How Homelessness Works

Homeless person asleep on cardboard boxes
Understand how homelessness works. Cecile Faure / Getty Images

Today, Christopher Gardner is the owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, Inc., an investment company with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. By some estimates, he’s worth $65 million.

Two decades ago, Gardner’s situation was far different. He and his young son were living on the streets of San Francisco, forced to sleep in homeless shelters, wash in public bathrooms and eat at soup kitchens because they couldn’t afford an apartment.


Gardner’s rags-to-riches story is the stuff of movies; in fact, it was the subject of the 2006 Will Smith film, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” But for millions of American homeless, there is no movie deal and no success story. For them, the struggle to find food, clothing and a warm bed to sleep in at night doesn’t end.

By definition, being homeless is not having anywhere to call home, although it also can mean living in a place that was never intended to house human beings, such as a bus depot or highway underpass. In this article, you’ll learn how people become homeless, see the devastating effects homelessness can have on individuals and families, and find out what you can do to help.

Who are the Homeless?


It’s difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy just how many people are homeless in this country because of the transient nature of the population. On any given day, the numbers of people in shelters or on the streets can shift, sometimes radically, as people move from place to place or find more permanent housing. Also, some homeless people live in non-traditional places, such as cars or camp grounds, where they are not easily found.

When agencies gather statistics about homelessness, they use a couple of different methods. They can look at the number of people who are homeless on a given day or during a particular week (called point-in-time counts), although this calculation gives only a quick snapshot of the overall homeless situation. A more accurate method is to look at the number of homeless people over a period of time (a year, for example).


The best and most current estimate, which comes from the Urban Institute and the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), puts the number of homeless somewhere between 2.3 million and 3.5 million people each year. This figure roughly translates to1 percent of the American population. Just under a quarter of these people are chronically homeless, meaning that they are repeatedly or continuously without a home.

Minority groups are disproportionately represented among the nation’s homeless. Although they make up only about 12 percent of the population, African-Americans account for almost half of all homeless people. Hispanic people account for another 13 percent of the homeless.

Homelessness tends to be centered in big cities, where housing costs are high, but small towns are not immune. In rural areas, families with children make up a bigger proportion of the homeless than in the cities.

How do People Become Homeless?

It’s hard to imagine how someone can go from having a home one day to being out on the street the next. Many homeless people start out with jobs and stable residences, but then social and economic factors intervene, causing a rapid change in their living situation.

The two biggest factors driving homelessness are poverty and the lack of affordable housing. In 2004, 37 million people, or 12.7 percent of the American population was living in poverty, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many of these people live from paycheck to paycheck with nothing saved in the bank. The loss of a job, an illness, or another catastrophic event can quickly lead to missed rent or mortgage payments and ultimately, to eviction or foreclosure.


Losing a job happens much more readily today than it did a few decades ago, when most people worked for the same company until retirement. The decline in manufacturing jobs, outsourcing of jobs to other countries, and an increase in temporary and part-time employment has nicked away at the foundations of what was once a more stable job market.

Jobs today are not only far less secure than they were in the past, but many also pay less when considering the rate of inflation. In the late 1960s, a minimum-wage job could sustain a family of three above the poverty line. That isn’t the case today. In May 2007, Congress passed the first minimum wage increase in nearly a decade, from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour (by 2009). Say someone works 40 hours per week every week for the entire year at $7.25 per hour. That person will earn $15,080 per year— an income well below the $17,170 needed for a family of three to reach the poverty line. It’s certainly not enough to afford even the smallest apartment in one of America’s biggest cities. For example, consider New York— a recent report finds that an average one-room studio apartment costs $2,000 a month, or $24,000 a year. So, someone making minimum wage, working 40 hours every week— taking no vacation or sick time— misses the mark by almost $9,000! Although an estimated 15 percent of homeless people do have jobs, they simply don’t earn enough to afford housing.

To meet the federal definition for affordable housing, rent for a one- or two-bedroom apartment must not cost more than 30 percent of a person’s income. Yet in every state, more than the minimum wage is required to afford an apartment by these criteria, according to a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 5 million U.S. households either pay more than half of their income in rent, or live in severely substandard housing.

Although the government offers some low-income housing, the numbers of reasonably priced dwellings have been dwindling over the years. Government support for low-income housing fell by half between 1980 and 2003, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In the same period of time, more than 2 million low-rent units vanished from the market, either demolished or converted into higher-rent apartments. One million single room occupancy (SRO) housing units also vanished from the market. These units often are used to house people with mental illness or substance abuse problems. People today can wait an average of three years for housing vouchers. Often, they wait in shelters or on the streets.

Other Causes of Homelessness

Substance Abuse

About two thirds of homeless people struggle with an alcohol or drug abuse problem. Finding housing can be difficult for people who are in active addiction. And, treatment and recovery services are hard to find when living on the street, thereby creating a cycle of homelessness and addiction from which it’s almost impossible to escape.

Mental Illness

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of all homeless people have some type of mental illness. It’s difficult to keep a job when you’re dealing with constant mental health issues. Just as with substance abuse, people with mental illness often have trouble finding housing and treatment. They also may need extra health care and assistance with everyday activities— help that is not readily available in shelters.


