Homelessness is the condition of having no fixed, adequate, or secure place to live. Homelessness has many causes, among them poverty, lack of jobs and adequate affordable housing, reductions in public assistance, lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, mental illness, and addiction. Veterans are at high risk for homelessness. Even when no associated mental health problem exists, those who are homeless suffer emotionally and are at higher risk for addiction because of the lack of the most basic of human needs: safe shelter.
Jon and Ryan went for a bike ride one day and were astounded to discover a group of people living in cardboard boxes at the periphery of the county park. Before this, it had never occurred to them that at the edges of their suburban community were people who lived on the streets, dependent on social service agencies, charities, friends, and their own ingenuity to find shelter.
The number of people in the United States who are homeless is difficult to estimate because the population of homeless people is constantly changing as some people find housing and others are displaced. According to the 2015 annual report of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2.5 million to 3.5 million people experienced homelessness over a one-year period, and nearly 40 percent of them were children. Homelessness affects people who live in cities, as well as suburbs and rural areas.
Homelessness can be either temporary, lasting only a few days or weeks, or semipermanent, lasting for several years. The number of people who are without shelter or have only temporary shelter is affected by many social factors, including the number of jobs available and how well those jobs pay; the cost of housing; the cost of basic necessities such as food; and the availability of social outreach and assistance programs. According to data issued by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in 2015, single men are more than three times as likely to be homeless as single women. Veterans are among the most vulnerable populations. African Americans make up 50 percent of the homeless population, followed by 35 percent Caucasian and 13 percent Hispanic.
In general, people are more likely to be homeless if they are between the ages of 25 and 54, have less than a high school education, have a history of mental illness, have served in the military, or have experienced domestic violence or abuse. Other factors that increase the risk of becoming homeless are time spent homeless, in foster care, or in a group home as a child; childhood physical or sexual abuse; experience as a child runaway; and a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Most people who are homeless have no health insurance and little access to medical care. In a study issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, almost half of homeless people surveyed had chronic (long-term) health problems such as diabetes * , cancer * , high blood pressure * , or arthritis * but were not receiving treatment for these conditions. Another one-fourth of the homeless population had an infectious disease such as pneumonia * , tuberculosis, or AIDS * .
According to the Child Trends Databank, when compared to children with homes, those who are homeless have the following characteristics:
In addition, more than half of school-aged children who are homeless experience anxiety, depression, or other emotional problems, and one in five homeless children requires professional care to treat these problems.
In many cases, these health conditions are compounded by other problems that are a direct result of the lack of proper shelter and life on the streets. These may include frostbite, animal bites, insect infestations, leg ulcers, upper respiratory infections, and dietary deficiency. In addition, people who are homeless are sometimes the victims of violent acts that can leave behind both physical and emotional stress.
Some people who are homeless experience difficulties with drug and alcohol abuse, or with mental illness, although many do not.
The most common programs available to help people who are homeless are those that provide food (such as soup kitchens and food pantries) and emergency shelter. Although many people who are homeless are eligible for government programs such as Medicaid, food assistance, veterans' benefits, or welfare benefits, they often have difficulty claiming these benefits because they have no fixed address or lack the organizational skills necessary to follow through with the steps involved in participating in the programs.
Nearly half of the people who are homeless work at least part time, but their income is too low to pay for permanent housing or other daily living expenses. Sometimes they can find other sources of cash, including gifts from friends and families, and money collected from panhandling, although some resort to illegal activities such as drug dealing and prostitution to make money. Numerous agencies offer help by providing job training and assistance in finding steady sources of employment and income.
Reducing homelessness is the target of many social programs. Studies suggest that the most effective programs not only help people find places to live but also help people solve the underlying problems that led to their homelessness in the first place.
See also Food Insecurity
Aviles de Bradley, Ann M. From Charity to Equity: Race, Homelessness, and Urban Schools. New York: Teachers College Press, 2015.
Bassuk, Ellen, et al. America's Youngest Outcasts. Waltham, MA: American Institutes for Research, 2014. http://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/Americas-Youngest-Outcasts-Child-HomelessnessNov2014.pdf (accessed June 22, 2016).
Child Trends. Homeless Children and Youth. October 2015. http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/112_Homeless_Children_and_Youth.pdf (accessed June 12, 2016).
Homelessness Research Institute. The State of Homelessness in America 2016. National Alliance to End Homelessness. April 6, 2016. http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/SOH2016 (accessed June 12, 2016).
National Coalition for the Homeless. “Why Are People Homeless?” http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/why.html (accessed September 21, 2015).
Safe Horizon. “Homeless Youth Statistics and Facts.” http://www.safehorizon.org/page/streetwork-homeless-youth-facts-69.html (accessed June 12, 2016).
National Center on Family Homelessness. American Institutes for Research, 1000 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Washington, DC 20007. Telephone: 202-403-5000. Website: http://www.air.org/center/national-center-family-homelessness (accessed June 12, 2016).
National Coalition for the Homeless. 2201 P St. NW, Washington, DC 20037. Telephone: 202-462-4822. Website: http://www.nationalhomeless.org (accessed July 17, 2015).
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 1 Choke Cherry Rd., Rockville, MD 20857. Toll-free: 877SAMHSA-7. Website: http://www.samhsa.gov/homelessnessprograms-resources (accessed June 12, 2016).
* diabetes (dye-uh-BEE-teez) is a condition in which the body's pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body cannot use the insulin it makes effectively, resulting in increased levels of sugar in the blood. This can lead to increased urination, dehydration, weight loss, weakness, and a number of other symptoms and complications related to chemical imbalances within the body.
* cancer is a condition characterized by abnormal overgrowth of certain cells, which may be fatal.
* arthritis (ar-THRY-tis) refers to any of several disorders characterized by inflammation of the joints.
* AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency (ih-myoo-no-dih-FIH-shensee) syndrome, is an infection that severely weakens the immune system; it is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
* high blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a condition in which the pressure of the blood in the arteries is above normal.
* pneumonia (nu-MO-nyah) is inflammation of the lungs.