Why do people become homeless?

Photo credit: Daryl Peveto, AARP

Photo credit: Daryl Peveto, AARP

There are many different reasons an individual or family falls into homelessness. While it’s usually a combination of things, like losing a job or falling behind on rent,  sometimes the cause of homelessness is one tragic incident like losing a partner that changes someone’s living circumstance. So why do people become homeless? Learn a little more about the most common reasons, and meet a few neighbors who you may not even realize are experiencing homelessness.


Whether from losing a job, or not being able to find a job in the first place, unemployment is one of the major causes of homeless. No income, no way to keep up with living expenses. While the number of unemployed people fell to 7.4% the past few years, the number of people living in poverty hasn’t declined. At 46.7 million living under the poverty line ($20,000 year for a family of three), that’s 15.8% of the United States.

“A few months ago I was forced to be homeless after I lost my job and became delinquent on my payments. I am post graduate of San Francisco State University and recently graduated May 2014 with my B.A. in Broadcast Electronic Communication Arts with minor in World Music and Dance.”

Personal or family crisis

Individuals with an established support network and steady income can be forced into homelessness if a major health issue or family emergency arises. For people already living below the poverty line, managing everyday incidents such as having a car towed can push someone into homelessness even faster. One major health issue can derail an individual’s life including a family member’s poor health or a death in the family. Even divorce can quickly spin into homelessness as it can be expensive and impact income significantly. Often these homeless experiences are short-term and transitional, especially for families.

“After a divorce, I moved to Alameda County for employment and a fresh start. Unfortunately I found, then lost, my job due to increasingly severe health issues (I’m a melanoma cancer survivor) and became homeless as a result of no income. At the same time my children’s mother was struggling herself and I became the sole guardian of my three young children.”

Affordable housing

In cities like San Francisco and New York, affordable and available housing is in short supply. But even outside these urban areas people are feeling crunched by the rising cost of living. Since 2007, the number of poor households increased by 27% - 11.25 million families are paying 50% or more of their income toward housing. According to The Department of Housing and Urban Development,  families with only one full-time worker making minimum wage couldn’t afford rent for a two-bedroom market-priced apartment anywhere in the country.

“15 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and am still undergoing treatment. During this time I became homeless because my landlord evicted me so they could find a tenant to pay higher rent. Since then I have a had difficulty getting housed again because of the limited amount of affordable housing available in San Francisco.”

Demographics: Youth and LGBTQ

Young people are often considered the “invisible homeless” - and there are fewer statistics for this group as they don’t normally engage with services. For them, homelessness may begin as couchsurfing or crashing with friends, which is less drastic than sleeping outdoors. What we do know is that youth -- including children and unaccompanied youth -- make up almost 8% of the homeless population - during a year around 550,000 youth and young adults up to age 24 experience homelessness, with 380,000 being under the age of 18.

Similarly, the LGBTQ community faces a unique set of challenges and are often more at risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared with their heterosexual peers. According to the Williams Institute, the most common factor to LGBTQ homelessness is from family rejection based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Youth are often met with harassment and discrimination when they try to seek out alternative housing, which contributes to their disproportionately growing rates of homelessness.

“I was born in Jordan… I lived in Amman till I was 15 years old. My family figured that sending me to live in America was the best way to get me away from them and away from the country that could have killed me for being a transgender...I am basically disowned. So my life has been quite a struggle.”

No support network

It’s easy to take your support network for granted, when you have one. But those who don’t are sharply aware of the absence. Support networks can come in many forms: a family member, friend, co-worker, or even the greater community as we see on HandUp. Knowing that someone believes in you can make all the difference.

One thing to note is that even with state-funded programs to provide a safety net, these are often not enough to avoid homelessness. Currently, the median Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefit for a family of three is approximately one-third of the poverty level.

“I was born in Iran and I speak two languages, Turkish and Persian. I had a hard time in Turkey for being a homosexual refugee. The U.S. Embassy helped me get a Green Card. Two years ago I came to Los Angeles. It was challenging because English was my third language. It was hard to adjust to a new culture, new community, and new language. I had a really hard time with these big changes.”

Mental health or substance abuse

According to the overall U.S. 2014 Point-In-Time Count, on any given night, nearly 20% of the homeless population had a serious mental illness. A subset of this group are homeless veterans, struggling with PTS and mental suffering. Those living with mental illness have challenges with everyday aspects of live like self care and often remain homeless for longer periods of time. There are major barriers to employment and consistent management of available services.

In 2012, one in five people in the U.S. who experienced homeless also struggled with chronic substance use problems – 131,000 people altogether. For chronically homeless individuals who also suffer addiction, permanent supportive housing is key because it combines stable housing with intensive support and services. This means access to stigma-free, meaningful services along with housing.

"I am battling homelessness and poverty unable to maintain employment due disorders caused by my Honorable Military Service. I served Honorably Discharged. Now I need to ask for support to rebuild my life. My life weekly is consumed with almost daily doctor appointments.  I was living in a fog for many years unaware that what I experienced in uniform made me ill. Been sober and not drunk in 3 years, after I finally started talking about what happened in service.”

Everyone has a story and as a community we can make a difference first by understanding why homelessness happens. Then we can take action in our own neighborhood, whether that’s stopping to say hello to a homeless neighbor, volunteering, or giving directly to someone in need on HandUp.

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