Questions and Answers About Homelessness

How many people are homeless in the United States?

In 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that 553,742 people experienced homelessness on any given night. In 2016 approximately 1.5 million people accessed homeless services including emergency shelter, transitional housing, and other homeless assistance programs.

What is the definition of homelessness?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs consider a person to be homeless if they are sleeping outside, in a place not meant for human habitation such as a car or abandoned building, or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. Other federal agencies have different definitions of homelessness.

Who experiences homelessness in the United States?

Homelessness affects a diverse group of people including families with children, youth, people with disabilities and veterans. In 2017, HUD estimated that on any given night:

  • 57,971 families with children experienced homelessness (184,661 unique people).
  • 369,081 adults without children experienced homelessness.
  • 86,962 people with disabilities experienced chronic homelessness.
  • 40,056 veterans experienced homelessness.
  • 40,799 young people (under the age of 25 without a parent) experienced homelessness.

*Note: These subpopulation counts do not add up to the total homeless population count, as people may fall into multiple categories.

What causes homelessness?

People become homeless for a variety of reasons, but the most common factor is that they cannot find housing they can afford. Now more than ever, there is a lack of housing that people with low incomes can afford. Today 11 million extremely low-income households pay at least 50% of their income toward housing, putting them at great risk of instability and homelessness. Confounding factors contributing to homelessness include chronic health conditions, domestic violence, and systemic inequality.

What is the solution to homelessness?

The solution to homelessness is housing! Housing provides a foundation from which a person or family can access the services and supports they need to achieve stability and work toward goals in their lives including employment, health, and recovery.

There are multiple housing interventions that have proven to effectively end homelessness for individuals and families:

  • Permanent Supportive Housing is long-term rental assistance paired with support services. It is designed for individuals and families who have experienced chronic homelessness and serious barriers to stability including chronic health conditions, disabilities, mental illness, or substance abuse and long-term homelessness.
  • Rapid Rehousing is designed for a wide variety of individuals and families. It provides time-limited rental assistance and services for people leaving homelessness. The goals of Rapid Rehousing are to help people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency, and remain housed.
  • Prevention and Diversion are important components of a functioning homelessness response system. Prevention assistance helps individuals and families preserve their current housing situation. Diversion prevents people from entering the Homelessness Response System by helping them identify immediate alternate housing arrangement and flexible short-term assistance.
  • Housing Choice Vouchers provide affordable housing to homeless and very low-income households through a voucher that they can use to rent housing in the private market.

Is homelessness an urban challenge?

No, homelessness impacts rural, suburban and urban communities. People experiencing homelessness in rural communities are often undercounted because of the lack of shelters and homeless services.

In 2017, HUD estimated:

  • 51.5% of the homeless population to be in major urban communities
  • 34.9% of the homeless population to be in smaller cities or suburban communities
  • 13.6% of the homeless population to be in rural areas

According to the Council for Affordable and Rural Housing, rural homelessness has a distinctive profile. Many people in rural areas, who would otherwise be homeless, live doubled up or in substandard housing. Rural areas have fewer shelters or resources for people to turn to.

What policy changes are needed to reduce homelessness?

Homelessness is solvable, but it will take resources and political will at the local, state and federal levels. The government cannot solve homelessness alone; part of the solution to homelessness is a partnership with the private sector.

In addition to expanding funding of existing homeless services and housing, the Mayors and CEOs Campaign is calling for the creation of two new federal programs to expand the impact of permanent supportive housing and to invest in innovation. These proposals include:

  • Creating a competitive joint HUD-HHS program that pairs HUD housing vouchers with HHS services through SAMHSA’s Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individuals (CABHI) competitive grant programs targeted to families who experience homelessness and have multiple barriers (e.g., child with disability requiring full-time caregiver, parent with mental illness, etc.)
  • Creating a HUD program, modeled after the Department of Transportation’s TIGER grants, which provides competitive grants to local communities that reward innovative thinking and collaborative, cross-sector projects to combat homelessness and affordable housing challenges.

What are local communities doing to reduce homelessness?

Local communities are making significant investments in creating highly local homelessness response systems. However, a similar commitment from the Federal government is needed to bring these systems to scale. Effective local homelessness response systems, including:

  • Implement a Coordinated Approach: To address homelessness communities should take a coordinated and data-driven approach to creating a homelessness response system.
  • Expand Housing Opportunities: Utilize both permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing to meet the diverse needs of people experiencing homelessness and to match them more quickly with housing in the community.
  • Focus on Serving the Most Vulnerable: Investments in permanent supportive housing have helped reduce chronic homelessness across the county by 30% since 2007. Permanent Supportive Housing is a cost-effective solution for the most vulnerable people who would otherwise cycle between shelters, hospitals, and correction facilities.
  • Create an Effective Crisis Response System: Local response systems should include a spectrum of programs focused on connecting people with housing opportunities as quickly as possible with minimal barriers to entry. Key system components include outreach, coordinated entry, prevention and diversion assistance, emergency shelters and permanent housing.

Federal Housing and Homelessness Funding

In recent years, funding for housing has mostly remained stagnant, with slight increases and decreases (see chart below). In doing so, Congress has essentially decreased funding for housing because there has been no adjustment for inflation. Underfunding housing programs year after year amount to a significant shortfall today.

We must enhance the resources and increase the budget for housing and homelessness programs in the next fiscal year, in part, by authorizing and funding two new programs (bolded below) modeled after the very successful TIGER Grants program and the HUD-VASH program.

HUD Programs (in millions) FY16 Enacted FY17 Enacted FY18 President FY18 House FY18 Senate FY18 Enacted FY19 Request
Tenant-Based Rental Assistance $19,629 $20,292 $19,318 $20,487 $21,365
Project-Based Rental Assistance $10,620 $10,816 $10,351 $11,082 $11,507
HUD-VASH $60 $40 $0 $577* $40
CDBG Formula Grants $3,000 $3,000 $0 $2,900 $3,000
HOME Investment Partnerships Program $950 $950 $0 $850 $950
Choice Neighborhoods Initiative $125 $138 $0 $20 $50
Homeless Assistance Grants $2,250 $2,383 $2,250 $2,383 $2,456
NEW: HUD-HIIRO (Housing Innovation, Investment and Reform Opportunities) grants modeled after the Department of Transportation’s successful TIGER grants
NEW: HUD-PASS (Partnerships Accelerating Supportive Services), building on the successful HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing model