UNDERSTANDING HOMELESSNESS

The Surprising Causes of Homelessness

By Amanda Kohr

When we see a person experiencing homelessness on the street, it can be easy to jump to all sorts of conclusions about their life choices. But the truth is that homelessness occurs for myriad reasons—and it truly can happen to anybody. 

Education leads to empathy and empathy leads to action. By examining the causes of homelessness, we can open our minds and examine the various ways we can help out our fellow humans. 

Lack of Affordable Housing 

According to a 2018 study by Vox, high housing costs are one of the number one causes of homelessness in the United States. Since the mid-1980s, the supply of low-cost housing shrunk significantly, making it more difficult for individuals to find housing during times of crisis. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the gap between stagnant incomes and housing costs continues to widen, and no state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest income renters. This makes it extremely difficult for families and individuals to find housing, keeping them homeless or putting them at severe risk for homelessness. 

Poverty

Poverty is the state or condition in which a person, family, or community lacks the essential financial resources to maintain the minimum standard of living. Those living in poverty might struggle to pay for basic needs, such as housing, food, bills, education, childcare, or medical services. 

When a person’s financial situation is that fragile, a single paycheck, illness, or accident could be thrust them into homelessness. Although certain populations are more vulnerable to poverty—in part due to systemic injustices, discussed below—100 million Americans, or one-third of the population lives in near-poverty. 

Systemic Inequality 

The lingering effects of slavery, discrimination, and segregation have a profound impact on homelessness, as they perpetuate the disparities in housing, criminal justice, and poverty. Because of this, African Americans are a staggeringly disproportionate representation of the homeless population. According to EndHomelessness.org, African Americans make up 40 percent of the homeless population, but only represent 13 percent of the general population—and these numbers are not improving. 

Furthermore, African Americans experience more obstacles when attempting to move to more favorable neighborhoods—a study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that people of color were offered higher rents, shown fewer rental units, and denied more leases than white people. Not only does this make people of color more susceptible to homelessness, but it also puts their lives and well-being in danger by keeping them in dangerous neighborhoods. 

Escaping Domestic Violence

Many individuals who find themselves trapped in abusive relationships are also financially dependent on their abusers. Upon leaving, they may be forced to stay in temporary shelters and end up living on the streets. It’s extremely important (and also very difficult) for domestic abuse survivors to find a temporary safe space, especially if they’re with children. 

In fact, domestic violence is such a common contributor to homelessness that homeless services providers try to set aside over 55,000 beds specifically for survivors of abuse. 

Health Problems

Health problems and homelessness are incredibly linked. Some people who experience a health crisis (and thus extensive medical bills) find themselves in increasingly dire financial situations, putting them at extreme risk for homelessness. This is especially true if a person’s health becomes disabling, making it difficult for them to find or complete work. 

Health problems are also exacerbated by homelessness—a person living on the street will have a more difficult time finding health care access or protecting themselves from illness. This is true for mental illness as well—according to EndHomelessness.org, in 2017, 20 percent of the homeless population reported having a serious mental condition. Sixteen percent admitted to having chronic substance abuse, and more than 10,000 people were living with HIV/AIDS. 

Homelessness truly can happen to anyone, especially those who are sick, facing racial injustice, below the poverty line, or in unhealthy living situations. We can also all help contribute to the solution—in ways big and small. One small way? The Right To Shower donates profits to help build mobile showers for people living on the street. Learn more here.