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Causes of Homelessness



Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. People who are poor are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, child care, 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. Being poor means being an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.

In 2000, 11.3% of the U.S. population, or 31.1 million people, lived in poverty. (US Bureau of the Census, 2001) While the number of poor people has decreased a bit in recent years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has increased. In 2000, 39% of all people living in poverty had incomes of less than half the poverty level. This statistic remains unchanged from the 1999 level.

Forty percent of persons living in poverty are children; in fact, the 2000 poverty rate of 16.2% for children is significantly higher than the poverty rate for any other age group.



Declining wages have put housing out of reach for many workers: in every state, more than the minimum wage is required to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent. In Miami-Dade County a family needs to work 126 hours a week at minimum wage in order to afford a moderately priced two bedroom apartment.

In 1970 there were 300,000 more affordable housing units available, nationally, than there were low-income households who needed to rent them. By 1995, there were 4.4 million fewer available units than low-income households who needed to rent them.


The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness.

Welfare caseloads have dropped sharply since the passage and implementation of welfare reform legislation. However, declining welfare rolls simply mean that fewer people are receiving benefits — not that they are employed or doing better financially. Early findings suggest that although more families are moving from welfare to work, many of them are faring poorly due to low wages and inadequate work supports. Only a small fraction of welfare recipients' new jobs pay above-poverty wages; most of the new jobs pay far below the poverty line. (Children's Defense Fund and the National Coalition for the Homeless, 1998)


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. Nearly a third of persons living in poverty had no health insurance of any kind.

Homelessness severely impacts health and well-being. The rates of acute health problems are extremely high among people experiencing homelessness. With the exception of obesity, strokes and cancer, people experiencing homelessness are far more likely to suffer from every category of severe health problem.  

Children without a home are in fair or poor health twice as often as other children, and have higher rates of asthma, ear infections, stomach problems, and speech problems. (Better Homes Fund/1999) They also experience more mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and withdrawal. They are twice as likely to experience hunger, and four times as likely to have delayed development. These illnesses have potentially deadly consequences if not treated early.

Total Number of Homeless Persons on the Street in Miami-Dade County on an average night: 1,347


Domestic violence is the second leading cause of homelessness among women. Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Nationally, approximately half of all women and children experiencing homelessness are fleeing domestic violence.


Approximately 22% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness. (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001)

Despite the disproportionate number of severely mentally ill people among the homeless population, increases in homelessness are not attributable to the release of severely mentally ill people from institutions. Most patients were released from mental hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, yet vast increases in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s, when incomes and housing options for those living on the margins began to diminish rapidly.

According to the Federal Task Force on Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness, only 5–7% of homeless persons with mental illness need to be institutionalized; most can live in the community with the appropriate supportive housing options. (Federal Task Force on Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness, 1992) However, many mentally ill homeless people are unable to obtain access to supportive housing and/or other treatment services. The mental health support services most needed include case management, housing, and treatment.


The relationship between addiction and homelessness is complex and controversial. While rates of alcohol and drug abuse are disproportionately high among the homeless population, the increase in homelessness over the past two decades cannot be explained by addiction alone. 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.

In the absence of appropriate treatment, addiction may doom one's chances of getting housing once on the streets. Homeless people often face insurmountable barriers to obtaining health care, including addictive disorder treatment services and recovery supports.

The following are among the obstacles to treatment for homeless persons: lack of health insurance; lack of documentation; waiting lists; scheduling difficulties; daily contact requirements; lack of transportation; ineffective treatment methods; lack of supportive services; and cultural insensitivity. An in-depth study of 13 communities across the nation revealed service gaps in every community in at least one stage of the treatment and recovery continuum for homeless people. Source: National Coalition for the Homeless


Most people who experience homelessness (83%) are homeless for a short period of time, and usually need help finding housing or a rent subsidy. A small portion (17%) is homeless for long periods of time or cycle in and out of homelessness. They need permanent supportive housing.

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