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The Homelessness Crisis: Causes & Contributing Factors

Tents and tarps outside park for the unhoused.


Homelessness is more than just a statistic — it's a reality that affects people in every part of the world.  


In 2022, over 421,000 people in the U.S. alone were counted as unhoused, with nearly 128,000 being chronically unhoused. What's more, about 28 percent of these were families with children. And on any given night, about 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness are left to find refuge in places not meant for living, like sidewalks, vehicles, or abandoned buildings.  


At ShiftLink, we work closely with those who work in shelters through our scheduling solutions. This blog post draws upon information from reputable sources like the National Alliance to End Homelessness to shed light on the causes and contributing factors of this homelessness crisis. 



About the Terminology in this Article 


“Homeless” is widely recognized to describe people without a permanent residence, but it carries a stigma. The term “unhoused” is gaining popularity as a more neutral alternative to "homeless”, since it simply describes the state of being without a house, without implying negative aspects of the person or their life. "Unhoused" also focuses on systemic failures, like the government's inability to provide decent housing, instead of blame on the individual. 


In this article, we refer to the “homelessness crisis” in reference to the broader society issue of the lack of stable housing, while using terms like “unhoused” and “experiencing homelessness” in reference to people. The use of person-first language, such as "people experiencing homelessness," emphasizes the individuality and humanity of each person, rather than defining them solely by their housing status. 




Who Experiences Homelessness? 

When we talk about homelessness, it's not just a single story. It's many stories, each unique and complex. However, there are common threads that highlight the systemic issues that cause certain groups of people to experience homelessness more often than others. 


According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in the United States:  


  • About 22 percent of unhoused people are chronically unhoused.  

  • Often, these people live with a disability.  

  • Veterans make up 6 percent of people experiencing homelessness. 

  • While 5 percent are youths under 25, alone and vulnerable because of their age. 


Race and ethnicity play a role. While 11 out of every 10,000 White people experience homelessness, the number skyrockets to 48 out of 10,000 for Black individuals. Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders face an even starker reality, with 121 out of every 10,000 experiencing homelessness. These high rates are not random, but are linked to a history of oppression, including displacement and exclusion from housing opportunities.  


Gender is another factor. Men, comprising 68 percent of the individual homeless population, are more likely to be homeless. Women, including those with children, and people identifying as transgender, nonbinary, or questioning, face their own unique challenges and barriers in the context of homelessness. 


The LGBTQ community, particularly those who are transgender, gender questioning, or nonbinary, are overrepresented in the unsheltered homeless population, meaning they are both unhoused and lacking a safe shelter space. This highlights the need for targeted support and understanding to address the specific barriers they face. 



Causes and Contributing Factors 

The National Alliances to End Homelessness highlights five key causes of homelessness in the United States: income and housing affordability, health issues, domestic abuse, and racial disparities.


Coins stacked, acting as bar graph that's increasing with paper houses on top.


1. The Affordable Housing Crisis 


One of the biggest reasons people end up without a home is something pretty basic: they just can't afford a place to live. Think about it – if you're struggling with unemployment or barely getting by during tough economic times, like a recession, paying rent or a mortgage can feel impossible. 


Right now, we're in the middle of one of the worst affordable housing crises ever. It's hitting those living in poverty the hardest. At the same time, for people with lower incomes, wages haven't really budged much


Today, there are about 11 million households with extremely low incomes spending more than half of what they make on housing alone. That's a huge chunk of their budget.  


When so much of your income goes towards keeping a roof over your head, it doesn't take much to tip the balance and put you at risk of losing your home. This is the reality of the affordable housing crisis and how deeply it affects the risk of homelessness. 



2. Health and Disability 


Health and homelessness are deeply intertwined. Health issues can lead to homelessness, and experiencing homelessness can make health problems even worse. This creates a cycle that's hard to break without the right support. 


According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, people living in shelters are over twice as likely to have a disability compared to the general population. Think about this: on a single night in 2023, 31 percent of the homeless reported serious mental illness, 24 percent had chronic substance abuse issues, and nearly 11,000 were living with HIV/AIDS. 


