The State of Homelessness in America: Trends in the Homeless Assistance System

On any given day, hundreds of thousands of Americans experience homelessness and interact with the homeless assistance system. Fortunately, many of them will become housed. Though the end point—housing—is the most important part, the process of accessing housing can vary greatly from person to person.

The homeless assistance system offers a variety of interventions: emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and rapid re-housing. While some of these interventions (emergency shelter and transitional housing) are designed to be temporary, others (permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing) are long-term solutions to homelessness.

Each of these forms of assistance are designed with varying goals in mind and are suitable for varying populations with differing needs, and together they all play a key role in ending homelessness. Though we spend a lot of time talking about increases and decreases in the number of homeless people, it’s just as important to consider how these decreases actually occur.

We examined trends in the homeless assistance system in our recently released report, The State of Homelessness in America 2015. We found a lot of interesting information, including:

  • In 2014, 763,000 total beds were available for homeless people. Since the 2014 Point-in-Time count recorded 578,000 homeless people, it might seem that we have more than enough beds to accommodate every person experiencing homelessness. However, geographic and population mismatches between beds and populations may prevent every bed from being filled.
  • In 2014, homeless persons used 102 percent of beds in emergency shelters. Though this seems counterintuitive (how can more than all the beds be used?), it simply means that temporary, seasonal beds, such as those provided by communities during extreme weather events, were set up in some places for short periods of time.
  • From 2013 to 2014, the number of rapid re-housing beds increased by 90 percent. This dramatic increase meant that rapid re-housing beds made up 5 percent of all beds in the homeless assistance system in 2014 (up from slightly less than 3 percent the previous year). This is a big step in the right direction, as research shows us that rapid re-housing is an effective intervention for many people and families. However, four states/territories—Guam, Nevada, Rhode Island, and the Virgin Islands—had no rapid-rehousing beds in 2014.

While it’s crucial for us to understand trends in the numbers of homeless people, we must also understand the ways in which homeless people access the homeless assistance system and the system's the capacity to help them. By ensuring that our homeless assistance system increases capacity according to need, we will continue our progress toward ending homelessness.