3 million in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the Massachusetts Medical Society and Alliance Charitable Foundation,[166] and the United States Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).[167]

In 2010, there was a continued crackdown on panhandling, especially the aggressive type, in downtown Boston. Summonses were being handed out, with scheduled court appearances. The results were mixed and in one upscale neighborhood, Beacon Hill, the resolve of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, which has received only one complaint about panhandlers, was to try to solve the bigger problem not by criminal actions.[168]

Due to economic constraints in 2010, Governor Deval Patrick had to cut the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2011 budget so dental care for the majority of adults, including most homeless people, covered by MassHealth (Medicaid) would no longer be provided except for cleaning and extractions, with no fillings, dentures, or restorative care.[169][170] This does not affect dental care for children. The measure took effect in July 2010 and affects an estimated 700,000 adults, including 130,000 seniors.[171]

In September 2010, it was reported that the Housing First Initiative had significantly reduced the chronic homeless single person population in Boston, Massachusetts, although homeless families were still increasing in number. Some shelters were reducing the number of beds due to lowered numbers of homeless, and some emergency shelter facilities were closing, especially the emergency Boston Night Center.[172]

There is sometimes corruption and theft by the employees of a shelter as evidenced by a 2011 investigative report by FOX 25 TV in Boston wherein a number of Boston public shelter employees were found stealing large amounts of food over a period of time from the shelter's kitchen for their private use and catering.[173][174]

New York City, New York

A homeless man in New York City.

On March 18, 2013, the New York City Department of Homeless Services reported that the sheltered homeless population consisted of:[175]

  • 27,844 adults
  • 20,627 children
  • 48,471 total individuals

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the homeless population of New York rose to an all-time high in 2011. A reported 113,552 people slept in the city's emergency shelters last year, including over 40,000 children; marking an 8 percent increase from the previous year and a 37 percent increase from 2002. There was also a rise in the number of families relying on shelters, approximately 29,000. That is an increase of 80% from 2002. About half of the people who slept in shelter in 2010 returned for housing in 2011.[176][177]

According to the NYC Department of Homeless Services, 64 percent of those applying for emergency shelter in 2010 were denied. Several were denied because they were said to have family who could house them when in actuality this might not have been the case. Applicants may have faced overcrowding, unsafe conditions, or may have had relatives unwilling to house them. According to Mary Brosnaham, spokeswoman for Coalition for the Homeless, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg employs a deliberate policy of "active deterrence".

Part of the problem lies with long-term joblessness that characterizes the United States' economic crisis. According to the Center for an Urban Future about a third of the adult workers in New York City are low-wage earners, making under $11.54 an hour. Affordable rent rates considered to be no more than a third of the renter's wages. A family in New York City must earn at least $54,000 to find an affordable home. The median household income for renters in the Bronx and Brooklyn is barely $30,000 and $35,000 respectively. According to the Community Service Society, "Two-thirds of poor New Yorkers and over one-third of near poor households—up to twice the poverty level—spend at least half of their incomes on rent…and place millions of low-income New Yorkers at risk of housing hardships and displacement."

The New York City Housing Authority is experiencing record demand for subsidized housing assistance. However, just 13,000 of the 29,000 families who applied were admitted into the public housing system or received federal housing vouchers known as [Section 8] in 2010. Due to budget cuts there have been no new applicants accepted to receive Section 8.[178]

In March 2010, there were protests about the Governor's proposed cut of $65 million in annual funding to the homeless adult services system.[179] The Bloomberg administration announced an immediate halt to the Advantage program, threatening to cast 15,000 families back into the shelters or onto the streets. A court has delayed the cut until May 2011 because there was doubt over the legality of cancelling the city's commitment. However, the Advantage program[180] itself was consciously advanced by the Bloomberg administration as an alternative to providing long-term affordable housing opportunities for the poor and working class. The result, as the [Coalition for the Homeless] report points out, is that "Thousands of formerly-homeless children and families have been forced back into homelessness, In addition, Mayor Bloomberg proposed $37 million in cuts to the city's budget for homeless services this year.[177]

San Francisco, California

The city of San Francisco, California has a significant and visible homeless problem. Approximately 61% of the homeless population were already living and working in San Francisco when they became homeless, indicating that a majority of people experiencing homelessness did not come to the city for its resources but rather are being priced out of their home.[181] The city's homeless population has been estimated at 7,000–10,000 people, of which approximately 3,000–5,000 refuse shelter due to the conditions within the shelters including violence, racism, and homophobia and transphobia. Additionally, there are only 1,339 available shelter beds for the approximately 10,000 people sleeping outdoors.[182] The city spends $200 million a year on homelessness related programs.[183] On May 3, 2004,[184] San Francisco officially began an attempt to scale back the scope of its homelessness problem by changing its strategy from cash payments to the "Care Not Cash" plan which has had no visible impact on reducing homelessness in the city. At the same time, grassroots organizations within the Bay Area such as the Suitcase Clinic work to provide referrals for housing and employment to the homeless population[citation needed]. Other organizations like the Coalition On Homelessness fight for increasing affordable and supportive housing in the quickly changing housing landscape of San Francisco. In 2010, a city ordinance was passed to disallow sitting and lying down on public sidewalks for most of the day, from 7 am until 11 pm furthering a "criminalization" strategy for responding to homelessness.[185][186]

Seattle, Washington

There are about 8,000 homeless individuals in Seattle on an average day. The One Night Count in 2015 found 10,047 individuals homeless in the 3rd week in January, in King County. 3,772 individuals were without shelter in King County. 2,804 were without shelter in Seattle alone.

Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 2013 the number of homeless in Washington, D.C. as 6,865, which was a 29 percent increase after 2007.[187] D.C. ranks eighth regarding total homeless population among other major American cities. The city passed a law that requires to provide shelter to everybody in need when the temperature drops below freezing.[188] Since D.C. does not have enough shelter units available, every winter it books hotel rooms in the suburbs with an average cost around $100 for a night. According to the D.C. Department of Human Services, during the winter of 2012 the city spent $2,544,454 on putting homeless families in hotels,[189] and budgeted $3.2 million on hotel beds in 2013.[190] Homeless advocates Mitch Snyder and Eric Sheptock come from D.C.

Public libraries and homelessness

Public libraries can and often do significantly assist with the issues represented by homelessness. In many communities, the library is the only facility that offers free computer and internet access in their community, resources often necessary for job applications. They also provide resources to do research into healthcare, and to help better their education.[191]

The American Library Association's (2010) Policy 61, Services to Poor and Homeless People addresses the complex of problems posed by extreme poverty:

recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America. These people are affected by a combination of limitations,including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination, which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services. Therefore it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies. Concrete programs of training and development are needed to sensitize and prepare library staff to identify poor people's needs and deliver relevant services. And within the American Library Association the coordinating mechanisms of programs and activities dealing with poor people in various divisions, offices, and units should be strengthened, and support for low-income liaison activities should be enhanced. (para. 1)[192]

The Park Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia has created a program called the H.O.M.E Page Cafe. The project is the result of a collaboration between the Free Library of Philadelphia and a local non-profit, Project H.O.M.E. The H.O.M.E Page Cafe is a coffee shop in the library that offers a number of beverages and snacks, much like the average cafe. However, the workers are formerly homeless living in supported housing that are hired based on potential and need. It is an active effort to help the homeless get back on their feet and provide them with training they can then use for future employment.[193]

The news article and video entitled, "SF library offers Social Services to Homeless,"[194] speaks about the step of SF library having a full time social worker at the library to reduce and help homeless patrons. It mentions that Leah Esguerra, who is a psychiatric social worker. Her usual routine is done by making her rounds to different homeless patrons and greeting them to see if she could help them. She offers help in different forms that could range from linking patrons with services or providing them with mental health counseling. She also supervises a 12-week vocational program that culminates in gainful employment in the library for the formerly homeless (Knight, 2010).[195] The changes have garnered positive results from all patrons. Since this service started, staff at the library stated that they have noticed a drop in inappropriate behavior.

The San Jose University Library became one of the first academic libraries to pay attention to the needs of the homeless and implement changes to better serve this population. In 2007, the merged University Library and Public Library made the choice to be proactive in reaching out. Collaborations with nonprofit organizations in the area culminated in computer classes being taught, as well as nutrition classes, family literacy programs, and book discussion groups (Collins, 2009).[196] After eighteen months, the library staff felt they still weren't doing enough and "analyzed program participation trends supplemented by observation and anecdotes" in order to better understand the information needs of the homeless. When it was understood that these needs are complex, additional customer service training was provided to all staff who were interested (Collins, 2009, p. 112).[196] Once the staff more fully understood the needs of the homeless, it was determined that many programs in place already would be helpful to the homeless with a few minor adjustments. Programs were tailored to meet these needs. Additional changes implemented included temporary computer passes and generous in-house reading space to counteract the policies in place that may prevent the homeless from obtaining a library card (Collins, 2009).New York Public Library offers services to those homeless residing in shelters.

In King County (Wa.), Youth Advocates Ending Homelessness (YAEF) took part in a "Stories of Youth Homelessness" training session with librarians to "raise awareness of their experiences and to provide suggestions of the ways in which libraries and library staff can serve this patron group" (Kuver, 2015, p. 10).[197]

The Dallas Public Library started "Coffee and Conversation" which is part of their Homeless Engagement Initiative. The staff hopes these bimonthly events between staff and homeless patrons will help them better serve the homeless population in Dallas.[198] They also sponsor Street View podcast, a library produced podcast featuring the stories and experiences of the city's homeless population. Guests often include social service providers.[199]

Kreimer v. Morristown Library

In May 1991, Richard Kreimer, a homeless man in Morristown, N.J. sued the local public library and the Town of Morristown for kicking him out of the library after other patrons complained about his disruptive behavior and pungent body odor. He later won the case and settled for $250,000.[200][201]

Homeless perspective

Kevin Barbieux, a homeless blogger in Tennessee, wrote that he has "had only a few negative experiences with libraries and they were due usually to an over zealous (sic) librarian or security guard enforcing some rule or another."[202]

George Brown, a homeless man in Washington, reads sociology books at the U.S. capital's modernist central library. When asked how often he uses a public library, Brown, 65, has a simple answer: "Always. I have nowhere else to go. When it's hot, you come here to stay out of the heat. When it's cold, you come here to stay out of the cold."[203]

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