Health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS are also far common among people experiencing homelessness, sometimes three to six times higher than the general population. Getting treatment and preventive care is a huge challenge for people experiencing homelessness, as many don't have health insurance, and finding healthcare providers can be very difficult.  


For those struggling with mental health and substance use disorders, the situation is even more critical. They're more likely to have severe physical illnesses and live in unsafe conditions. Over 10 percent of those seeking treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues in public health systems are unhoused. 


The opioid crisis has hit this group especially hard. Since 2010, opioid abuse and related overdose deaths have quadrupled. For those without a home, the impact is devastating. Substance use is a known risk factor for experiencing homelessness, and overdose rates are alarmingly high in this population. 


This shows just how crucial housing and healthcare are in tackling the issue of homelessness. Without addressing these health needs, breaking the cycle of homelessness becomes even more difficult. 



3. Domestic Abuse 


When we talk about homelessness, we often overlook a crucial factor: domestic abuse


It's a heartbreaking reality that for many, fleeing an abusive relationship leads directly to homelessness. This is true for people of all ages, whether they're youth, single adults, or families.  


Finding themselves in a situation where the need for safety outweighs everything else, survivors of domestic abuse often have no choice but to seek refuge in homeless service programs. These programs become a lifeline, offering a safe temporary space for those who have had to make the tough decision to leave their homes to escape abuse.  


However, it's not just the need for safety driving this decision. Often, those fleeing domestic abuse also face economic hardships. Without the financial means to secure or maintain housing independently, their options are painfully limited. 



If you are experiencing domestic abuse, know that help is available. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline offers free, confidential support 24/7. An important feature of their website is the ability to quickly exit by pressing the ESC key twice, which immediately navigates away from the site and erases it from your internet history. This helps ensure that your search for help remains private. 




4. Racial Disparities 

Homelessness is deeply tied to racial inequalities, both present and historical, in the United States. 


African Americans make up 13% of the general population, but more than 40% of the population experiencing homelessness. This isn't a coincidence. It's the result of unfair federal laws, policies, and practices over time. 


One such policy is Redlining, a practice of housing discrimination that had a huge impact. It meant that African Americans and other people of color were often left out of economic investments like mortgage and business loans. This practice from decades ago has left a lasting mark: African Americans today are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty, face environmental hazards, and have limited access to good healthcare, services, and job opportunities. All of these factors contribute to a higher risk of experiencing homelessness. 


The situation with incarceration rates tells a similar story. For African Americans, the rate has tripled from 1968 to 2016, the result of targeted profiling and arrests for minor offenses, especially in high-poverty areas. Having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find housing and a job, and people coming out of jail or prison often struggle to find a safe, affordable place to live. 


Healthcare is another piece of the puzzle. People of color are more likely to lack health insurance, especially in states that haven't expanded Medicaid. Without insurance, managing chronic medical conditions or serious mental illnesses becomes a challenge, increasing the risk of homelessness or precarious housing situations. 


It's not just about individual circumstances, but about a history of systemic inequalities that continue to affect people's lives today. 



Addressing the Homelessness Crisis Takes Compassion 

Homelessness is more than a series of individual choices. It's a crisis deeply rooted in systemic issues — issues that individuals alone cannot change.  


Unhoused man sitting on sidewalk.


The affordable housing crisis, health conditions and healthcare costs, domestic abuse, and racial disparities are not just challenges, but symptoms of larger societal failures. Each story of homelessness is unique, but they all share a common thread: they are often the result of circumstances beyond a person's control. 


We must approach this crisis with compassion and understanding, recognizing that those experiencing homelessness are caught up in a system that often works against them. Real change requires not only acknowledging these systemic issues but actively working to address them.  


At ShiftLink, we're committed to playing our part. By providing a scheduling solution that supports those working on the front lines in shelters, we aim to streamline the vital services they offer. If you're involved in this critical work and looking for an efficient way to manage shifts and resources, consider exploring ShiftLink's scheduling software. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who need it most. 




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