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Facts About Homelessness in America

January 25, 2024

America is facing a persistent and escalating crisis of houselessness, a term now often used to encompass a broader understanding of homelessness. According to the point-in-time survey included in “The 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an estimated 653,000 people in the United States were houseless on a single night — the most since the country began using the survey in 2007. The total in the January count represents an increase of about 12 percent from the prior year.

This houselessness crisis impacts individuals across various demographic groups, in particular, those with lower socioeconomic status, those from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, veterans and those struggling with mental or behavioral health disorders. 

Houselessness rates are directly related to local, state and federal policies. Congress’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic included emergency rental assistance, stimulus checks, emergency financial support for state and local governments and a temporary halt on evictions. In 2023, those pandemic-era protections ended.
To support individuals experiencing houselessness, social workers and advocates must first learn the facts about homelessness, specifically, what factors contribute to housing insecurity in the first place and what resources are available to mitigate houselessness, such as affordable housing and increasing access to health care.

“Homelessness” vs. “Houselessness”: Key Terms

The dignity and humanity of people experiencing houselessness should always be respected. One way to show respect is through the words we use to refer to the many individuals and families who experience housing insecurity in its many forms. When it comes to “homelessness” vs. “houselessness,” many people believe the two terms evoke different levels of respect. 

Advocates prefer the terms “houseless,” “unhoused” and “unsheltered,” as these are seen as a more respectful and accurate description of the situation, focusing on the lack of secure housing without the negative connotations that can come with the term “homeless.” These terms are used to describe various types of housing insecurity, and each has a distinct emphasis.


“Houseless” refers to the lack of a permanent, stable house or traditional dwelling. It acknowledges that, while someone may not have a conventional house, they might still create a sense of home in whatever space they inhabit, be it in a temporary shelter, in the home of friends or family members or in a nontraditional living space. 


“Unhoused” refers to not having access to permanent conventional housing. This includes people living on the streets, in cars, in shelters or in any temporary or makeshift living conditions. Coined in 2006 by the director of Operation Sack Lunch (OSL), Beverly Graham, “unhoused” makes a crucial distinction between a house (a secure dwelling) and a home (a place of belonging), The Guardian reports. It also emphasizes the factors outside of one’s control that may contribute to becoming unhoused, such as natural disasters or job loss.


“Unsheltered” emphasizes a lack of safe dwelling conditions. This is a situation experienced by individuals who sleep outside or in tents or vehicles. HUD defines individuals experiencing unsheltered houselessness as “people whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people.”

Housing Instability            

Experiencing “housing instability” means having a place to live, but facing instability, uncertainty or unsuitability in one’s living conditions. This includes a wide range of situations, such as facing the risk of eviction, living in overcrowded conditions, making frequent moves, living in substandard housing or spending a disproportionate amount of one’s income on housing. It can also refer to unsafe living conditions caused by domestic abuse.

Housing Insecurity at a Glance

Houselessness extends beyond the mere lack of physical housing. It includes the experience of not having a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, and encompasses many forms of living situations. These situations range from sleeping in overnight shelters, parks or public spaces to staying temporarily with friends or family without having a stable living arrangement.

Houselessness Statistics 2023         

In 2023, HUD reported that 653,100 individuals were found to be houseless on a single night, equating to about 20 out of every 10,000 people in the United States. Of these individuals, 60 percent were experiencing sheltered houselessness, meaning they were in an emergency shelter, transitional housing or a safe haven program. The other 40 percent were experiencing unsheltered houselessness, residing in locations not suitable for human living.

Family houselessness was on the decline in the United States from 2012 to 2022, but that changed in 2023 due to factors such as a decrease in affordable housing, reduced shelter capacity, displacement due to natural disasters and more. Close to 28 percent of the people experiencing houselessness on a given night in 2023, about 186,100 individuals, were part of a family with children, HUD reports. Between 2022 and 2023, the count of people in family units experiencing houselessness increased by over 25,000, a 16 percent rise.  

Individuals identifying as Black, African American or African along with those belonging to Indigenous groups (including Native American and Pacific Islander individuals) remain disproportionately represented among those experiencing houselessness. For example, while constituting only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population and 21 percent of those living in poverty, people who identify as Black account for 37 percent of the entire houseless population and 50 percent of those houseless within family units with children, according to HUD.

It should be noted that gathering accurate data on the number of individuals experiencing houselessness in the United States is a challenging, complicated task. HUD point-in-time data is useful for illustrating national trends, but this method of data collection has its limits, as discussed by the Becker Friedman Insitute’s 2022 working paper “The Size and Census Coverage of the U.S. Homeless Population.”

