The Issue

A look at who experiences homelessness in our country, how we got to where we are, and why we promote specific solutions.

This page offers a snapshot of homelessness in America. For a more in-depth understanding of the issue, visit our grantee partner, The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Each year they produce a comprehensive report on the issue, The State of Homelessness in America. For in-depth data on homelessness, check out the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homeless assessment report.

How big is the problem?

More than half a million Americans are homeless on any given night.

The good news is that our country is making progress, and in 2016, our country experienced a 3% decrease in homelessness since the previous year and this follows a downward trend we have been seeing for the past several years. However, in some big cities that have had dramatic increases in housing costs (like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas, and Seattle), homelessness has actually increased.

Here's how the numbers break down by population (data as of 2016):

Individuals who are chronically homeless*: 86,132

Solutions that work: Permanent supportive housinghousing where subsidies to pay for rent are combined with flexible, voluntary support services such as help managing an illness, getting an education or a job, making a doctor’s appointment, or other support to help tenants get back on their feet. (*A person is considered “chronically homeless” when they have been homeless for a long period of time and struggle with complex medical, mental, or addiction disabilities. (See this document from HUD  for a full definition.)

People in families without a home: 194,000

Solutions that work: One of the most effective strategies for moving families quickly out of homelessness is rapid re-housing, an intervention that provides short term financial assistance to cover expenses (rent, security deposits, and utilities) and other supports (housing search and landlord negotiation) to help people move quickly from homelessness into permanent housing.  Rental assistance has been found to be highly effective in ensuring long-term housing stability among families. Some families with complex needs benefit from permanent supportive housing.

Youth on their own, without a parent or guardian: 35,686

Solutions that work: Rapid rehousing with strong case management, host homes, and where appropriate, reuniting with family are all promising solutions. The Trust is currently supporting research to provide better information on what options are optimal for youth.


(Data from HUD's  The Annual Homeless Assessment Report)

Despite these hopeful trends, without continued investment and intervention, this progress will be short-lived. Consider that 11.4 million people in our country spend more than half of their income on rent, two-thirds of whom earn $15,000 a year or less. With no financial cushion, these families are living on the brink of homelessness. One medical emergency or a missed paycheck could mean the difference between having a home and losing it.

For data on the state of housing and homelessness in Connecticut check out:

Why do people become homeless?

Homelessness as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon and can be traced to massive funding cuts to federal affordable housing programs and social services like welfare and mental health care for our country's most vulnerable citizens that began in the 1970's. With these safety nets gone and wages stagnating, homelessness flourished. For example, in New York today, over 20,000 children experience homelessness, the highest number since the Great Depression.

While each person’s trajectory is unique, most individuals and families become homeless due to a loss of income, housing, health, safety, or their key support systems. These are some of the major causes of homelessness:

  • At its core, homelessness is about a lack of affordable housing: Rents are outpacing incomes and 75% of those eligible for rental assistance do not receive it.
  • Lagging incomes and job loss: Incomes for the poorest Americans have not kept pace with rising housing costs. Many people who experience homelessness are employed yet still unable to find housing that they can afford.
  • A medical emergency like caring for a sick child or catastrophic medical bills that quickly deplete a family’s resources.
  • A divorce or loss of a spouse that leaves the remaining partner in a financially vulnerable position.
  • Domestic violence and family conflict: Between 22-57% of all women experiencing homelessness report that domestic violence is the immediate cause of their homelessness. For youth, family conflict is a leading cause of homelessness.
  • Mental health issues: People with poor mental health are more susceptible to factors that can lead to homelessness.
  • Substance use: Many people who struggle with addiction never become homeless. But someone who is experiencing housing instability has an increased risk of losing their housing if they use substances.
  • Young people aging out of foster care or individuals exiting the justice system without supports in place. Between 11 and 37 percent of youth aging out of foster care experience homelessness and an additional 25 to 50 percent are unstably housed after they leave the foster care system.
What is our country doing to make an end to homelessness a reality?

The game plan is spelled out in Opening Doors, our nation's first federal strategy to end homelessness. The 2010 plan focuses on ending homelessness by population, and building on each success.

  • By 2016, prevent and end homelessness among veterans.
  • By 2017, finish the job of ending chronic homelessness.
  • By 2020, prevent and end homelessness for families with children and for youth.
  • Set a path to ending all types of homelessness.

Each state is encouraged to adapt the plan to best need the needs of their residents. A key to success is a coordinated effort by partners at all levels- the federal government, state government, local funders, and providers in each community—working together with the same vision. Take a look at how our home state of Connecticut is putting this plan into action.

We've been working on this issue for a long time and people are still homeless. Do you think we can really end it?

In a nutshell, yes.

Today we know so much more than we did even a decade ago. For a long time, our country's response to homelessness was to treat it as an emergency situation and provide a temporary fix to meet the immediate needs of someone who just lost their home: emergency shelters and other temporary housing. Typically, permanent housing was not provided until the person experiencing homelessness was deemed “housing ready.” As a country, we’ve since learned the wisdom of “Housing First” – getting someone off the streets and into safety is the absolute first step. Once their basic needs are met, only then can they begin to address other issues in their life.

We also have a much better understanding of who is homeless and what specific interventions work best for families, for youth, and for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. We have seen the exhaustive research and whole-heartedly support evidence-based solutions like rental assistance and supportive housing that can end homelessness rather than just manage the problem. The reductions we have seen over the past 5-10 years are a direct result of more investment in these solutions and better decisions about how to use our resources more effectively.

Does this mean that no one will ever become homeless again? Unfortunately, no.

But it does mean that if we succeed homelessness in our country will become rare, brief, and non-reoccurring. This means that every community will have a system in place to prevent homelessness and rehouse someone quickly if they fall into it. It also means that individuals and families will not cycle in an out of homelessness as they often do today.

With the release of the Opening Doors plan, the federal government set a clear vision for a fundamental shift in how communities organize their response to homelessness, moving from individual programs working in relative isolation to larger community-wide coordinated systems that are focused on helping people regain housing quickly. These big shifts will take time to implement but we believe that they are key to tackling the problem.

What is our commitment?

Getting to a country with zero homelessness will take the commitment of front-line service providers, policymakers, advocates, funders, and researchers all working towards the same goal. We have already seen that by using proven strategies and providing adequate investment, our country can move the needle on this issue.

Over the past 25 years, we have worked in deep partnership to identify, pilot, refine, and promote models that effectively move people into homes and help them stay there. We will continue to:

  • Invest in permanent affordable housing and opportunity for all as a cornerstone to ending homelessness and encourage our peers in the philanthropic sector to do the same.
  • Support our grantee partners in partnering with government to develop policies and programs and serve our shared goal of making homelessness rare, brief, and non-reoccurring.
  • Partner with other funders to advance a common vision and alignment for the most effective use of philanthropic resources.
  • Support providers and researchers who are developing promising solutions for ending homelessness.
  • Invest in advocates working toward larger systemic shifts we need to end homelessness, whether it’s creating greater awareness of the solutions that exist, calling for substantial increases in affordable housing, or figuring out the best ways for community partners to work together.
  • Accelerate the progress of all of our partners working to end homelessness by building capacity within organizations and across networks.

This is our commitment.