Questions and Answers About Homelessness

How many people are homeless in the United States?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that more than 580,000 people experienced homelessness on any given night in 2020, the agency’s most-recent Point-in-Time (PIT) count.

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 considers 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 2020, HUD estimated that on any given night:

  • About 172,000 people in families with children experienced homelessness
  • 37,058 veterans experienced homelessness
  • About 34,000 of the overall population were young people under the age of 25 who experienced homelessness on their own as “unaccompanied youth.”

*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. Low-income women of color are particularly cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on housing, putting them at great risk of instability, eviction 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, urban and tribal communities. People experiencing homelessness in rural communities are often undercounted because of the lack of shelters and homeless services.

In 2020, HUD estimated that nearly 6 of every 10 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness did so in an urban area, with more than half of all unsheltered people counted in the Continuums of Care (CoCs) that encompass the nation’s 50 largest cities (53%). More than one in five people who experienced unsheltered homelessness was in a CoC with a largely suburban population (22%), and one in five was in a largely rural area (20%). 

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.

Our Policy Platform recommends that all parties work together to:

Scale what works

Support and increase funding for existing federal programs that have been proven effective, including making Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) available to all eligible households, supporting Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Grants, Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG), HOME Investments Partnerships Program (HOME), the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), and Community Development Block Grants, including increasing the public services cap.

Build on the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) model by creating a comprehensive HUD-HHS program to help families and individuals experiencing homelessness who have behavioral health, mental health or substance abuse issues, or other barriers to assistance. In addition, permanently authorize the HUD-VASH program.

Support increased resources and efforts that help our aging and elderly homeless, which a University of Pennsylvania study forecasts will nearly triple by 2030, as well as interim housing solutions that aid our unsheltered homeless.

Treat housing as infrastructure

Set ambitious goals and expand tools and financing for housing production and preservation to stimulate private market production of affordable housing and to accelerate housing production at the extremely low-income level. Provide increased incentives for new affordable and attainable housing construction near concentrated employment centers.

Stop homelessness before it happens

Invest in cost-effective strategies to prevent housing-insecure families from becoming homeless in the first place. Expand recent successful efforts, like the existing Emergency Rental Assistance Program, into a permanent stabilizing fund to provide one-time, short-term emergency housing assistance to very low-income households that lack any cushion when facing a housing emergency. Invest in prevention and stabilization up front to reduce demand for expensive services once a household falls into homelessness.

Cut red tape

Streamline and allow more local flexibility in existing federal housing programs to make these programs more effective. Urge HUD to consider changes to their regulations that would make resource allocation more equitable, provide flexibility in funding innovative housing and shelter models, improve our ability to utilize private market housing, and reduce local inefficiencies created by incompatible federal practices.

Invest in new ideas

Create a Housing Innovation Fund that encourages new funding for innovative affordable housing models and innovative building techniques that support the development of collaborative, cross-sector projects in local communities to address 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 homeless response systems should:

  • 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 helped drive a 22 percent reduction in chronic homelessness – defined as anyone experiencing homelessness for more than a year, or repeatedly – compared to 2021. 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) FY22 Enacted FY23 President FY23 House FY23 Senate
Tenant-Based Rental Assistance $27,370 $32,130 $31,043 $30,182
Project-Based Rental Assistance $13,940 $15,000 $14,940 $14,687
HUD-VASH $50 $0 $50 $85
CDBG Formula Grants $4,841 $3,770 $5,299 $4,818
HOME Investment Partnerships Program $1,500 $1,950 $1,675 $1,725
Choice Neighborhoods Initiative $350 $250 $450 $250
Homeless Assistance Grants $3,213 $3,576 $3,604 $3,545