An Overview of Homelessness

Lack of affordable housing, untreated mental illness, limited access to mental health care, insufficient funding: these are just a few factors contributing to the high rates of homelessness and though certain countries face higher rates than others, homelessness is a global problem that requires comprehensive solutions. 

An estimated 2% of our worldwide population is homeless, with more than 567,000 Americans experiencing homelessness on any given night.

No matter our social standing, we’re all impacted in some way by homelessness in the United States, which is why it’s so important to address the needs of those most at risk and take the necessary steps to confront the crisis from both a national and local level. 

Homelessness In America

Homelessness has been a problem since this country’s founding. Native Americans were displaced by European settlers in the 1600s. Many African Americans were promised land, but left homeless following the abolishment of slavery in 1865.

Although homelessness can touch all areas of the country, as we’ve seen in the Great Depression and the financial crisis of 2008, it often impacts minority and marginalized populations in underserved communities more predominantly.

When these communities are hit by natural disasters, the impacts are often devastating. Following The Great Chicago Fire, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Maria, thousands of Americans were left homeless and in dire need of governmental and community support in order to rebuild their lives. Many Americans are still dealing with the lasting economic impacts of those hurricanes. 

“There are many factors that drive homelessness and one of them is poverty,” says Karen Ranus, Executive Director at NAMI Central Texas ED. “Many people who are homeless are actually working. They are underemployed.”

Because of the economic and societal disparities in this country, homelessness is a cycle that’s bound to repeat itself. Individuals who are living in underserved communities may not have access to an education, limiting their job opportunities.

Individuals who are working minimum wage jobs may not be able to afford housing in their community. Individuals who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system may not receive the support they need to avoid homelessness following their release.

Who Is Homeless?

Larger homeless populations tend to exist in major American cities where the cost of living is higher and high-paying jobs are harder to attain, but homelessness exists all over the country, including in many rural areas. 

Approximately 4.2 million young people experience unaccompanied homelessness in the course of a year and drastically more men experience homelessness than women, with 70% of homeless individuals being men and unaccompanied young males. However, certain populations have a much higher risk of becoming homeless than others.

LGBTQ Youths

With stigma surrounding gender and sexual identity, lack of acceptance, lack of mental health support, and prejudice from both family and community members can cause LGBTQ youths to become homeless. We know LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness compared to youths who are cisgender and heterosexual. 

“Although family rejection is the biggest contributor to homelessness among LGBTQ youth, other factors, such as poverty, can contribute,” says Jeffrey M. Cohen, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary youth face the most risk for poor physical and mental health outcomes.” 

For all of these reasons, LGBTQ youth need safe and affirming care from health and mental health providers who know how to address and treat issues related to identity, which can range from depression to the need for life-affirming surgery. 

Kira Hayes M.A., MFT, owner and mental health provider at Affirming Pathways Psychotherapy, LLC, explains, “The realities of potential mistreatment and rejection of services from what should be their safe spaces is alive and real, including in schools, healthcare environments, community programming, churches, and even homeless shelters.”

This is why Dr. Cohen recommends the end of systematic oppression of LGBTQ members. “We must advocate for national and local policies which promote inclusivity and acceptance. Affirmative policies increase the probability of family acceptance and thus decreases the likelihood of family rejection which decreases the risk of LGBTQ youth becoming homeless.” 

Veterans 

“The transition from military life to civilian life can be really difficult,” says Michael Kiener, PhD, CRC, associate professor and director of the Rehabilitation Counseling program at Maryville University. 

Though many veterans are well-educated and have access to local veteran services, veterans still make up seven percent of all homeless individuals.

Many veterans have a higher risk of experiencing PTSD and other mental illnesses, which can increase their likelihood of becoming homeless, Dr. Kiener explains. “If we’re having trouble with anxiety or depression, we may withdraw, get in fights with significant others, lose jobs.”

Veterans often have difficulty with marriage, as well as social isolation, and addictions, says Dr. Kiener, and the stigma of asking for help prevents many from getting the support they need to avoid or escape homelessness. 

Individuals With Mental Health Conditions

Without support from family or community members and without affordable, accessible care, many individuals’ lives are gravely impacted by their mental health condition. 

“Those with severe mental illness can experience cognitive and behavior problems which can make it difficult for them to maintain daily living activities, such as keeping a job or maintaining an apartment,” says Dr. Jeglic, which is why she recommends reconceptualizing how we provide resources to those with mental illness. 

Programs like assertive community treatments, she says, can assist in providing basic needs like housing and food, while ensuring these individuals have access to free psychological, substance abuse, and other mental health services. 

“When you have untreated diabetes, you can look at the list of signs; it manifests in very physical ways, but mental health issues, by and large, manifest in thoughts, actions, and behaviors.” Ranus says. “Imagine if we treated them as a health issue and took away the shame.”

Domestic Violence Victims

Thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives.  When facing a life-threating or dangerous domestic violence situation, an individual may be forced out of their home, leaving them without safe shelter and in many cases the housing options are scarce, especially for victims who are jobless, have children, have a substance abuse problem, or have a criminal record.

“If you experience trauma, it can make it difficult to cope with the activities of daily living which increases the risk of homelessness,” says Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at John Jay College in New York. Domestic survivors often lose their support systems and this makes it harder to maintain a household and a job, especially when they have children. 

The Cycle of Homelessness 

Ending homelessness will require a change in national policy, a reallocation of funds, and more local support, from free counseling services to more low-income housing options. Our national system is not set up to fully rehabilitate those who find themselves without a home. 

“Sometimes it is untreated or undertreated mental health issues that lead to homelessness,” says Ranus, “[and] sometimes when people are living in homelessness, the trauma of their experience can trigger the onset of mental health issues.”

Without proper institutional support, homelessness is a vicious cycle. 

For LGBTQ+ youth, there is no direct federal programming and there are higher risks of gatekeeping of services, Hayes says, including sheltering and navigating overall discrimination or mistreatment that can include violence in what should be supportive environments. 

“We need explicit non-discrimination provisions which prohibit providers of services from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, color, religion, national origin, or disability status.” - Dr. Cohen

Very often homelessness requires individuals to live in survival mode and this can be dangerous, damaging, and detrimental to their wellbeing, making it that much harder to escape episodic or chronic homelessness. 

Ending Homelessness and Providing Support

In order to prevent homelessness and support those at risk or those currently experiencing homelessness, we must make housing affordable, education accessible, higher-paying jobs available, and health and mental health services a national priority. We also need to address the stigmas which still exist and continuously harm those in greatest need of support.

“Access to safe and affirming care for displaced youth is a critical need,” says Hayes. “Normalizing and increasing awareness of accessible resources, support environments, and family therapy care can also help LGBTQ+ youth and families.”

There are many ways for individuals to support the homeless in their local community, from contributing to food drives and volunteering at local shelters to advocating for policy changes and taking jobs at human service agencies, but putting an end to homelessness is a much greater challenge.

“I firmly believe one of the only ways to end homelessness is to provide housing,” says Ranus.  

She highly recommends the Housing First model which focuses on permanent housing for those who are homeless, regardless of their backgrounds. Housing First models address behavioral health problems, financial literacy, substance use issues, and other major aspects in order to attain long-term self-sufficiency. 

“Do some research into your local community and see what supportive housing is happening and support that,” says Ranus. “You can give donations and you can obviously give your time. Lend your voice for change, because it takes all of us doing that to really create the change that has to happen.”

A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you know is homeless and in need of immediate help, please contact your local U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office to learn what resources are available or contact The Salvation Army for emergency shelter. If you or someone you know is a homeless veteran, you can contact the Homeless Veterans Helpline at 1-877-424-3838 to gain 24/7 access to veteran services.

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