Exploring the Crisis of Unsheltered Homelessness

Each night, nearly 200,000 Americans sleep outside or in a place not meant for human habitation, like an abandoned building, a park, or a car. Between 2015 and 2017, this population of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness jumped by almost 20,000. And while this represents only one-third of all people experiencing homelessness, it remains the most visible face of homelessness.

This issue is of increasing concern to many communities — often dominating news cycles and public debate about homelessness. As more towns and cities have witnessed an increase in tent communities and public encampments, there is greater urgency to address the issue.

That’s why the Alliance is launching the Unsheltered blog series, which will explore trends, data, and interventions related to unsheltered homelessness.

Where is Unsheltered Homelessness on the Rise?

Between 2015 and 2017, 56 percent of communities reported an increase in unsheltered homelessness. Most of the largest increases were reported in Western states: Hawaii, Nevada, and states along the West Coast have the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness. In fact, California and Washington together account for more than half of all people sleeping unsheltered in the country.

What’s the Context for This Crisis?

Despite recent increases, it is important to note that unsheltered homelessness is actually down 25 percent nationally since 2007. In fact, the rise in unsheltered homelessness is driven largely by people living in just 11 cities. Alongside the list of communities that reported increases is a list nearly as long with communities that reported decreases.

Full results of 2018 Point in Time counts are not available yet, but early reports show that unsheltered homelessness has decreased in hotspots like San Diego County, Los Angeles County, Hawaii, and Las Vegas.

Who Experiences Unsheltered Homelessness?

A typical person sleeping unsheltered is a single, adult, White male. However, unaccompanied youth are also overrepresented among the unsheltered population.

Although most people who are unsheltered are not chronically homeless, most people who are chronically homeless are unsheltered. As a result, people who are unsheltered tend to have greater vulnerabilities such as longer histories of homelessness and higher rates of behavioral health challenges. People sleeping unsheltered are also exposed to increased health and safety vulnerabilities, including increased involvement with the criminal justice system.

What Causes People to Sleep Outside?

While there are several factors that contribute to unsheltered homelessness, the primary driver is a lack of affordable housing.

Every state in the nation is currently experiencing this crisis. The newly-released Out of Reach 2018 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition draws a striking context:

“In no state, metropolitan area, or county can a worker earning the federal minimum wage or prevailing state minimum wage afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour week.”

A recent analysis published in the UCLA Anderson Forecast explored this phenomenon in the state of California — a state that is feeling this crisis, and the rise in unsheltered homelessness, particularly acutely. It found a strong correlation between higher median rent and home prices and more people living on the streets or in shelters.

While there are other factors to consider, including shelter capacity, low-barrier access to services, and knowledge of the resources available to people experiencing homelessness, the primary factor is housing.

How Can Cities Solve Unsheltered Homelessness?

Any durable solution to unsheltered homelessness must address the immediate crisis while also building long-term affordable housing capacity.

The reality is that there are no simple solutions. To address the immediate needs of people living outside, communities should continue to evaluate their shelter capacity and policies, and to invest in proven programs like rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing. Communities can also make progress by scaling up street outreach to build connections and better understand the needs of people living without shelter — needs that could include not only shelter, but income, employment, housing, and other services. An important part of this approach is building systems that are data-driven and coordinated.

Of course, any solution must also include a robust commitment to building and preserving affordable housing for low-income residents.

What Do We Know?

We know that there are evidence-based solutions that end homelessness.

For example, we know that Housing First works. We know that permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing can stabilize people back into housing.

Critical services such as health care, connection to mainstream benefits, employment services, and mental health services are also vital tools for helping previously unsheltered individuals remain stably housed.

The experience of unsheltered homelessness can be vastly different for individuals, families, and for people living in large encampments in cities like Los Angeles and Seattle. Programs intended to end unsheltered homelessness should be tailored to effectively serve each of these populations.

What Do We Still Need to Learn?

There is much more we need to learn in order to comprehensively address unsheltered homelessness. We need a better baseline understanding of this population: how many are employed, and how many have additional vulnerabilities such as mental health needs or opioid use disorders.

We need to better understand the experiences of people living unsheltered: how did they become homeless, how long do they stay unsheltered, how do they exit homelessness, and how often do they return to homelessness?

We need to know more about people who are unsheltered and not engaging in the homeless services system, whether by choice, lack of knowledge, or because the system isn’t accomodating their needs.

We need to know more about encampments — their variety, their development, and the impact of interventions such as sanctioning or clearing them.

Finally, we need to learn which outreach strategies are most effective for connecting people directly to income and housing, and for helping them navigate existing services.

What Comes Next?

The homelessness community does not have all the answers yet, but we are working with our partners to build this knowledge. We will be exploring the subject of unsheltered homelessness from various angles over the coming months. In this blog series, we look forward to sharing our insights.