The State of Homelessness in America: Trends in Populations at Risk

Why do people become homeless? This is a complicated question with numerous, complex answers. For some people, it may be because they lost a job or had an unforeseen medical crisis. For others, it may be because the cost of rent rose and they were unable to afford the payments.

Every person who experiences homelessness has a unique situation. However, research shows that homelessness often is a result of two factors: economic problems and/or housing problems. Economic problems include poverty and unemployment. In other words, if you don’t have the money to pay for housing, you’re vulnerable to homelessness. Housing problems include severe housing cost burden—in which a poor household pays over half of their income in rent—and living doubled up—in which people live with family or friends. Housing problems generally stem from a lack of affordable housing.

Just as we track trends in the homeless population, we think it’s just as important to track trends in populations at the highest risk for homelessness. We included this analysis in our recently released report, The State of Homelessness in America 2015, to show just how many Americans are vulnerable to experiencing homelessness in the future.

The report shows some startling trends amongst populations vulnerable to homelessness:

  • Though the poverty rate fell from 15.9 percent to 15.8 percent from 2012 to 2013, the number of people in poverty actually increased by 0.1 percent.
  • The unemployment rate fell from 8.1 percent to 7.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, which meant there were 8.4 percent fewer unemployed persons. (Note: though it’s good news that the unemployment rate is falling, it may be in part because fewer people are actively looking for work.)
  • The number of poor renter households with severe housing cost burden decreased by 2.8 percent from 2012 to 2013.
  • The number of people in poor households living doubled up increased by 3.7 percent from 2012 to 2013. Research shows that living doubled up is the most common prior living situation of people who become homeless, so this increase is particularly alarming.

The good news is that it’s likely that many people who experience economic problems and housing problems won’t ever experience homelessness. However, the lack of affordable housing for many Americans means that the population vulnerable to homelessness is vast. By prioritizing and investing in affordable housing, we can work to ensure that those who are at risk of homelessness are better protected from becoming homelessness.