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Homelessness in America: Facts Everyone With a Passion for Social Change Should Know

The first step to ending homelessness is education. Learn more.

In January 2015, nearly 565,000 people in the U.S. were experiencing homelessness on any given night.* More than 20% of them were children under the age of 18.* Those are difficult numbers to comprehend, considering that until the 1980s homelessness was not even considered widespread in the U.S. Today, it’s a national crisis that social change advocates wish to make a political priority.

What defines “homelessness?” Someone who is experiencing homelessness would typically be sleeping outside, in an emergency shelter, or in a transitional housing program.

Homelessness in America: Facts Everyone With a Passion for Social Change Should Know

Who makes up the homeless population in the U.S.? There are four primary groups that are under the watchful eyes of those trying to end homelessness. These groups include families, individuals, veterans, and the chronically homeless.

Why are most people homeless?

The primary reason for most homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50% of their annual incomes for housing.* For someone making minimum wage and supporting a family, their paycheck won’t cover the fair-market cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S. Other factors that come into play are high unemployment rates and a decline in available public assistance.

What are some of the primary issues facing homeless people?

Aside from housing, human services experts agree that the primary issues facing the homeless include the need for expanded national healthcare—both physical and mental—increased government funding, and decriminalization of homelessness.

What is criminalization?

Believe it or not, it’s a crime to be homeless in some cities. In 2014, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty conducted a survey of 187 cities and found that 24% make it a city-wide crime to beg in public, 33% make it illegal to loiter anyplace in the city, 18% make it a crime to sleep anywhere in public, 43% make it illegal to sleep in your car, and 53% make it illegal to sit or lie down in particular public places.

Who can help?

Just about anyone can help. The federal government helps to fund many housing and shelter programs, as well as emergency assistance and homelessness prevention programs. There are also a number of national organizations that share a mission of ending homelessness. They include United Way, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Center for Homeless Education, and the National Coalition for the Homeless. At an individual level, many dedicate their careers to improving the quality of life for others by earning a social work degree or human services degree and working for agencies or charities focused on helping the homeless. Many volunteer their time and donate to causes supporting those experiencing homelessness. Communities often band together to support the homeless with food and clothing drives, with meal preparations for shelters, and by rehabbing buildings.

Ending homelessness in the U.S. may sound like a lofty goal, but with the right people in place, progress can be made. In fact, homelessness declined 2%—that’s nearly 12,000 people—from 2014 to 2015, and is down 11% since 2007. If you have a passion for social change and would like to focus your career on helping others, you may consider earning an online social work degree or an online human services degree. Walden University offers an MS in Human and Social Services with 12 specializations to suit your career goals. It’s a degree that fosters change—in you and the world around you.

*National Alliance to End Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in America 2016, on the Internet at

†National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, on the Internet at

‡The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, on the Internet at