Homelessness Backgrounder



The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a DC-based research and policy organization, develops pragmatic, cost-effective policy solutions to homelessness.  The Alliance works collaboratively with the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to build state and local capacity, leading to stronger programs and policies that help communities achieve their goal of ending homelessness.  The Alliance provides data and research to policymakers and elected officials to inform policy debates and educate the public and opinion leaders nationwide.[i]

Causes of homelessness: Homelessness has many causes which cut across many sectors and systems—a nationwide shortage of affordable housing units, zoning regimes hostile to construction of affordable housing and rampant NIMBYism, de-industrialization and a loss of jobs for people with less education, a growing gap between rents and wages, vouchers sufficient to help only one-quarter of the eligible households, disinvestment in public housing, mental health and substance use programs inadequate to meet growing needs, tens of thousands of people being released from incarceration and hospitals with few prospects, families torn asunder by domestic violence, and youth cast out because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

But there is a clear relationship between homelessness and the availability of affordable housing.  Per GAO-20-433, median rent increases of $100 a month are associated with a 9% increase in homelessness.  “(A)bsolute rent levels and rental vacancy rates are associated with regional rates of homelessness.  Many common explanations—drug use, mental illness, poverty, or local political context—fail to account for the regional variation.” –

Homelessness Is A Housing Problem by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern, University of California Press (2022). 

“What’s the deal with California?”  Many local homelessness response systems, no matter how hard-working or productive, are being overrun by inflow—new people becoming homeless. 

  • “Yet, (Los Angeles) county officials say they cannot keep up: While 207 homeless people find housing every day, 227 people become homeless daily, the county calculates.” (NYT, April 22, 2022)
  • Over the last three years, San Francisco has made more progress in reducing homelessness than at any time in the last 17 years.  But for every person housed, four households will become homeless. San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey 2022 Comprehensive Report
  • “(F)or every 10 people that we house in (San Diego) county, 13 fall into homelessness due largely to sky-high housing costs.” San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness

Homelessness by the numbers: The 2022 count reported that more than 582K were homeless on a given night, either living in shelters or in uninhabitable places.  Please keep in mind that the number of people who were homeless at some point in 2022 is reliably considered to be two to three times that number. 

Short-Term Increases: Between 2020 and 2022 the number of people experiencing homelessness increased in 27 states and decreased in 23 states and the District of Columbia, rising nationally by 2K to 582K.  States with the largest absolute increases in homelessness between 2020 and 2022 were California (9,973 more people), Louisiana (4,200), Tennessee (3,311), and Oregon (3,304). States with the largest percentage increases between 2020 and 2022 were: Vermont (151%), Louisiana (132%), Maine (110%), and Delaware (103%).

Long-Term Decreases: Over the longer period, from 2007 to 2022, the number of people experiencing homelessness declined in 32 states and the District of Columbia.  Nationally, the number has declined from 647K to 582K.  The largest absolute decreases were in Florida (22,110 fewer people) and Texas (15,356 fewer people). The largest percentage decreases were in Kentucky (51%), New Jersey (50%), Florida (46%), Georgia (46%) and Maryland (44%). Between 2007 and 2022, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased in 18 states. The largest absolute increases were in California (32,535 more people) and New York (11,577). Vermont had the largest percentage increase (169%), followed by Delaware (123%) and Maine (67%).

Why is homelessness experienced by individuals increasing while family homelessness and veteran homelessness is decreasing?  Follow the money.  As the FY23 Budget reminds us, “The increase is a result of the rising cost of housing and the lack of assistance provided to segments of the homeless population. For veterans and families experiencing homelessness, investments in permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing have helped reduce homelessness, even as housing costs in most of the country for low-income people have risen dramatically. In partnership, HUD and VA have invested significant resources, including HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), to reduce veteran homelessness, which has led to a decline of veteran’s homelessness by half since 2011. A similar decline (32 percent) has occurred for families with children experiencing homelessness. On average, much less assistance is provided to individuals who are not veterans or accompanied by children. As a result, rising numbers are experiencing homelessness and particularly unsheltered homelessness.” (Emphasis added.)

Why do Black people experience homelessness so disproportionately?  People who identify as Black made up just 12 percent of the total U.S. population but comprised 37 percent of all people experiencing homelessness and 50 percent of people experiencing homelessness as members of families with children.   Black people are disproportionately homeless for several reasons:

  • Redlining—systemic housing discrimination supported by the federal government—is a root cause of the current wealth gap between White households and Black households. Redlining discouraged economic investment, such as mortgage and business loans, in Black neighborhoods.  The effects are still with us today: Black people still live disproportionately in concentrated poverty or in neighborhoods where they are regularly exposed to environmental toxins, and have limited access to quality care, services, nutritious food and economic opportunities.  People who become homeless are likely to have lived in such neighborhoods.  For most minority groups, the transition to neighborhoods with less crime, no environmental hazards, and close proximity to services, are often met with challenges.  A HUD study found that people of color were often shown fewer rental units and denied more leases in comparison to White people.  Moreover, White people were frequently offered lower rents.
  • Racial disparities in incarceration rates have worsened because Black people are at far greater risk of being targeted, profiled and arrested for minor offenses, particularly in high poverty areas. A criminal history can keep people from successfully passing background checks to secure housing and employment.  People exiting prisons often face significant problems in accessing safe and affordable housing; consequently, their rate of homelessness is high.
  • Lack of access to quality health care increases homelessness. People of color are far more likely to lack health insurance than White people, especially in states without Medicaid expansion.  Even with expansion, almost 30M people are uninsured—with about one-half of them being people of color.  The lack of health insurance for people with chronic medical conditions and/or untreated serious mental illness can place them at risk of being precariously housed. 

Federal Homelessness Funding: Homelessness Assistance Grants (HAG), which supports efforts to prevent and reduce homelessness in communities across the nation, is the federal government’s most important homelessness funding source.  HAG, which is funded through the annual Transportation-HUD Appropriations (THUD) Bill, consists of Continuum of Care (CoC) and Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) programs.

The CoC funds are awarded to communities pursuant to an annual competition process, which rewards communities that spend these valuable dollars cost-effectively. CoC funds can be used to pay for

  • permanent supportive housing (PSH), which combines rental subsidies without a designated length of stay with supportive services for households with at least one person with acute needs, e.g., mental illness, physical illness, or substance use;
  • rapid re-housing (RRH), which provides households with short term (up to 3 months) or medium term (up to 24 months) rental assistance along with services focused on securing steady income;
  • transitional housing (TH), which is intended to transition households, usually certain subpopulations like people recovering from abuse, dealing with addictions, or getting out of prison, into independent living or if needed into PSH or RRH over 24 months;
  • street outreach, which identifies and assists people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, connecting them to services on a voluntary basis; and
  • homeless management information systems (HMIS), which allows communities to identify people experiencing homelessness and keep track of their progress towards housing.

For FY20, FY21, FY22, and FY23, CoC was funded at $2.4B, $2.6B, $2.8B, and $3.2B respectively.  Although greatly appreciated, the amounts allow for only fractions of the eligible population to be provided with housing and services.  Much of the funding increases has gone to cover rising rents, not increasing capacities. 

ESG funds, which are awarded by formula to states, metropolitan cities, and urban counties, can be used for RRH, street outreach, HMIS, shelters, and prevention (which are housing relocation and stabilization services as well as short- and/or medium-term rental assistance that are necessary to prevent people from becoming homeless). Grantees are subject to matching requirements.  For the last four years, ESG has been funded at “no less than” $290M.

For veterans specifically: The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) runs several programs to help veterans experiencing homelessness, including

  • Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program, which funds transitional housing and supportive housing and services with the goal of helping homeless veterans achieve residential stability, increase their skill levels and/or income, and obtain greater self-determination. Additionally, the GPD offers case management grants to support housing retention for veterans who were previously homeless and are transitioning to permanent housing.  FY23: $276M. 
  • For very low-income veterans, the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) provides case management and supportive services to prevent the imminent loss of a veteran’s home or identify a new, more suitable housing situation for the individual and his or her family; or to rapidly re-house veterans and their families who are homeless and might remain homeless without this assistance. FY23: $750M.
  • For veterans experiencing homelessness with the most acute needs—whether related to physical health, mental health, or substance use—HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program combines HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided at VA medical centers, community-based outreach clinics, through VA contractors, or through other VA designated entities. FY23: $50M for HUD for new vouchers and $558M from VA for case management, including those veterans housed earlier. 

The VA programs are considered to be the gold standard for homelessness services.  They are better funded per capita than the HUD programs and are also, unlike the HUD programs, integrated into a world-class health care network.  Thanks to these programs, veteran homelessness has been reduced by one-half over the last dozen years. 

[i] Sources of information about homelessness: Please visit these sites for homelessness statistics–nationally and locally, currently and historically–as well as information about how effectively homelessness response systems are working in your area’s Continuums of Care (CoC), the more than 400 regional bodies responsible for overseeing federal homelessness funding:




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