At the last point-in-time count, over half a million people in the United States of America are homeless. The government describes homelessness as “lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Those who are homeless represent every race, gender, age, and demographic throughout the country, with a complex tapestry of reasons for their current situation. To explore the topic further, and examine the statistics behind this national issue, we’ve put together this guide.

Causes of homelessness

Every homeless person has a story about the first time they slept on the streets. Usually, it’s the result of several factors. However, when the homeless population is examined as a whole, there are certain trends that emerge to account for the high numbers in America. Three factors stand out: The high cost of housing, low availability of shelters, and certain community characteristics.

1. High cost of housing

Housing costs throughout the country can vary widely, but many areas have extremely high costs of living, with prices rising in recent years. This can be attributed in part to regulations that drive home prices up, well above the actual cost of producing a home. Overregulation of the market can shift the supply of homes inward, with housing prices and homelessness rising in concert with each other.

Research shows areas with higher home prices have higher rates of homelessness. Currently, the 11 metropolitan areas (including Los Angeles and Washington, DC) with the highest home prices contain 42% of the country’s homeless population.

Some projections suggest removing regulations toward human habitation in these communities would reduce prices and translate into lower rental rates. In turn, this could give more low-income renters a chance to find affordable housing.

2. The availability of shelters

People who can’t find or maintain permanent housing often rely on homeless shelters or emergency shelters in their communities. When more shelters become available, we see a demand for homes decrease and an increase in overall homelessness.

The three cities with the highest rates of sheltered homelessness are Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C. Each state has a right-to-shelter law to guarantee the availability of quality shelters. Even beyond these city’s shelters, their overall rate of homelessness is higher than other cities, indicating a correlation between right-to-shelter laws and fewer people in homes.

3. Community characteristics

The experience of being homeless can vary widely by location. These regional differences can impact the rate of homelessness too. When a community tolerates people sleeping on the streets or in abandoned buildings, fewer people will seek housing and more people will be classified as homeless.

Climate plays a role in this “tolerability.” Colder areas uniformly have fewer people living unsheltered, while warmer climates have the opposite.

Other community characteristics such as the general attitude towards homelessness, implementation of devices to prevent sleeping on streets, and availability of benches and cover, can impact a region’s level of homelessness.

The geography of homelessness in America

With such wide variability across the country, each state can have a very different profile when it comes to homelessness. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness shows which states have the highest and lowest rates of homelessness.

States with the highest homelessness rates:

  1. California
  2. New York
  3. Florida

Why are homelessness rates so high in these states?

Each of these states exhibits characteristics that can commonly be associated with high homelessness, particularly the cost of living. The cost of living in California and New York is among the highest in the nation, making it hard for people to obtain housing.

Because of the higher homeless rates in these states, many homeless people may also flock to them as the communities are more accepting and accommodating and may offer more shelters.

States with the least homelessness rates:

  1. North Dakota
  2. Wyoming
  3. South Dakota

Why are homelessness rates so low in these states?

Many of these states have far more rural towns than urban city centers, which can often be difficult to survey to collect data on homelessness. They also have lower overall populations, which can be a factor in driving up housing prices. Low housing costs and costs of living are also a part of this equation.

The demographics of homelessness

Homelessness impacts every community in America, but there are certain communities that are more likely to be a part of this group. Understanding these differences can help us to understand who becomes homeless. Here’s a look at the demographics of homelessness:

  • Approximately 17 people per 10,000 experience homelessness on any given night.
  • The estimated total number of homeless people is around 550,000.
  • The average life expectancy of a homeless individual is around 50 years.
  • In the homeless count, nearly 90% of people without a home are over the age of 24.
  • Only 15% of homeless adults are between 51 and 61 years old, and only 3.2% are over the age of 62.
  • 42% of children who are homeless identify as a part of the LGBTQ community.
  • Only 48% of homeless individuals are white, while 39.8% are African-American.
  • 61% of homeless individuals are male, and 40% of them are homeless veterans.
  • In South Dakota, Alaska, New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Minnesota, Native Americans make up at least 10% of experienced homelessness.
  • Forty-three percent of Hispanics and 41% of African Americans experiencing homelessness are in families.

Students and homelessness

The Department of Education tracks data to understand what percent of children and youth experience homelessness during a given school year. Because this data is reported by schools and relies on child and parent input, it is likely that the numbers are understated. However, here’s a look at homeless statistics regarding students:

  • Since 2008, the number of homeless students identified by public schools annually has increased more than 100%.
  • Three out of every four homeless students live in a city or suburban area.
  • Approximately 77% of homeless students live in doubled-up or shared housing, while 12% live in shelters or transitional housing. The rest live in hotels and motels or are unsheltered.
  • 18% of homeless students are individuals with disabilities.
  • About 16% of homeless students are English language learners.
  • Almost 9% of homeless students are unaccompanied or are not the guardianship of an adult.
  • Only 64% of homeless students graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 84% across all students.
  • Students who are unhoused are 87% more likely to drop out of school than peers with a stable home.