Post-Pandemic Houselessness

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the houselessness crisis, increasing the number of people at risk. The existing health conditions of people experiencing houselessness made them more vulnerable to the disease, complicating the delivery of health care services.

Coordinated policy protections kept houselessness rates from skyrocketing during the pandemic. In December 2022, HUD reported that 582,462 individuals were houseless across the United States and its territories. This figure showed a modest rise of around 2,000 people compared to the comprehensive count in 2020, maintaining a steady rate of 0.18 percent of the national population.

However, in December 2023, the United States witnessed a significant 12 percent rise in houselessness, reaching an unprecedented high. This increase is attributed to escalating rental costs and the reduction of COVID-19 pandemic aid, making housing less accessible for many Americans, according to The Associated Press (AP).

Effects of Houselessness

The consequences of houselessness are far-reaching, impacting individuals’ health (both physical and mental) and well-being. Limited access to health care, food security and safe living conditions are pressing issues. Individuals experiencing houselessness are more vulnerable to violence, unsanitary living conditions and severe weather exposure. Common health problems of these individuals include malnutrition, infections, lung diseases, HIV/AIDS and mental health issues.

What Are the Causes of Houselessness?

The facts about homelessness’s causes are not surprising. Historically, economic downturns have led to increases in houselessness. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the economic recession of 2008 serve as stark examples. During these periods, job losses and foreclosures pushed many people out of their homes, reflecting how the health of the overall economy directly influences houselessness rates.

The history of houselessness in America is long and complex. After the Civil War, unemployed veterans struggled to find housing in growing cities. The late 19th century saw the migration of seasonal laborers to the nation’s cities, often due to economic downturns and other post-war circumstances. The 1950s to 1970s were marked by the disappearance of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients and public housing disinvestment in large cities. From the 1980s to the present, factors such as the AIDS epidemic, drug epidemics and gentrification have played significant roles in increasing the number of people experiencing houselessness.

Many factors put individuals and families at risk of experiencing housing insecurity today. Poverty, substance use disorders, incarceration and a lack of affordable housing all contribute to houselessness in the United States.

Poverty and Unaffordable Housing

The people most at risk of becoming houseless include those who earn below 30 percent of the area’s median family income, those who lack the resources to prevent houselessness and those who have recently experienced housing instability or exited publicly funded care systems. 

Emergency housing protections were expiring even before the federal government declared an official end to the coronavirus pandemic in May 2023. As these programs ended, houselessness rose. Describing the causes of the 2023 rise in houselessness, Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told AP: “The most significant causes are the shortage of affordable homes and the high cost of housing that have left many Americans living paycheck to paycheck and one crisis away from homelessness.”

Unemployment, especially during economic recessions, can quickly lead to houselessness. Medical emergencies can as well, as large medical bills combined with the inability to work due to health issues often result in financial instability, which can lead to eviction.


People who have been in prison are 10 times more likely to experience houselessness than the general population, according to a 2022 paper published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. This is because having a criminal record can disqualify individuals from certain public housing and other affordable housing options and may make them ineligible for housing assistance.

Addiction and Substance Use Disorders

In 2023, HUD reported that 24 percent of individuals experiencing houselessness also experienced conditions related to chronic substance use. Additionally, more than 10 percent of people seeking treatment for substance use or mental health issues in the public health system are without stable housing. Individuals who are houseless and struggle with mental health and substance use disorders are often confronted with urgent, life-threatening physical health issues and live in precarious situations — which can both cause and exacerbate existing substance use disorders. Veterans seeking medical help for opioid use disorders have a tenfold higher risk of experiencing houselessness compared to the wider veteran population, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

Vulnerable Populations            

The intersection of houselessness and certain demographics, particularly youth who are LGBTQIA+, is striking. The Williams Institute reports that youth who are LGBTQIA+ are 120 percent more likely to experience houselessness than other youth. These young individuals often face unique challenges, including family rejection and discrimination, which contribute to their heightened risk of houselessness.

For instance, studies show that 46 percent of youth who are LGBTQIA+ and experiencing houselessness ran away due to family rejection, and 43 percent were forced to leave their homes, according to SW Helper. This highlights the critical role that social acceptance and family support play in the lives of youth who are LGBTQIA+.

Houselessness Intervention Strategies 

Many programs and initiatives have been implemented to mitigate the houselessness crisis.

Rapid Rehousing              

Rapid rehousing is a critical intervention strategy aimed at swiftly moving individuals and families who are unhoused into permanent housing. Rapid rehousing typically involves three core components:

  • Housing identification: Assistance in finding and securing suitable housing
  • Rent and move-in assistance: Short-term financial aid for rent and moving expenses
  • Case management and services: Ongoing support to ensure stability

The National Alliance to End Homelessness emphasizes the effectiveness of rapid rehousing in reducing the time people spend houseless and improving their overall well-being.

