Understanding Homelessness

We all know the feeling – you notice the elderly man despondently shaking a cup of coins, and you avert your eyes. An unkempt teen begins asking about a spare dollar, and you’re suddenly busily involved with your phone. Maybe you cross the street to avoid a make-shift shelter built from a shopping cart and a dirty tarp. You feel a little guilty, but push the discomfort away, thinking “Sure, homelessness is unfortunate, but it’s not my fault. What could I do?” Actually, quite a bit. Perversely, the commonness of people experiencing homelessness is a major barrier to confronting the issue: the more often we encounter a person who is homeless, the less sensitized we become to their struggle. The first step of dealing with this complex issue is one we can all take – we must each work to remember that every individual experiencing homelessness is not merely a statistic on a piece of paper; they are a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a friend, a loved one. They are a person worthy of dignity, kindness, and respect. Acknowledging the humanity of each person affected by homelessness is the first step – of many – that we must take. Next, we must strive to learn about their situation, equipping ourselves with the tools necessary to understand and assist. These individuals deserve no less. 

What exactly does it mean to be homeless?

Homelessness is often misunderstood, so establishing a clear definition is important to any discussion of the issue. The United States Department of Health and Human Services describes an individual or family as homeless if they face the following situations: 

  • An individual or family that lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence 
  • An individual or family that has a primary nighttime residence that is: 
    • A supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill) 
    • An institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized
    • A public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings

Just how many people experience homelessness?

 Global reports estimate that there are approximately 150 million people who could be considered homeless. This translates to two percent of the world’s population. An even larger percentage of individuals, however, lack adequate housing - roughly 20% of the world’s populationIt is a common misconception that only underdeveloped countries see recurring homelessness. In truth, Europe alone has more than three million people living on the streets, and the United States also has a significant homeless population. In 2018 alone, a staggering 552,830 people experienced homelessness on a single night in the United States. This figure translates into 17 of every 10,000 people. The homeless population is concentrated primarily in five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, over 65,000 men, women, children, and veterans were sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles County in January 2020. 

Obtaining these figures is challenging for many reasons. First, the exact definition of homeless varies not only between countries, but even between different agencies within one country. This makes it nearly impossible to obtain specific statistics. As Yale Global explains, “Homelessness can vary from simply the absence of adequate living quarters or rough sleeping to include the lack of a permanent residence that provides roots, security, identity and emotional wellbeing. The United Nations has recognized that definitions vary across countries because homelessness is essentially culturally defined based on concepts such as adequate housing, minimum community housing standard or security of tenure.” Inadequate government resources also limit attempts to measure homelessness, as do members of the homeless community themselves, many of whom are reluctant to be counted or registered by the state. For example, “Homeless youth often avoid authorities who may contact parents or place them in foster care. Some parents may not wish to be labeled as homeless out of fear of losing custody of children. Also, some homeless persons, especially those suffering from mental disorders or substance abuse, fear arrest or confinement at a medical facility for treatment.” As a result, the exact number of people experiencing homelessness cannot be determined. Regardless, there is no doubt it is a pervasive problem on both a global and national scale.

What are the factors behind homelessness & what's being done about it?

It is all too easy to dismiss homelessness as a personal failing, the result of laziness or poor decisions. Instead of accepting this simplistic explanation, we must educate ourselves about the systemic and structural forces that result in people living on the streets. Only with a thorough grasp of the origins of the issue can we begin to explore solutions. Here are a few major causes of homelessness:

The Atlanta Mission is a grass roots organization based out of Atlanta, which is devoted to helping people experiencing homelessness "one friend at a time." In their line of first hand work they say "A lack of trustworthy relationships are one of the biggest causes to homelessness that we see... We all want to be close to family, have someone to call a friend or a mentor, someone that we can go to when times get tough, or when we simply need a little guidance to put us back on the right path. But a lack of that relationship in our lives causes a big hole. Forming healthy, trustworthy relationships could make the difference between having somewhere to temporarily stay with while getting back on your feet and finding yourself left facing homelessness." Family life and disputes can also lead to children running away with minimal resources which can also lead children and young adults into homelessness. The California Homeless Youth Project discusses how "m
any young people who live on the street or in unstable living situations have not had the good fortune to have grown up in homes where they had the opportunity to form stable attachments early on. Youth and homelessness is discussed in greater detail below. 

