Why are people homeless?

There isn’t one single answer but here are a few reasons:

  1. There is not enough affordable housing to meet the current need.
  2. Systemic imbalances that cause socio-economic gaps affecting opportunity and access to housing. 
  3. Circumstances that could happen to anyone – a sudden job loss, a medical crisis, a natural disaster.
  4. And, as one Beacon Citizen has said so well: “Because we allow it.”

Not enough housing

In other words, we have a supply and demand problem. There is not enough rental housing to meet the demand for it in any Minnesota county, nor in any of the 50 states. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a shortage of 7.2 million units of housing affordable and available to the lowest income people, and yet just one out of every four eligible families receive the help that they need.

Additionally, federal and local programs to help low-income people afford a stable home have been cut or closed, further limiting access. Larger units (three- or four-bedroom apartments) are especially scarce, leaving some families very squeezed for space. Read this Southwest Journal series including a mention of our own Creekside Commons as an example of high-quality housing for families that's so badly needed.

Systemic imbalances foster unequal access to housing and opportunity

Socio-economic imbalances can create even bigger barriers to keeping a roof over one’s head, especially in combination with circumstances. These factors include generational poverty, institutional racism, a lack of sufficient affordable homes and apartments in most communities, low wages that can’t match market rents. Many people live paycheck to paycheck, lacking a safety net of savings or credit access, or family and friends who can loan money or open a spare room in an emergency. People of color still face discrimination in housing and the job market.

Furthermore, because low and stagnant wages are not on par with rising rents, more than half of Minnesota's renter households don't earn enough to afford an average two-bedroom in the state. Some families, youth or older adults with low or fixed incomes must choose between paying rent and other necessities – groceries, medication, transportation, utilities. And, child care costs are prohibitive for many families. (Even though child care workers themselves, whose national median hourly wage is $9.77, may be among the low-income workers who can't afford market-rate housing...)

Unforeseen circumstances

It’s true that some people’s choices about behavior or personal relationships can lead to homelessness. Far more often, events they could not predict have led them to a place they never thought they’d be – without a home. A job layoff, death or divorce leading to income loss. A landlord selling a building forcing evictions or rising rents. Fleeing domestic violence. A debt-inducing medical crisis or chronic illness.

Did you know?  An estimated 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Those with untreated mental illness or substance abuse who live on the streets or in a shelter may find it more difficult to hold a job, see a doctor or take medications regularly, or maintain a healthy diet, causing health to deteriorate, contributing to a perpetuating cycle of homelessness.

Check out this 2009 fact sheet from the National Coalition for the Homeless or this page from the American Psychological Association.

We allow it

Finally, we allow homelessness. Since the homelessness crisis of the 1980s, when many “temporary” shelters were created, somehow we have accepted homelessness as part of the fabric of our society. We, the public, have yet to demand that our public officials adequately fund affordable housing development and other supports such as rent subsidy vouchers and services that help keep families and individuals in stable, safe homes. Therefore access is limited and not equal to Americans’ need for housing. We can do better.

How can you help?

Advocate, donate, volunteer: What it takes to end homelessness and how YOU can help.