The Alliance has compiled a list of frequently asked questions for quick answers to common queries about homelessness.

FAQs Code

What exactly does the Alliance do?
How many people are homeless?
How many people are homeless in my community?
Why are people homeless?
How can I get help if I am homeless or about to be homeless?
What do the demographics of homelessness look like?
How many shelters are there (per state)?
What do you mean when you say "CoC"?
What are the funding sources for shelters and programs?
How many youth are homeless and why?
What are some common health problems related to homelessness?
How do we compare urban and rural homelessness?

What exactly does the Alliance do?

The Alliance aims to end homelessness – and we do it in three ways:

  • Improving homelessness policy
    The Alliance works with federal policymakers to craft and refine homelessness policy.
  • Building capacity
    The Alliance’s Center for Capacity Building works directly within communities, helping them implement policies and practices proven to reduce and end homelessness.
  • Educating the public
    The Alliance’s Homelessness Research Institute leads the way in developing and analyzing research about the homeless population. This research helps inform opinion leaders about the depth and complexities of homelessness and its solutions.

How many people are homeless?
As of the last, official count, about 564,708 people experience homelessness on any given night in the United States.

Why are people homeless?
Specific reasons vary, but research shows people are homeless because they can’t find housing they can afford. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more then 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing, and a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.

HUD also notes that the generally accepted definition of housing affordability is no more than 30 percent of monthly income going toward housing costs. Families or individuals who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered “cost-burdened” and can have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.

The lack of affordable housing is a significant hardship for low-income households and can prevent them from meeting their other basic needs, such as nutrition and health care, or saving for their future.

You can learn more about why some specific groups experience homelessness – families, youth, and veterans, for instance – on our blog.

How can I get help if I am homeless or about to be homeless?
The Alliance is a research- and policy-based organization, and as such is not a direct service provider with the capacity to directly assist people in need of immediate assistance.

However, we do know of some places that may be more helpful. Immediate sources of aid in your community can be found by consulting your local department of social services or your local branch of the Salvation Army or the United Way help line. You may also find it helpful to consult directories of homeless service providers by HUD and the National Coalition for the Homeless.

An organization called Neighborworks also has a hotline, 888-995-HOPE, and a website to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. For assistance specifically with default/foreclosure or rental needs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided a list of approved housing counseling agencies.

What do the demographics of homelessness look like?
Data indicates that the average homeless person is a middle-aged African American man, but the chart below provides more insight into the demographics of the homeless population in the U.S. Below is a chart with common demographics from the Part 2 of the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.


Percentage of All Sheltered Homeless Population

Percentage of Individuals

Percentage of Persons in Families






















White, Hispanic




Black or

African American




Other Single Race




Multiple Races








Under Age 18




18 to 30




31 – 50




51 – 61




62 and older




Household Size




1 person




2 people




3 people




4 people




5 or more people




Disabled Population




Disabled (adults only)




How many shelters are there (per state)?
Officially, we don’t know. We do, however, have some good leads.

Although it’s probably not comprehensive, a homeless shelter directory can also be found at www.homelessshelterdirectory.org. These groups may be able to help you identify a number of resources, including free legal services in your community. 

For federal assistance, HUD does have local offices in each state. On this page, you can select your state and find a local HUD office that can give you information on federal programs, including rental assistance programs, housing counselors, and Continuum of Care (CoC) contacts. Often, the state page also has links to local food banks, shelters, and legal services.

What do you mean when you say “CoC”?
There are states, cities, counties, communities, districts – and then there are Continuums of Care.

Like those other terms, a “Continuum of Care” (CoC) simply refers to an administrative geographical unit – the local or regional body that coordinates funding and services for homeless people.

What are the funding sources for shelters and programs?
There are many – both public and private.

On the federal government side, there’s the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. This represents the largest federal investment in homeless assistance, and is responsible for funding many local shelter and housing programs.

Soon, the McKinney-Vento program will undergo considerable change as a result of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act. In 2009, Congress passed the HEARTH Act which reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance programs and made some considerable changes to the program. The changes outlined in the HEARTH Act include:

  • Increased emphasis on homeless families with children,
  • Increased emphasis on homelessness prevention,
  • Incentives for developing permanent supportive housing, and
  • Grants greater financial discretionary authority to rural communities.

Currently, homeless and housing advocates are asking Congress to increase the budget for McKinney-Vento assistance programs. Though the Administration's FY 2011 budget proposal does call for a ten percent increase, approximately $2.4 billion is required in FY 2011 to fully implement the changes in the HEARTH Act while continuing to fund existing homeless assistance programs. The McKinney-Vento program is just one of the numerous programs within HUD that help people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, including the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS, public housing, and others.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also offers some homeless assistance services through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). As is commonly accepted, many people experiencing homelessness also experience mental health complications and/or addiction and abuse problems.