Learn More:
The Atlanta Mission
The California Homeless Youth Project            

The rising cost of housing is a major contributing factor. In the United States, as well as in many other developed countries, housing prices have drastically increased and continue to rise. As a result, approximately
8 million individuals are considered members of extremely low-income households and are forced to apply at least half of their income towards housing. Struggling to afford housing expenses among soaring costs places this population at severe risk of homelessness. Elise Buik, president and chief executive of United Way of Greater Los Angeles explains: “Our housing crisis is our homeless crisis.” The crises are deeply interconnected; it is impossible to separate the two. Developing housing that is affordable is one way of combating this. A few organizations have successfully taken this on include LA Family Housing, Mercy Housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). 

Learn More: 
National Low Income Housing Coalition 
The LA Times Section on Housing & Homelessness 
The Housing Crisis in San Francisco  
Stateline Articles 


Another potential cause of homelessness is domestic violence. Adults, children or families often have no choice but to flee from unsafe or hostile home environments. Without a safe housing option, they end up on the streets. This is especially relevant for women, who are most likely to face domestic abuse. In San Diego,
nearly 50 percent of women experiencing homelessness are survivors of domestic violence. Reported numbers, such as this one, are likely underestimates, as many victims are hesitant to report their abusers. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) provides 24/7 service to victims, connecting them with providers and shelters across the US. Trained advocates offer emotional support to callers, help them create a safety plan, discuss options for moving forward, and can connect them with legal services. 

Learn More:
ACLU Fact Sheet 
Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness 


Mental illness does not necessarily cause homeless, but is a related and complicating factor that is important to consider. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,
up to 45% of individuals experiencing homelessness are mentally ill. To be clear however, mental illness is not a challenge limited to the homeless community. In fact, mental illness is extremely common: in the United States, 46.4 percent of adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. The most common illnesses, among individuals experiencing homelessness and the general population, include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorders. If you yourself have not experienced one of these disorders, you almost certainly know someone who has. Individuals experiencing mental illness may not necessarily be facing homelessness, just as individuals experiencing homelessness may not be facing mental illness. However, the two conditions are connected, as researchers agree each exacerbates the other. People struggling with mental illness are at a greater risk of homelessness; homelessness can cause or exacerbate mental illness. Additionally, as individuals facing homelessness frequently struggle to obtain adequate health care, mental health conditions are often left untreated. This, in turn, can make it very difficult to sustain employment, resulting in little to no income and further complicating an uncertain living situation. Individuals struggling with mental illness often withdraw from family and friends, leaving them with little support. A mental health condition can affect anyone; it is not a sign of weakness or failure, but a health condition that should be met with compassion and support. For individuals who are homeless or at-risk for homelessness, such a condition can be especially dangerous, as they can easily be pulled into a vicious cycle, each condition feeding off the other. This is why solutions to mental illness start with and include therapy and support groups. For people struggling with mental illness, depression and thoughts of suicide, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can connect people throughout the country with the right help they need within their community. This hotline (1-800-273-8255) is freely open every day and every hour of the year. Trained responders can reduce distress, create a safety plan, and strategize to handle and prevent future crises for callers. 

