COVID-19 and the State of Homelessness

As the Homeless Research Institute (HRI) worked to prepare The State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition, the COVID-19 global pandemic erupted. Like innumerable other small corners of the world, progress on the report was impacted. But, far more significantly, its subject matter took on a new relevance: the numbers being analyzed necessitate a high alert for homeless services systems during the current moment.

The State of Homelessness tracks the nation’s progress towards ending homelessness. It highlights national, state-wide, and local trends. Populations and subpopulations are dissected along with the ability of agencies to serve all people in need of assistance. The Alliance’s analysis demonstrates that, going into the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation already had large numbers of people experiencing homelessness and systems too under-resourced to reach them all.

Such circumstances make it challenging to manage a health crisis . . . but also an economic crisis that could potentially result in massive new increases in homelessness.

Specifically, The State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition identifies the following causes of concern.

Homelessness on the Rise

The nation has experienced three straight years of increases in homelessness within the nation-wide Point-in-Time (PiT) Count. During a health crisis, this increase translates into more people to manage— a total of 567,715 people experiencing homelessness to screen, test, track, socially distance, and quarantine.

Recent annual population increases point to ongoing challenges with ending homelessness in America—even during a period of low unemployment. COVID-19 complicates matters greatly. As unemployment rapidly increases, so do predictions for homelessness, with one expert estimating that nearly 250,000 new people could join this already growing population over the course of the year.

Too Many People Left Out in the Cold

Prior to the current crisis, systems were unable to serve everyone experiencing homelessness. More people have been benefiting from permanent housing solutions, but more than 200,000 remain unsheltered, most of whom are individual adults. The State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition points out that providers only had the capacity to offer an emergency shelter bed to 1 in 2 individuals experiencing homelessness in 2019.

The COVID-19-related health consequences are immediately evident. Limited resources can result in overcrowded shelters. Social distancing can be difficult if not impossible. Unsheltered people lack consistent access to water, soap, and hand sanitizers that help prevent the spread of the virus.

Further, the growing economic crisis makes it harder to escape homelessness through employment. Expected growths in the homeless population growth will add further strain to emergency services – services that already weren’t meeting the needs of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, years before the crisis began.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Homelessness data from 2019 and earlier years reflect existing disparities in larger society. In general, 17 out of every 10,000 people in America were experiencing homelessness last year. The numbers were larger for groups like Black Americans (55 out of every 10,000) and Latinxs (22 out of every 10,000).

These groups are economically vulnerable. Not only are Black and Latinx people typically more likely to be among the working poor and near poor and the unemployed, but they are also less equipped to weather the storms of recession. Fifty-eight percent of Black and Latinx people are liquid asset poor (lacking cash and savings to survive at the poverty level for three months), compared to the national average of 37 percent.

Although the relationship between such vulnerabilities and eventual homelessness are not fully clear, they raise concerns that a severe economic crisis could exacerbate already existing racial and ethnic disparities among people experiencing homelessness.

Large Populations of People Vulnerable to COVID-19

The State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition also discusses older adults and people with health conditions. The former group has grown significantly in recent years and was already projected to grow further before the COVID-19 crisis began. Meanwhile, health conditions have been overwhelmingly prevalent amongst the nation’s already sizable unsheltered population.

Since the CDC has identified senior citizens and people with pre-existing medical conditions as being particularly vulnerable to becoming seriously ill due to COVID-19, the health challenges for homeless services systems are significant. Monitoring health, and securing and maintaining healthy housing placements for these vulnerable populations, is a weight on the shoulders of service providers throughout the country.

Looking to the Future

In the coming weeks, months, and possibly years, HRI will continue to examine available data to determine how these COVID-19-related concerns actually impact people and systems. The State of Homelessness may look vastly different in 2021. However, the Alliance is confident that data like that included in the State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition will continue to illuminate challenges, and point the way towards solutions that work to reduce homelessness, unhealthy living situations, and group disparities.


Click to download the “COVID-19: Then & Now” infographic on how the pandemic has changed things for the homelessness sector.