Affordable Housing Initiatives         

Affordable housing initiatives are vital in preventing houselessness. These initiatives often involve increasing the supply of affordable housing options as well as government subsidies or vouchers, such as those provided by HUD that make housing affordable for low-income families. These programs are essential in urban areas where the cost of living is high and affordable housing is scarce.  They play a crucial role in reducing the overall risk of houselessness.

Transitional Housing            

Transitional housing offers a temporary solution for individuals and families as they move from houselessness to permanent housing. This type of housing typically comes with support services such as job training, mental health counseling and substance use treatment. The aim is to address the underlying issues that contributed to an individual’s houselessness, thereby reducing the likelihood of recurrence.

Resources and Tools              

Several federal programs provide support for houseless individuals and families, including initiatives from the Administration for Children and Families; the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Specific programs also target veterans and youth who are LGBTQIA+ experiencing houselessness.

Social Workers: Frontline Advocates and Resource Navigators

Social workers are integral to the fight against houselessness. They act as advocates, resource navigators and support systems for those at risk. The assistance they provide includes the following:

  • Assessment and individualized planning: Identifying the specific needs and challenges of each individual or family to tailor a support plan
  • Connection to mental health and substance use services: Facilitating access to necessary treatments and therapies
  • Assistance with government programs: Helping individuals navigate and apply for programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Medicaid
  • Educational and employment assistance: Providing or connecting individuals with job training and educational resources

Social workers also provide support through specialized housing insecurity programs for individuals and families who belong to specific demographic groups. 

Youth and Family Services

Youth and families at risk of houselessness can access programs such as HUD’s Family Unification Program (FUP) and Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP). These programs offer not only housing assistance but also family reunification services and youth-specific support.

Programs for Military Veterans

Military veterans, who often face unique challenges that can lead to houselessness, can benefit from specialized programs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers programs like the HUD-VA Supportive Housing Program and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), which provide housing vouchers, supportive services and case management.

Mental Health Programs

Individuals with mental health concerns represent a significant portion of the houseless population. Programs such as the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offer services specifically tailored to these individuals, including mental health treatment, substance use treatment and housing assistance.

Fighting Houselessness Through Social Work

Learning the facts about homelessness is the first step in combating it. The next step is employing a comprehensive approach that includes rapid rehousing, affordable housing initiatives and transitional housing, complemented by specialized programs for certain populations, such as military veterans and individuals with mental health issues. 

Social workers play a pivotal role in this process, acting as both advocates and navigators of the myriad resources available. Their efforts are crucial not only in providing immediate relief to those in need but also in working toward long-term change. Through these concerted efforts, the goal of reducing and ultimately ending houselessness becomes increasingly attainable.

If you’re inspired to be a part of this meaningful change and want to develop the skills needed to make a real impact, consider enrolling in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work online format program. The program offers a blend of academic rigor and practical field experience, and it can help prepare you to be a leader in addressing complex social issues like houselessness. Join the professionals who are committed to social justice and community well-being. Apply now and start your journey toward making a difference.

The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Community Supervision, Housing Insecurity, and Homelessness”

The Associated Press, “U.S. Homelessness Up 12% to Highest Reported Level as Rents Soar and Coronavirus Pandemic Aid Lapses” 

Becker Friedman Institute, “The Size and Census Coverage of the U.S. Homeless Population”

California Coalition for Youth, California’s Homeless Youth

Edge Media Network, “Shelter Not in Place: Solving the LGBTQ Homeless Epidemic”

The Guardian, “Is It OK to Use the Word ‘Homeless’ — or Should You Say ‘Unhoused’?”

Homelessness Research Institute, Population At-Risk: Homelessness and the COVID-19 Crisis

MedlinePlus, Homelessness and Health

National Alliance to End Homelessness, Affordable Housing

National Alliance to End Homelessness, Health

National Alliance to End Homelessness, Rapid Re-Housing

National Alliance to End Homelessness, State of Homelessness: 2023 Edition

National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Transgender Homeless Adults and Unsheltered Homelessness: What the Data Tell Us”

Solutions Center, What Causes Homelessness?

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Definitions of Homelessness

SW Helper, “The Causes, Risks, and Solutions for LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Programs to Address Homelessness

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress”

U.S. Department of Labor, Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Homeless Programs 

Verywell Mind, “An Overview of Homelessness”

Williams Institute, “Homelessness Among LGBT Adults in the US”