Solving the Puzzle of Homelessness in America

In communities across America, homelessness is a rampant issue affecting children, young adults, and entire families. The number of people experiencing homelessness in America is staggering. On a single night in January 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted 564,708 homeless individuals living in shelters, abandoned buildings, cars, or, even on the street. Meanwhile, the National Center for Homeless Education identified 1,301,239 public school students who experienced homelessness at some point during the 2013-14 school year.

Right now, Civic is preparing to release a report on children and youth homelessness, focusing on their experiences with schools. The report will look at how schools can best help homeless students navigate the challenges they face and their role as a hub that can connect children, youth, and families to other resources and services they need to succeed in school and beyond. Education is a critical piece in breaking the cycles of poverty and homelessness in our country. Failure to obtain a high school diploma or a higher degree of education puts youth at serious risk of not being able to succeed later in life.

However, education is just one piece of the puzzle to ending homelessness in America. Another side of the equation is the need for adequate and available housing that is affordable for low-income families.

Indeed, one of the most prevalent causes of homelessness is the severe lack of affordable housing in this country. Housing should be a basic human right for all but far too many low-income households struggle to find a home they can afford to live in.

While rents have risen since 2000, so too has the number of renters who need low-priced housing. According to a report by The Urban Institute, from 2000 to 2013, the number of extremely low-income renters (those renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income) have increased 38 percent to over 11.3 million, while across that same period, the supply of rental homes affordable to these households increased by only seven percent, to 3.2 million. This comes out to a supply gap of 8.1 million available and affordable rental homes. The same report states that no county in America has enough affordable housing for all its extremely low-income renters. Moreover, HUD defines cost-burdened households as those who spend more than 30% reports of their annual income on rent and utilities but an estimated 12 million renter households spend more than 50 percent of their annual income on housing.

How is it possible that so many Americans cannot afford even the most basic housing and what can be done to fix the issue?

Well the rising costs of rent have certainly contributed to the decrease in affordable housing, especially for low-income workers. On average, to afford to rent a one-bedroom, a renter must make an hourly wage of $15.50, double the federal minimum wage.[i] Increasing federal and state minimum wages would help low-income workers across America afford housing.

In addition, federal and state governments should work to increase the supply of affordable housing. To this end, HUD’s Office of Affordable Housing Programs administers two grant programs to increase the stock of housing options that are affordable for low-income households:

  • The HOME Investments Partnerships Program (HOME) provides grants to States and local governments to fund a wide range of activities, including building, buying, or rehabilitating housing for rent or homeownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income families; and
  • The National Housing Trust Fund (HTF) provides communities with funds to build, preserve, and rehabilitate rental homes for extremely low income households or households with incomes below the poverty line.

Communities should also take advantage of nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, that have local affiliates across the United States with the goal of building and providing affordable housing to low-income families.

Homelessness is a complex issue. Obviously, affordable housing is essential to keeping families and youth in homes and out of the streets. But just as important in ending the cycle of poverty and homelessness is making sure children and youth are completing their education even when circumstances cause them to experience stints of homelessness. If America is truly going to bring an end to homelessness and break the cycle of poverty, we must create clear goals and policies to ensure that all Americans can afford a place to live and that all students who must face homelessness are still able to succeed in school and beyond.

[i] Megan Bolton, et al. (2015). Out of Reach 2015: Low Wages & High Rents Lock Renters Out. Washington, DC: The National Low Income Housing Coalition. Accessed at