COVID and its impacts on homelessness

The pandemic has brought job loss, healthcare burdens, mental health ramifications, and rising housing prices, all of which impact the homeless population. The United Way explored how the pandemic has taken a toll on those without a home.

  • A surge in eviction filings (prior to a federal order to halt evictions) shows that evictions occurred across the country, with the highest numbers being in Arizona and Texas.
  • Hawaii and Nevada demonstrated the highest rates of job loss as a result of COVID, as both states depend on tourism to support their economy.
  • Health centers, which are a primary way that the homeless receive care, closed due to increased costs and social distancing requirements, falling by about 400 centers.
  • The rates of COVID-19 among the homeless population averaged higher than the rates among the general population.
  • People experiencing chronic homelessness increased by 15% through 2020, and an increase of 7% was seen in those living unsheltered.
  • From January of 2021 to January of 2022, the average sales price of a home has increased by up to 20% in some cities.
  • There is a likely massive underreporting of the number of homeless individuals who died due to COVID-19, which has likely had an invisible impact on homelessness rates and support systems.

The state of shelters in the U.S.

One of the primary options used to help the homeless population is homeless shelters located in areas of high need. These shelters can vary in their services, from single night stays to long-term facilities with programs to gain housing. Here’s a look at the state of shelters in the nation:

  • As of 2022, there are about 11,000 homeless shelters in the United States- a 0.9% rise from 2021.
  • The average annual increase in the number of homeless shelters has been about 0.9% since 2017.
  • New York, California, and Texas have the highest number of homeless shelters.
  • Not all states have a right-to-shelter law that dictates a minimum level of quality for homeless shelters.

Research shows homelessness is declining

Despite the challenges people experiencing homelessness face, recent years have seen a decline in homeless rates throughout the country. Experts disagree on whether this is a valid decline or is due to changing definitions and a potential miscount of unsheltered homeless people.

One example has to do with individuals who are living in transitional housing, who have traditionally been included in the definition of unsheltered homelessness. As these people are usually working towards obtaining housing with some success, their move to being housed is represented as a decline in the sheltered homeless population.

Still, overall population growth in the last ten years has outpaced the growth of the homeless population, leaving the rate per 10,000 people at the lowest value on record.

Programs that are set up to help

There are homeless services and programs designed to help the homeless in America. Some programs are aimed at obtaining housing, while others simply seek to meet the everyday needs of these individuals. Programs include:

Emergency Solutions Grants Program

Since 2012, this grant has focused on addressing the needs of homeless individuals to help them quickly regain stability and move into permanent housing after experiencing a housing crisis and homelessness.

Continuum of Care Program

This HUD-led program is designed to encourage community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness. This is done through funding provided to nonprofits as well as state and local governments in order to help them rehouse homeless individuals and families. CoC focuses on minimizing trauma and dislocation caused to homeless individuals and families, promoting access to mainstream programs, and increasing self-sufficiency.

Health Care for the Homeless

A multi-disciplinary comprehensive program that provides access to primary care, substance abuse treatment, emergency care, referrals to hospitals, and outreach services for homeless persons. This program also helps homeless people establish eligibility for government aid programs and housing that could benefit them.

Grants for the Benefit of Homeless Individuals 

GBHI is a competitively awarded grant program that allows communities to expand and strengthen treatment services for homeless individuals with substance abuse disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. These grants are given to public and non-profit entities based in a community to fund services such as outreach, screening, and diagnostic services, treatment, enrollment in benefit programs, case management, job training, and assistance with housing placement.

Ending Relational Poverty (Family Reunifications and Phone Buddies)

Miracle Messages is an award-winning nonprofit organization that helps people experiencing homelessness rebuild their social support systems and financial security. Since 2014, Miracle Messages has facilitated 700+ family reunifications, matched 200+ unhoused neighbors with caring volunteers as phone buddies, and secured $1+ million to distribute directly to the homeless through basic income pilots. Miracle Messages’ services are available to partners, outreach workers, and people experiencing homelessness across the country through or by calling 1-800-MISS-YOU.

National Alliance to End Homelessness

This national charity applies research and data to the problem of homelessness, then implements solutions at local and federal levels. They also advocate for the rights of the homeless by communicating with policymakers and assisting communities directly with training and tools.

Coalition for the Homeless

As the longest-running national organization for the homeless, the Coalition for the Homeless has helped over 1 million homeless New Yorkers move into housing. They do this through a series of programs, including food services, intervention programs, summer camps, and educational programs.

Street Outreach Programs

By connecting outreach workers and runaway, homeless, or street youth, this program provides grants to organizations looking to have an impact in their community. Grantees set up these one on one programs, as well as support services to move homeless youth into stable housing and prepare them for independence.

Local Shelters

Each state and city may have independent shelters set up who are catering to the needs of the homeless. There is no large, centralized body of shelter providers, rather a series of them throughout the country. Many even have representatives who seek out homeless people in order to tell them about the shelter’s services and encourage them to visit and get the help they need.