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Causes of Homelessness: What You Need to Know

Homelessness is experienced by diverse populations, and it transcends borders and socioeconomic statuses. Like many people, Back on My Feet volunteer Sanj had preconceptions about homelessness before getting to know our members. Sanj shares that he initially “thought homelessness was all due to addiction or a poor childhood with little family support.” But he soon learned that “you can be homeless coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, even after successful careers in professional fields.” While the causes of homelessness can vary from one person to another, several common underlying factors can contribute to individuals becoming homeless.

Causes of Homelessness

Economic Instability

Economic instability is a prominent cause of homelessness. A common misconception is that homeless people do not want to work. In reality, many homeless people work low-wage jobs but struggle to afford housing. A 2021 study by the University of Chicago estimated that “53% of people living in homeless shelters and 40% of unsheltered people were employed, either full or part-time.”

The economic hardships faced by homeless populations are not independent of the scarcity of affordable housing options. The Coalition for Homelessness reports that an individual would “need to earn $45/hour – three times the minimum wage – at a full-time job to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent in NYC.” Even if an individual works full time, they are not guaranteed the ability to afford housing. In fact, according to Project HOME, to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia, a minimum wage worker would need to work at least 86 hours per week.

In addition to low wages and lack of affordable housing, unemployment can make individuals and families susceptible to homelessness. One such example is Back on My Feet alum Dexter, who immigrated to the US to escape persecution and then became injured on a job site, leaving him unable to work or afford rent. Another example is Mirinia who lost everything due to a divorce and the expenses incurred by having three children with disabilities.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a complex issue often intertwined with homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless states that “38% of homeless people were dependent on alcohol and 25% abused other drugs.” The study goes on to say that “substance abuse is both a cause and a result of homelessness, often arising after people lose their housing.” When interviewing our members, the reasons for addiction have varied from peer pressure to grief, PTSD, job stress, and many more. Back on My Feet alum Jose was pressured into taking drugs by a community that offered him a job, security, and friendship and assured him the substances would help him work harder and make more money. Hector turned to substances to cope with the loss of his son. Kevin used substances to cope with a successful, high-stress job until he lost control. Tyrena used alcohol and other substances to escape from her depression and despair about her life while she was sleeping on subway trains.

Mental Health Challenges

Like substance abuse, mental health problems can contribute to homelessness or arise because of homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “On a given night in 2022, 21% of the homeless population reported having a serious mental illness.” Individuals grappling with mental health problems often encounter difficulties in maintaining stable employment, which can lead to financial instability. Moreover, the stigma surrounding mental health can dissuade individuals from seeking support and treatment. Even if individuals do try to seek help, access to mental health services is often limited for those without stable housing. It is important to note that while mental health issues are prevalent among the homeless population, they are not exclusive to it, nor are they a cause of homelessness for all unhoused individuals.

Family and Relationship Conflicts

Breakdowns within families and relationships can also precipitate homelessness. Doubling up, or sharing housing with other non-related families, is one circumstance that can lead to such interpersonal conflicts. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, approximately 3.7 million individuals are currently in these circumstances. Some doubled-up families experience relationship tensions in the home, which increases their risk of homelessness.

Individuals who lose familial support or become victims of domestic violence can often find themselves without a stable place to reside. Back on My Feet alum Nicole fled an abusive relationship and found herself with nowhere to go until she found a shelter two days later. Circumstances like those Nicole faced limit people’s options and may force them onto the streets. Nicole is not alone; Atlanta Mission states, “More than 90% of women experiencing homelessness attest to some form of physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime.”

LGBTQIA+ youth and adults are often targets of domestic violence and abuse as well. The Bureau of Justice Statistics show that “the rate of violent victimization of lesbian or gay persons was more than two times the rate for straight persons,” while the rate was 2.5 times as high for transgender persons. Whether they are kicked out by unsupportive relatives or flee violence and abuse, this often leads to homelessness. UCLA School of Law states that sexual minority youth are twice as likely to have experienced homelessness in their lifetime, and 8% of all transgender adults had experienced homelessness within the past 12 months (vs 1.4% of the CIS Straight population).

Societal Barriers & Limited Access to Services

Some individuals find themselves homeless due to a lack of access to essential services, including healthcare, mental health treatment, and addiction support. The absence of affordable or readily available services hampers their ability to address the underlying issues that fuel homelessness.

BIPOC communities have extensive histories of experiencing oppression, which causes a disproportionate representation of these groups in the homeless population. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Most groups of color have higher rates of homelessness than their White counterparts—and, in some cases, far higher. Within the White group, 11 out of every 10,000 people experience homelessness. For Black people, that number is more than four times as large—48 out of every 10,000 people.”

Veterans make up another community harshly affected by limited access to critical services. While veteran homelessness is on the decline, veterans still make up 6% of the homeless population overall and 25% of Back on My Feet’s members. Back on My Feet alum Phil says, “A lot of people are coming back with arms or legs missing, shell shock, all types of trauma. There is nowhere near enough support to help people back into society, cope or acclimate themselves.”

Understanding the Root Causes of Homelessness

Very rarely do just one of these factors play into an individual’s journey. Our members’ stories are as complex as they are and we hope that by sharing the facts and their stories we can help spread awareness and compassion. Understanding the root causes of homelessness and dispelling common misconceptions is crucial for compassionate and effective solutions. By acknowledging the challenges homeless individuals face, we can work towards a society where homelessness is addressed with empathy, support, and sustainable solutions. Read our blog on Understanding the Impacts of Homelessness in America to learn more or see how you can start making a difference today.

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