The SAMHSA programs include the Grants for the Benefit of Homeless Individuals (GBHI) program, the Treatment Systems for Homeless program, and the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program. In addition, efforts are underway to authorize the Services to End Long-Term Homelessness Act (SELHA), which would fund an array of services in permanent supportive housing. See Funders Together
for information about homelessness issues, programs, and solutions.

Other federal departments, including the Departments of Justice, Education, and Veterans’ Affairs also provide programs targeted at people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

On the private side, there are a number of foundations and for-profit organizations that contribute to homeless assistance programs. The following foundations are particularly dedicated to the cause of homelessness:

  • United Way
    United Way has a longstanding reputation as a leader in eliminating homelessness at a national and local level. Most states and communities have local United Way branches. You can see if your area has a local branch by entering your zip code at the top right hand box on their homepage.
  • The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
    In their domestic efforts, the MacArthur Foundation provides grants for community development and affordable housing projects. You can see their guidelines for applying for grants on this page.

For other resources, the Foundations Center and Council on Foundations are both great places to look for local grantmakers.

How many youth are homeless and why?

So far, measuring youth homelessness has been a major challenge. Based on the data that is available, the Alliance estimates that there are approximately 550,000 unaccompanied, single youth and young adults up to age 24 who experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week in a year. Approximately 380,000 of those youth are under the age of 18.  While these are rough estimate made using imperfect information, it is a good starting point from which communities and the federal government can begin to scale resources and interventions.  To learn more about the Alliance’s analysis of the available data on homeless youth, read An Emerging Framework for Ending Unaccompanied Youth Homelessness.

Youth are homeless for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason given is family conflict.  For this reason, communities should focus their youth work on family intervention.  Family intervention consists of several strategies, such as reunification, family finding, family connecting, and even after care services. For the small subset of youth who cannot return home, longer term housing and service interventions will be needed.  To learn more about family intervention and housing models for youth, visit the Alliance’s Youth Homelessness webpage.

What are some common health problems related to homelessness?
Many homeless people come into homelessness with existing health problems – for some, a health problem may be the cause of homelessness. Health care bills still remain a major cause of bankruptcy, which can lead to homelessness.

Homeless people suffer from high rates of mental and physical health problems exacerbated by living on the streets and in shelters. Approximately half of people experiencing homelessness suffer from mental health issues. At any given point in time, 45 percent of homeless people report indicators of mental health problems during the past year. About 25 percent of the homelessness population has serious mental illness. Substance use is also prevalent among homeless populations.

These health conditions often require long-term, consistent care. Homelessness inhibits this care, as housing instability often detracts from regular medical attention, access to treatment, and recuperation. This inability to treat medical problems often aggravates them, making them both more dangerous and more costly.

For more information on health issues connected with homelessness, visit our Mental/Physical Health webpage.

How do we compare urban and rural homelessness?
In the summer of 2009, the Alliance released a series of briefs about the distribution of the homeless population across five distinct geographic types - urban, mostly urban, rural, mostly rural, and urban-rural mix. We found that while the distribution at the national level is overwhelmingly urban, there is wide variation across states.

Collectively, urban areas have the highest rate of homelessness – about 29 people per 10,000 – and those areas classified as “mostly urban” rank second with a rate of 19 homeless people per 10,000. Rural areas have the next highest rates: 14 people per 10,000.

There are some rural areas with very high rates of homelessness, and two of the highest rates in the country are in rural communities. However, the rates of homelessness within the rural category vary widely (more widely than any other category), and as a group, rural areas have a rate only half that of urban areas.

There are a number of explanations for the observed rate of homelessness being lower than what might have been expected: many extremely poor people in rural areas do not stay in shelters but rather double-up with family or friends or live in substandard housing, and many leave rural areas in search of increased employment opportunities and social services. While rural areas certainly have poverty to contend with – one in five rural counties have rates of poverty over 20 percent – homelessness as HUD defines it is less prevalent in these areas than in urban areas.

In fact, the lack of services and assistance in rural areas is demonstrated through the behavior of those experiencing homelessness. For instance, we see the percent of persons in families with children who are unsheltered is quite low in urban areas compared to the other four geographic categories. The rate of unsheltered persons in families in rural areas is almost double that of urban areas. Rural areas often lack the level of emergency shelter and other resources that are commonplace in urban areas.

For more information about the discrepancy in services between rural and urban areas, see Rural Homelessness.


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