Overview of Homelessness In America

Who is Homeless and Why?

The homeless population includes people from all walks of life:

  • In the U.S., more than 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year.
  • On a typical night in 2014, more than 578,000 Americans were homeless.
  • Nearly 2.5 million children in America experienced homelessness in 2013. That’s one in 30 children.
  • In urban communities, people experience homelessness for an average of eight months.

People become homeless for a variety of reasons. Homelessness is primarily an economic problem, and is also affected by a number of social and political factors. The number of people experiencing homelessness exploded in the 1980s, as federal funds were withdrawn from low-income housing and social assistance programs for low-income families and the mentally ill. Current federal spending on housing assistance programs targeted at low-income populations is less than 50% of 1976 spending levels.

Economic Factors

Lack of Affordable Housing: There is a severe lack of affordable housing in the United States. The growing gap between wage earnings and the cost of housing in the United States leaves millions of families and individuals unable to make ends meet.

Low Incomes: Many low and minimum wage workers cannot afford food and shelter. Over the past twenty-five years, wages for the lowest income workers have not kept pace with the increase in living costs, nor with the increase in salaries of those in the highest income brackets. This leaves the lowest income workers unable to afford necessities like housing, food and medical care.

Lack of Affordable Medical Care: The cost of health care and insurance has risen dramatically over past years and can cost a family up to $8000 a year. For families living on low or middle incomes, this cost can be prohibitive. For families or individuals that lack health insurance, a sudden illness, chronic disease, or accident can be financially devastating.

Political Factors

Cuts in federal assistance for housing programs and social services have coincided with the rise in homelessness in the U.S. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal housing programs and services nearly eradicated homelessness; however, during the 1980s, housing programs were slashed by half and the homeless population in the U.S. began to grow.

Programs designed to provide a safety net for people living at or near the poverty line, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), have faced changes or cuts that have often made it more difficult or impossible for people to access services. TANF components like sanctions, work requirements, time limits, and immigrant restrictions cut many people off from benefits. Without a safety net to help, many of the lowest income people must choose between things like food, medical care, and housing to make ends meet.

Social & Medical Factors

While economic factors are the main causes of homelessness, long-term issues like mental illness, drug addiction, and alcoholism can exacerbate situations of poverty and put people at greater risk of homelessness. Surveys of people experiencing homelessness show that about 25% of the homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness, and the high cost of health insurance leaves homeless people without access to proper care to treat mental illness. Drug and alcohol addiction affect about 20% of the homeless population who, again, often lack access to proper, affordable care for these illnesses.


We can end homelessness in the U.S. by tackling its root causes, including low wages and a lack of affordable housing, and by improving support services like TANF, housing vouchers, and health care.

For more information on homelessness in the U.S.:
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Alliance to End Homelessness
U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness