the basics: Why are people homeless?

written by naehblog
July 6, 2009



It’s a question that’s surprisingly overlooked – maybe overshadowed by the challenges of homelessness in and of itself.

At the Alliance, we focus on different kinds of homelessness, including:
Veteran Homelessness
Family Homelessness
Youth Homelessness
Chronic Homelessness

Each group comes to homelessness in different ways – and the solutions to that type of homelessness varies as well.

Veteran Homelessness
Veterans often become homeless as a result of some post-war challenges. Emotional or mental distress (including PTSD, emotional trauma, etc.) can manifest in damaging behaviors, like substance abuse and addiction. These behaviors can then lead to the inability to maintain permanent housing.

Recently, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Tammy Duckworth appeared on CNN to discuss the state and health of veterans returning from conflicts abroad. The Secretary expounded upon the increase of suicides, mental illness, and homelessness among veterans from our current conflicts, as well as the VA’s continued efforts to address these ongoing issues.

Family Homelessness
Family homelessness is typically caused by some unforeseen costly event: a raise in rent, medical emergency, or the like. The inability to manage this financial hurdle can push a family into homelessness – an occurrence that’s been felt more dramatically in the current recession.

Despite sensationalized news reports, families that experience this kind of homelessness aren’t typically picturesque, middle-class families. They’re typically families that were already living on the economic fringes of society – often paycheck-to-paycheck – who are pushed off by the big event.

The good news – if this counts as good news – is that families don’t typically require a lot of government assistance to get back on track. If we’re able to identify and assist these families early on – through rental subsidies, cash assistance, or the like – the families can often save enough to lift themselves out of homelessness and go back to maintaining permanent housing.

However, recent media reports from communities across the country suggest that family homelessness is on the rise. Just today, New Jersey reported an uptick in families requesting social services in Hunterdon and Somerset. Check out our media map for counts from your community.

Youth Homelessness
I never understand when this happens to young people, but research shows it happens as a result of some kind of family disruption (divorce, abuse, etc.).

Our foster care and juvenile justice care also contribute to youth homelessness. Those who age out of foster care (once they turn 18) or get out of the juvenile justice system are often without the social support systems of guidance networks and end up highly at-risk of becoming homeless.

Luckily, most young people aren’t homeless for long. They go back home, they find a friend/relative, someone intervenes – they find a way to get off the streets. But those who don’t quickly find a route elsewhere do tend to stay homeless.

The news lately has been abuzz with reports of young people facing homelessness. The American School Board Journal wrote an article about teachers facing the challenge of dealing with student homelessness.

Chronic Homelessness
Chronic homelessness is basically what you think of when you think “homelessness”. Those people on the street, sleeping on sidewalks and bus stops – those are the chronically homeless. “Chronic” means just what you think – that these people are consistently and persistently without permanent housing.

By and large, chronically homeless people have some sort of disability – either physical or psychological. This is usually a key factor in their homelessness, and the central roadblock to their finding a stable home.

Luckily, this is also where we have made the most progress. From 2005 – 2007, the country saw a ten percent reduction in the rates of chronic homelessness.

The solution: it’s called “permanent supportive housing.”. Basically, it’s permanent housing COUPLED WITH supportive services, including counseling, therapy, and other life skills workshops.

The GREAT news is that this solution has proven not only effective, but financially viable. Turns out that the costs of emergency hospital visits, jails, run-ins with the police, and the slew of other reactive social services is actually more than what it would cost to set up, maintain, and provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. Acclaimed writer Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers fame) wrote a great article for the New Yorker called “Million Dollar Murray”, which explains just this concept.

So that's how people become homeless nowadays - challenging to be sure, but definitely something that we can work on.

Questions? Corrections? Feel free to let me know what you think.