I would like to know more about the background of the homeless populations in America’s cities. These narratives should drive public policy but after many searches over the past year, I still consider myself hopelessly under-informed. For clarity, two narratives might be:

  1. Most homeless have been displaced by gentrification and would resume more conventional lives if the social policies were strongly geared towards an increase in housing supply.
  2. Most homeless are addicts or suffer from mental illness and would be helped more by drug programs or inpatient treatment of mental illness.

I am looking for reliable references that use, for example, statistics or well-thought-out arguments to replace the cartoonish scenarios above. I have not found anything in my searches beyond anecdotes - I am beginning to worry that there is no reliable information.

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    A good quick summary is here: hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2017-AHAR-Part-1.pdf Your second category is mostly made up of a subcategory of the homeless sometimes called Chronically Homeless Individuals, which is defined in the report.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 9, 2018 at 19:25
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    I would not include second order causes or any solutions in the descriptions: Being homeless because you happen to not have a job or otherwise have trouble procuring a house at a certain time doesn't clearly depend on gentrification or social policy of housing supply. What exactly the proper handling is for people with mental illness or drug issues is not universally agreed on.
    – user9389
    Jul 9, 2018 at 20:10
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    @blip Good point blip. And while it doesn't invalidate the data, it should be mentioned, every time it is mentioned, that the AHAR is put out by HUD, a government institution that gets paid partially according to how many homeless there are.
    – user21424
    Jul 10, 2018 at 11:31
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    "These narratives should drive public policy" - [citation needed]
    – user4012
    Jul 10, 2018 at 12:08
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    I looked at this AHAR report. I have qualms. For example, they report number of homeless to six digits. That is, numbers like 123,456. I don't think you can be anywhere near that accurate. Now I only looked at it for a half hour. But I never saw any estimates of uncertainty. Or attempts to quantify possible systematic biases. There were other things. So I have qualms. I'd like to see another source if you have it.
    – user21424
    Jul 10, 2018 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


Wikipedia has a nice list with links to several sources.

Both of your narratives are fairly well represented. There is a large chunk (anecdotally, I'd say about a third) of people who have lost a job or suffered a major financial catastrophe (medical, accident, etc.) and as a result ended up unable to afford housing. Cheaper housing would reduce the numbers of these people (see large concentrations of the homeless in cities with high housing costs, like NYC, LA and Seattle), as would more/better jobs. Another factor is social support network: To become homeless you have to not only lose your house, but also not have any friends or family willing to let you stay with them while you get back on your feet.

Substance abuse is quite common as well. Not every homeless person is an addict, but many addicts end up homeless, and they make up a big chunk (confirmed by statistics). Unlike the previous category, these have an additional barrier to rehabilitation: Because of the drugs it is difficult to get a job and keep it, and even if they did, it is hard to save money and move into a place because the addiction tends to take priority over that. These people wouldn't necessarily be helped by cheaper housing and more jobs, you would need to also treat the addiction for most of them.

Mental illness is common also. It's worth noting that drug use and mental illness can be co-morbid, and also homelessness itself (or the stress leading up to it) can cause mental illness, but there are many examples of people becoming mentally ill which caused homelessness. Two common ways are becoming unable to work, or being financially ruined by costs of treatment. In any case, it's hard enough for a healthy homeless person, with severe mental illness it becomes even worse. And often the homelessness also makes the illness worse.

Another large group are the veterans. To be sure, mental illness and/or substance abuse can play a role here, but also there is an element of difficulty in adjusting to civilian life (coupled with poor support network, lack of suitable jobs).

I think yet another factor is that while there are often many resources available for the homeless, they are not always aware of them or don't take advantage. People who are forced to live on the streets for years are naturally not the best informed.

Some people like to claim that all homeless have only themselves to blame. There is certainly no shortage of people who brought it on themselves through their actions. But that hardly accounts for all of them. Generally, in life you sometimes experience sudden financial shocks - such as loss of income - and most people have a variety of resources to get through these (like friends and family, savings, good credit, being employable). But if you the shock is large enough to overwhelm your contingencies, or if you get caught at a time when your contingencies are unavailable, you can end up homeless easily enough. Once you're in that position, a lot of practical difficulties arise and prevent you from getting out:

  • You can't maintain hygiene or groom which leads to poor impressions on potential employers
  • You have limited access to the internet so looking for jobs is hard
  • You have no address so many places are hard to deal with (banks, government, etc.)
  • Your health deteriorates, you live in unsafe environments where you get victimized by criminals and other homeless
  • You are constantly around substance abusers and at high risk of abusing yourself
  • Your mental health suffers, and obviously this sort of life is not the best for making you feel positive and motivated to go find a job and get back on your feet

So it is usually a case where a perfect storm of misfortunes traps the person in this state, and it is very hard for them to escape it.

  • Add that not having an address (other than a PO box) will often trigger employers to illegally discriminate against you.
    – Phoenix
    Dec 10, 2019 at 4:20

There is no shortage of housing in the U.S. Some argue that there is a shortage of "affordable housing" in the U.S.

The homeless come from all walks of life and have experienced a multitude of different experiences which lead them to become homeless.

Several examples of a segment of the homeless population who do not meet the criteria described at the original question are runaway children fleeing homes where the family can afford rent or mortgages though contain abusive parents or siblings; fully employed families where no drug abuse occurs and no members of the family have mental illnesses though become homeless rapidly when rent increases or they are simply evicted in order for the landlord to charge the next renter more money; total loss of home due to fire or natural disasters; people who give up their possessions and walk, cycle or hobo across the country or the entire planet; people who decide to live "off the grid" in wildernesses; people who simply prefer to or know how to live in the streets independent of the trappings of renting or owning an apartment or home, while they might indeed have social, economic or health issues, the overriding psychology is one of not being confined to the lifestyles which others are bound to and believe is "normal".

For the specific information that you are attempting to acquire, the most effective and intimate means of capturing the data would be to consider your questions and approach to the people beforehand well and proceed to ask one thousand or more homeless people within your geographic region those questions one by one.

The homeless population in the U.S. is far too diverse for all of the reasons for homelessness across the entire U.S. to be included in a single report. Though you can gain insight into the diversity of the homeless population by actually talking to homeless people, instead of reading articles by people who are not homeless.

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    I don’t have time to talk to 1000 people, unfortunately. It might not be a practical suggestion for the citzenry to educate themselve on this by such a procedure although I agree that they would benefit. I am just trying to get insight into our local public policy to guide my voting and charitable activity, and there are many issues of interest besides homeless. It is surprising (IMHO) that there is no literature rationalizing the big public policy initiatives associated with the this issue. Jul 16, 2018 at 22:40
  • @abbyyorker "It might not be a practical suggestion for the citzenry to educate themselve on this by such a procedure" Why not? If the citizenry is interested in the subject matter why would they not engage with their fellow citizens who are homeless to acquire primary source information about the plight of their fellow citizens? How is voting related to homeless people? If you do not have the time to speak with 1000 homeless people how could you possibly vet any policy a municipality, state or charity is supposedly implementing? It is not clear what your goal is relevant to the homeless? Jul 17, 2018 at 1:11
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    1000 interviews. Say 20 minutes each (more would be better). Say 8 hours a day. That would be 24 interviews per day, or 42 days. 8 weeks of a full time job. That chunk of time would make ME homeless so it is not a serious suggestion that every voter perform this task. Perhaps a better idea would be for some paid person or team to carry out the conversations and then publish the results. I would read the document with high priority. In fact, I wondered whether this kind of thing existed when I started the thread. Apparently not. Jul 18, 2018 at 6:32

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