Once a year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts a count of people experiencing homelessness. As exhaustive as this study is, many experts believe the HUD report dramatically underestimates the number of people currently experiencing homelessness. Whether you look at the HUD count or other higher estimates, the facts and figures surrounding the issue of homelessness are staggering.
According to HUD, 554,000 people in the United States experience homelessness on any given night. That is a 9% increase from 2016 and the second year in a row the number of people experiencing homelessness has risen—an increase almost entirely driven by people who are unsheltered. In fact, more than one-third of those experiencing homelessness, or 194,000 people, are sleeping in places not intended for human habitation.
Homelessness was once almost exclusively a male issue. While men still represent the majority of those who experience homelessness (61%), a far more diverse cross section of the general population is affected.
As of 2017, women account for 39% of those experiencing homelessness. The increasing rate of homelessness among women is exacerbated by high rates of domestic, physical and sexual abuse.
Not since the Great Depression (1929-1939) have so many families been homeless in the United States. In the 1980’s, families accounted for less than 1% of those experiencing homelessness. Today, families account for almost 30%.
Do you feel like you are seeing more young people on the streets? You probably are, as 41,000 or 7% of people experiencing homelessness are unaccompanied youth under the age of 25. This demographic is much more likely to be living in unsheltered environments (55%).
Despite major strides over the past decade, homelessness among veterans increased by 2% to 40,000, almost entirely accounted for by increases in unsheltered veterans. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population and now comprise 9% of the total.
About 25% of those experiencing homelessness have chronic patterns of homelessness, meaning they have been homeless for more than a year or have had multiple periods of homelessness over the preceding three years. The great majority of those who are chronically homeless, almost 70%, are unsheltered.
There is a common misconception that alcohol and drug abuse are the root causes of homelessness, however, this is rarely the case. In most situations, multiple factors are at play.
Simple economic issues are among the most critical factors contributing to homelessness. These include the lack of affordable housing, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and low wages. Far too many people are living so close to the edge of economic disaster that one financial setback, such as job loss, car troubles, illness, divorce, abandonment, or any unexpected expense can lead to the loss of their home.
Non-economic factors can also play a role in homelessness. These include psychological or physical disabilities, learning disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, medical conditions, drug and alcohol dependence, a history of childhood abuse, sexual abuse, or some combination of these. Domestic abuse, for example, is the leading cause of homelessness among women, and a shocking 84% of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives.
While the cause of each instance of homelessness may be unique, there is one thing every case has in common. Once a person is homeless, it is extremely difficult for them to escape without help.
There is a myth that all a person who is experiencing homelessness has to do is clean up, get a job, find a place to live and the problem is solved. If only it were that simple.
For how can a person who is homeless be expected to clean themselves up and find a job when they are without a safe place to sleep, without access to bathing or toilet facilities, and without a place to wash their clothes? They are compelled to keep what few possessions they own with them at all times lest they be stolen, are dependent on soup kitchens in scattered locations with limited hours and amounts of food, and, if late for the line at the shelter, are on the street for the night exposed to the elements.
If they are lucky enough to find work, what are the chances that they can then find an affordable place to live, especially when there is a severe shortage of affordable units in virtually every market in the country? And, if they do find an affordable unit, there is very little chance they will be accepted as a resident because they lack a credit history. And, if they are accepted, emotional, psychological, and medical issues may make it difficult for them to adjust to their new environment.
The reality is that without help, it is virtually impossible for an individual to escape from homelessness.
We at the Lotus Campaign believe that it is far easier for those experiencing homelessness to re-enter society if the process starts with having a place they can call home. Once a person is in housing, our partner organizations will provide the social services and job counseling necessary for them to begin to rebuild their lives.