As you travel the train northward from Los Angeles, scores of forgotten Americans huddle together, lining the tracks. Their tents and makeshift shelters, complete with shopping carts and discarded tarps, give little relief from the wind, sun, heat, and, more recently, record rains. The tempered Amtrak windows provide just enough separation, allowing passengers to stare unapologetically. We all stare. We pretend not to, but we do. We hide our thoughts when fellow travelers catch our eyes.

How can this be? I ask myself. Why now, in 2024, are there so many homeless?

Their outdoor art covers the boxcars and the sides of empty warehouses. The remanence of a free and open society takes shelter in makeshift tents and under highway overpasses. When you board a commercial airliner, you only see America as you dream her to be. But when you travel by rail, you see America as it is.

After our train trip from L.A. to Seattle, I wanted to learn a bit about homelessness in America. I realized I knew almost nothing about the causes of homelessness or even the basic facts. The tent cities we saw as we approached Salinas overwhelmed me with sadness. I fully realize that even writing about this subject reeks of the political food fights where politicians on both sides of the aisle use it to demonize and polarize us.

NOTE: The State of Homelessness: 2023 Edition uses data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide an overview of the scope of homelessness in the U.S. on a given night in 2022 and illustrate emerging trends. The data in this report is pulled from HUD’s 2022 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count and Housing Inventory Count data.

The current edition of this report analyzes available data on homelessness for 2022. Key facts and data points include:

  • Homelessness has been on the rise since 2017, experiencing an overall increase of 6 percent.
  • In 2022, 421,392 people were homeless and individuals who were chronically homeless (127,768) reached record highs in the history of data collection.
  • Unsheltered rates are also trending upward, impacting most racial, ethnic, and gender subgroups.
  • Homeless services systems continued to expand the availability of both temporary and permanent beds in 2022, but these resources still fall short of reaching everyone in need.
  • Homelessness rose by a modest 0.3 percent from 2020 to 2022, a period marked by both pandemic-related economic disruptions and robust federal investments in human services.

Who is Experiencing Homelessness in 2022: By Race/Ethnicity Available data demonstrates that race and ethnicity are key determinants that impact 1) who will become homeless and 2) the type and depth of rehousing barriers people will experience.

  • Within the 2022 PIT Count data, White people are numerically the largest racial group. They represent half (50 percent) of all people experiencing homelessness.
  • Most groups of color have higher rates of homelessness than their White counterparts—and, in some cases, far higher.
  • Among Whites, 11 out of every 10,000 people experience homelessness.
  • For Black people, that number is more than four times as large—48 out of every 10,000 people.
  • Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders particularly stand out as having the highest rates, with 121 out of every 10,000 people experiencing homelessness.

Who is Experiencing Homelessness in 2022: Special Populations

  • 22 percent of homeless people are chronically homeless (or people with disabilities who have experienced long-term or repeated incidents of homelessness).
  • 6 percent are veterans.
  • 5 percent are unaccompanied youth under 25.

Who is Unsheltered in 2022

  • On a given night, the homeless services system provides shelter for 348,630 people.
  • Despite these efforts, 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness live unsheltered, which means their primary nighttime residence is a place not suitable for human habitation (for example, a city sidewalk, vehicle, abandoned building, or park).
  • Individuals are particularly likely to be unsheltered. The majority of the group (51 percent) are sleeping in these settings.
  • Families with children, who are often prioritized for services, are least likely to live unsheltered—11 percent live in such situations.

The major causes of homelessness include:

  • The lack of affordable housing throughout much of the country is considered the “root cause” of the contemporary homelessness crisis.
  • There is a lack of sufficient urban housing projects to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing to the financially underprivileged. Additionally, rents can be unaffordable for low-wage workers in areas where their workplace is located.
  • The deinstitutionalization movement from the 1950s onwards in state mental health systems, to shift towards community-based treatment of the mentally ill, as opposed to long-term commitment in institutions.
  • Redevelopment and gentrification activities instituted by cities across the country through in which low-income neighborhoods are declared blighted and demolished to make way for projects that generate higher property taxes and other revenue, creating a shortage of affordable housing for low-income working families, the elderly poor, and the disabled.
  • Nearly half of foster children in the United States become homeless when they are released from foster care at age 18.
  • Natural disasters that destroy homes: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc. Places of employment are often destroyed too, causing unemployment and transience.
  • People who have served time in prison, have used addictive substances, or have a history of mental illness find it difficult to find employment for years at a time because of the use of computer background checks by potential employers. Also included are registered sex offenders who are considered unwelcome in most metropolitan areas.
  • People with criminal charges who are in hiding and seek to evade law enforcement.
  • Adults and children who are fleeing domestic violence.
  • Teenagers who flee or are thrown out by parents who disapprove of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. A 2010 study by the Center for American Progress shows that a disproportionately high number of homeless youth (between 20 and 40%) are gay and transgender).
  • Complex building codes can make it difficult to build and construct affordable housing.
  • Foreclosures of homes, including foreclosure of apartment complexes, which displaces tenants renting there.
  • Evictions from rented property.
  • Lack of support from friends or family.
  • Individuals who prefer homelessness and wish to remain off the grid for political and ideological purposes. Often self-identified as gutter punks or urban survivalists.
  • Lack of community resources in place to help aid in the prevention of homelessness before it becomes a crisis.
  • High rents, in particular areas where individuals could pay over a third of their income on rent and related costs, increase the potential of homelessness.
  • Low-income workers are at increased risk of homelessness as wages for the typical American worker have stagnated over the last three decades while housing costs have climbed, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

I offer no solutions here or any place else. A quick Google search and my sad observations cloud an otherwise beautiful Southern California day.

6 thoughts on “Homelessness”

  1. Gary, this is an issue I deal with in almost a daily basis. One of the biggest factors I see is the alcohol and drug abuse within the homeless population. This affects the ability for someone who is homeless to obtain shelter due to the fact that most facilities do not take anyone under the influence. Another issue is that a majority of the homeless I deal with do not want help. They would rather panhandle and then take that money to buy drugs or alcohol. I very seldomly see an entire homeless family. I have and assisted them with shelter options. I have a list of resources I keep with me. Lastly, in my experience handing out money to a homeless person adds to the drug and alcohol abuse issue. I know this because I have seen it firsthand. Sure it makes the person feel good but if someone feels they want to help go to a shelter and make sandwiches like I had my sons do. There is no easy solution and the underlying issues are many. We can go into open borders, the opioid crisis caused by big pharma and our government that has led to the fentanyl explosion, or the lack of mental health facilities. Just my perspective.

    • Thank you Robert! for me; No easy answers is the best starting point. I was struck on two items. a) total number of homeless < 500,000. Seems solvable for a country of 300M -- and b) the number of support programs available that still leave many behind.


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