Learn More:
National Health Care for the Homeless Council Resources 
National Alliance on Mental Illness




The public frequently associates homelessness with substance abuse, however many are not aware of the oppressive system that can occur to people struggling with addiction when living on the streets.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains how addiction to drugs or alcohol is a mental illness, “substance abuse disorder changes normal behaviors and interferes with the ability to work, go to school, and to have good relationships with friends and family.” It is crucial to daily recall that not all individuals who struggle with homelessness struggle with addiction, and that many people with stable housing actually do. As with other factors we’ve discussed, the issues are interconnected but not necessarily causal. Addiction often results in a dangerous spiral, as substance abuse often impairs the ability of individuals to maintain steady employment, putting them at risk of homelessness. The added stress of losing income or housing can then push them back towards alcohol or drugs as a means of coping, creating a disastrous cycle that is difficult to escape. Rehabilitation centers don’t always offer long-term solutions, they in fact may be contributing to the homeless crises in Los Angeles. There is evidence that Los Angeles rehabilitation centers market to out-of-state addicts, offering a free flight to Los Angeles for free treatment. As the Southern California News Group discovered in a 2014 investigation, they do so because, treating “patients can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical payments from insurance companies. That bounty has spawned a secondary industry of so-called ‘junkie hunters’ who receive kickbacks for selling addicts from around the country to the highest-bidding rehab facility, regardless of its quality of treatment.” When the insurance money runs out, the centers evict patients without a flight back home. Almost without fail, these patients end up on the streets of the city. In an effort to start over and make a clean break from addiction, these individuals leave their communities in hope. Unfortunately, they may find themselves in a system that abuses the rehabilitation process by forcing them out of treatment after only four months, mid-way into what many doctors believe is half the time necessary to overcome addiction. These individuals then not only continue to face substance abuse, but must do so alone, without resources or support systems, and far from home. However, not all institutions are the same. Individuals looking for trustworthy rehabilitation can get in touch with Alcoholics Anonymous by visiting aa.org or reaching out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), who offers information and referral service for substance abuse disorders and other mental health concerns. 

Learn More: 
Addiction Resource
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Resources 




Across the nation, half of the homeless community has spent some time in foster care. When an individual ages-out of foster care, and becomes a legal adult, they become responsible for their own housing and livelihood. Unfortunately, approximately 20,000 individuals each year must make this transition without positive familial support or connections. If they struggle to find a job or make rent, they have no one to turn to, and can easily end up living on the streets. A study by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services found that of a sample population, nearly 25% experienced homelessness within a year of leaving foster care and that youth in foster care are more likely to run away than youth who aren't in the system, increasing their risk of experiencing homelessness. A child in foster care is three to ten times more likely to experience homeless than a child who is not. The National Runaway Safeline is set up to provide support to youth who have run away from home, are considering running away, or are experiencing homelessness. Their hotline (1-800-786-2929) offers free and confidential assistance in working through difficult family situations, finding safe locations to sleep and obtain food, locating medical/counseling help, accessing legal services, and organizing transportation to return home. Another online resource is The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Please visit report.cybertip.org to report any online child activity including child exploitation, trafficking, abuse or porn to help rescue children and catch predators along with traffickers.

Learn More: Report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation
National Runaway Safeline Statistics
National Alliance to End Homelessness   




Human Trafficking and homelessness have significant roots intertwined. The Department of Homeland Security defines Human Trafficking by “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide – including many in the United States. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.” If a person is running away from a violent trafficking situation they can most often times end up experiencing homelessness. On the other spectrum, individuals who are already experiencing homelessness are more likely to encounter dangerous employment, making them especially vulnerable to this threat. In 2014, one of the largest studies on trafficking and homeless youth was conducted, reporting how homeless youth are especially vulnerable to trafficking. The study found 68% of youth who had either been trafficked or engaged in survival sex or commercial sex had done so while homeless, highlighting the increased risk for those without stable housing. The Runaway Safeline mentioned above along with the National Human Trafficking Hotline focus specifically on human trafficking. They understand how dangerous living on the streets can be so they daily commit themselves to serving victims and survivors. Their hotline (1-888-373-7888) is open all day, every day, connecting callers with services that allow them to get help and find safety.
Learn More:
Polaris Project
The Human Trafficking Institute
National Network for Youth  


Others Factors to consider when discussing homelessness:

