Why Are People Homeless?
There are currently two major contributors to the housing and homelessness crises: a lack of low cost housing nationwide and the limited scale of housing assistance programs.
Nationally, the cost of rental housing greatly exceeds wages earned by low-income renter households. For example, a full-time worker needs to earn on average $25.82 per hour to afford a modest two-bedroom rental and $21.21 hourly to afford a one-bedroom (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2022). However, the national minimum wage is only $7.25!
Housing isn’t only out of reach for minimum wage earners. The 2022 housing wage is far higher than the median hourly rate earned by customer service workers ($17.75), nursing assistants ($14.57), maintenance and repair workers ($20.76), home health aides ($14.15), retail workers ($14.03), and many others in the workforce.
Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped. If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the national poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7%. There were 40.6 million people in poverty. While the poverty rate has been slowly declining since 2014, a couple of factors account for continuing poverty:
- Lack of Employment Opportunities – With unemployment rates remaining high, jobs are hard to find in the current economy. Even if people can find work, this does not automatically provide an escape from poverty.
- Decline in Available Public Assistance – The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness and many families leaving welfare struggle to get medical care, food, and housing as a result of loss of benefits, low wages, and unstable employment. Additionally, most states have not replaced the old welfare system with an alternative that enables families and individuals to obtain above-poverty employment and to sustain themselves when work is not available or possible.
Other major factors, which can contribute to homelessness, include:
- Lack of Affordable Health Care – For families and individuals struggling to pay the rent, a serious illness or disability can start a downward spiral into homelessness, beginning with a lost job, depletion of savings to pay for care, and eventual eviction.
- Domestic Violence – Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. In addition, 50% of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).
- Mental Illness – Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).
- Addiction – The relationship between addiction and homelessness is complex and controversial. Many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless, but people who are poor and addicted are clearly at increased risk of homelessness.