Domestic Violence

About half of all homeless women are fleeing an abusive relationship, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When 100 homeless mothers were surveyed in 2003, one quarter said they had been physically abused within the past year. Battered women’s shelters, when they are available, provide a safe haven for victims of abuse.

Children, too, run away from home because of physical or sexual abuse. One study found that nearly half of all runaway youths had been physically abused, and almost 20 percent had been sexually abused. Sadly, the abuse doesn’t end when children leave home. Many homeless kids are the victims of violent attacks. And some are forced into having sex to pay for food, shelter or clothing.


The scars of armed conflict extend far beyond the borders of a war zone. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Most are single men, and nearly half have mental illness or substance abuse problems. Many are struggling with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers some programs, it can only accommodate about 25 percent of homeless veterans.

The Effects of Homelessness

Living on the street makes homeless people more vulnerable to abuse. Over the last decade, there have been more than 600 attacks against homeless people, says the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Homeless people have been brutally attacked with baseball bats, chains and other weapons. Women have been raped.

Homelessness tears families apart. Some shelters won’t take boys. Others won’t accept children. A mother may have to watch helplessly as her children are taken from her and placed with relatives or in foster care.


Being without a home takes a terrible toll on children. Homeless children have higher rates of ear infections, stomach problems and asthma than other children their age. They are also more likely to be depressed, anxious, or withdrawn, and have more difficulty in school than their peers.

Homeless adults are also at greater risk for serious health conditions. Exposure to the elements and unsanitary living conditions can lead to frostbite, leg ulcers and upper respiratory infections. Serious illnesses like HIV/AIDS, diabetes and tuberculosis are more common in homeless people than among the general population.

Help for the Homeless

Both the government and private organizations provide housing, food and job assistance to the homeless. Below are just a few of the programs available:


Homeless shelters provide temporary housing for people who don’t have a place to stay. In 2005, nearly 500,000 beds were available in emergency and transitional shelters around the country. Most shelters are clustered in and around cities. About two-fifths of shelters accept families— the rest specify men or women only.


Public Housing

Public housing units, from apartment buildings to individual homes, are available to very low-income families, the elderly and disabled people. People who live in public housing pay only what they can afford, which is either a small percentage of their income or a very low monthly rent. People can stay in public housing indefinitely, provided that they comply with the rules outlined in their lease.

Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher federal government program helps people with very low incomes, as well as the elderly and disabled find private homes or apartments of their choice. The government provides vouchers, which can be used toward any type of housing that meets the program’s requirements. Participants must pay 30 percent of their monthly income for rent and utilities, and the local public housing agency pays the remainder of the rent directly to the landlord.

The government housing programs available today are not enough to meet the needs of all the homeless people in America. The average wait time for a Section 8 voucher in 2004 was nearly three years. Almost half of today’s homeless people can’t get into a shelter. Rural areas often don’t have any shelters. By choice or necessity, many of the nation’s homeless live on the street or wherever they can find a place to sleep.

Food Banks and Food Donations

Food banks have been around since the 1960s. Community food banks collect canned goods and other, primarily non-perishable items from companies and individual donors, and then distribute that food to homeless people at centers around the country. America’s Second Harvest operates the largest network of food banks, with more than 200 community food banks, as well as soup kitchens and emergency shelters around the country. Smaller, independent organizations, including churches and local agencies, operate their own soup kitchens and food banks, which are mainly staffed by volunteers.

Job Training

Escaping from homelessness requires more than a bed to sleep in every night and three meals a day. People need jobs and real prospects for the future. Both the government and private organizations offer job training programs to help homeless people get back on their feet. First Step, a program offered by the Coalition for the Homeless, provides job skills training, computer education, internships, and mentoring .

Through the Workforce Investment Act, the Department of Labor provides employment and training services, via One-Stop Career Centers around the country. And, the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (HVRP) helps homeless vets find jobs and become active members of the workforce.

What You Can Do to Help the Homeless

There are so many ways in which you can help the homeless— by donating your time, money, or just by showing that you care. Here are just a few of the things you can do:

  • Volunteer. Help out at a local shelter by distributing clothes, serving meals, putting on a puppet show for the kids or answering phones. Build houses with Habitat for Humanity, or volunteer at an agency that helps the homeless (for a directory, visit
  • Donate. Gather up any clothes, toys, books, household goods, toiletries or computers you’re not using and donate them to your local homeless shelter. You also can donate directly to homeless people. If you don’t want to give money, offer a warm meal, a gift certificate to a fast-food restaurant, a couple of bus tokens, or a bag full of recyclable bottles that can be turned in for cash.
  • Advocate. Contact your local representatives and push for new legislation to help the homeless.
  • Employ. Hire homeless people at your company. If you’re not in a position to hire anyone, ask your Human Resources manager whether there might be internships or full-time opportunities available.
  • Respect. If you do nothing else, be kind. The next time you see a homeless person on the street, don’t just look away. “Most of the despair in being homeless comes from being treated like you don’t exist,” says David Pirtle. “If you see the same guy on the street corner every day, find out his name and talk to him. It might save his life.”


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More Great Links


  • Cathryn Berger Kaye - A Kids' Guide to Hunger & Homelessness: How to Take Action!
  • Pat LaMarche - Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States
  • Diane D. Nilan - Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness
  • Karen M. Skalitzky - A Recipe for Hope: Stories of Transformation by People Struggling with Homelessness
  • Yvonne M. Vissing - Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America

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