Income & Unemployment: The discussion of minimum wage and a living wage is a crucial component to housing and homelessness. Income is discussed in greater detail within the Housing section alongside the research with it. When it comes to employment on the other hand, there are many stereotypes against people experiencing homelessness and their willingness to find employment. The National Alliance to End Homelessness addresses the issue: "Research consistently shows that people experiencing homelessness want to work. In fact, many are employed, but often precariously. The broader homeless population faces a variety of barriers to employment, including the experience of homelessness itself, plus other obstacles such as lack of experience, physical or mental health barriers, and challenges related to re-entry from incarceration or hospitalization." Read more on overcoming the employment barriers

 People of color, including Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Black Americans, are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Consider these statistics, from the National Alliance to End Homelessness: Black Americans make up 13% of the general population, but 40% of the homeless population. Various factors, including higher levels of poverty and incarceration, housing discrimination, and a lack of access to healthcare, all increase the vulnerability of Black Americans and other populations of color to homelessness which have roots in systematic racism. Learn More: Stateline ArticleForbes Article  and Street Sense Media Article.

COVID-19 & Homelessness: The situation of the current crisis has left many people experiencing homelessness in greater health risk than before the pandemic. To learn more on the impact of the virus, what is being done to help, and how Life Originelle is helping please visit our current Life Support campaign overview on Homelessness & COVID-19

What else is being done to address homelessness?

Despite the complexity of the issue, there are solutions to the homelessness crisis. Here are some examples of potential solutions and organizations exploring them, as they take on the difficult work of ending homelessness.

Shelters & Food Pantries

Shelters and food pantries are crucial to addressing the immediate needs of those struggling with homelessness. These organizations can provide a place to sleep and a hot meal, as well as hope and encouragement. One such organization is Union Rescue Mission (URM), one the largest providers of continuous emergency shelters in the nation located in Skid Row in Los Angeles. URM welcomes individuals of all ages as well as families. The organization provides nutritious food, serving on average 3,000 meals every single day of the year. They offer a safe, comfortable place to sleep for nearly 1,000 people every night, as well as day centers that provide a place for individuals to relax and families to play. URM also provides clean clothes, personal hygiene facilities, healthcare (mental, physical, and dental), legal assistance, counseling, spiritual encouragement, banking, mail services, and life management classes to guests. This organization is one of the few that has never had to turn away someone in need due to insufficient resources or services, while receiving no governmental support as a faith based organization. 

Hope Gardens Family Center, a transitional housing facility, is one of the ways URM specifically assists mothers and children that are homeless. Families are provided long-term services, such as housing, rehabilitation programs, spiritual encouragement, and counseling over the course of one to three years. This long-term, holistic approach allows women and families the support they need to get off the streets for good.  

Devoted Service for all Emergency needs

Another important service that some organizations provide is information. When living on the streets, it can be challenging to know where to turn for help or to learn about what resources might be available. United Way, partnered with 211, works to address this. United Way is a non-profit which focuses on three primary concerns: housing, education, and economic mobility. They also work with 211, the most widespread source of local services in the US and most of Canada. Calling 211 through the phone or visiting their website can help those experiencing homeless connect with the following resources:

  • nearest food pantry & free meal locations
  • nearest shelter, housing options, & utilities assistance
  • immediate employment & education opportunities 
  • free-low cost health/dental care, & vaccinations
  • emergency information & disaster relief 
  • a safe, confidential path out of physical and/or emotional domestic abuse
  • support groups for individuals with mental illnesses or special needs 
  • services for veterans
  • reentry help for ex- offenders 
  • substance abuse prevention & rehab programs


How can I help individuals affected by homelessness?

If you’ve made it to this point in the article (we hope so!), you are well on your way to beginning the first step in helping to combat this crisis: educating yourself. We are so grateful for all the people and organizations that are working on helping people experiencing homelessness at a grass roots level. We've put together different ways of how you can personally help those affected by homelessness and you can find it all here


Written By:
Camille Sammeth
Recent graduate from Harvard College and is passionate about elevating marginalized voices through storytelling.

Anna Bell
Based out of Los Angeles, works as a program assistant at a non-profit, and is passionate about advocating for human rights - particularly when it comes to refugees and immigrants.

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