The term “homelessness” has been around since the 1870s when flocks of young men traversed the country looking for work.
Fast-forward 150 years, when the situation can no longer be romanticized by writers like Walt Whitman and Jack London. Rather than a group of carefree, harmonica-playing vagabonds, today’s homeless encampments are full of desperate individuals and families — including many young children.
How did chronic homelessness become such a large problem in the US? Is the lack of affordable housing to blame, or are there other factors involved? What do the latest homelessness statistics reveal about being homeless in 2021?
We’ll answer these important questions and much more, so continue reading below.
2021 Homelessness Statistics: An Overview
Let’s begin our discussion with an overview of the latest homelessness statistics and facts from 2021. Here are some key findings from a detailed government report:
- Approximately 580,000 Americans are homeless
- 61% of homeless people stay in homeless shelters or emergency shelters
- 39% of homeless people sleep in the street or unsheltered areas
- 172,000 homeless individuals include families with minor children
- 34,0000 “unaccompanied youths” under the age of 25 experience homelessness every night
- The number of total homeless people has increased steadily each year since 2016
Coming from the world’s most powerful economy, these are troubling figures indeed. Let’s take a closer look at cities and states that have especially large homeless populations.
- 45% of the entire US homeless population live in Washington DC, New York, Hawaii, Oregon, or California
- Nearly 20% of all homeless Americans (151,000+ individuals) live in California
- New York City, Boston, and Washington DC have the nation’s highest homelessness rates (over 100 per 10,000)
- 95% of homeless people in New York sleep in shelters
- Nearly half of all unsheltered homeless people live in California
When we read statistics like these, we can’t help but wonder: How did we get here?
The Start of Chronic Homelessness in the US
Homelessness emerged as a large-scale problem beginning in the 1980s. In the decades following World War II, the vast majority of homeless were older disabled white males, including many veterans.
Everything changed in the 1980s due to:
- Inner-city gentrification
- The emergence of HIV/AIDS
- High unemployment rates
- Rising rents in metro areas
- Rising costs of medical care
- A recession combined with deep budget cuts
- Deinstitutionalization of people with severe mental illness
Clearly, there was no single contributing factor to the dramatic rise of homelessness beginning the 1980s. The same is true of the homeless crisis we see happening today.
Although government agencies and volunteers do what they can to help, the situation has spiraled out of control in many parts of the country. Along the west coast, for example, thousands of people are living (without power or running water) in huge homeless encampments. When they move, companies like HCI Environmental have to come in and clean biohazardous human waste.
Today’s Contributing Factors to Being Homeless
Chronic homelessness isn’t a new problem, but the reasons behind it have evolved. Here are the biggest factors that lead to being homeless in 2021.
Lack of Affordable Housing & Healthcare
Perhaps the single biggest contributor to the rise in homelessness is the dramatic rise in rental prices. Here’s the average 2021 price of a one-bedroom apartment in the nation’s most expensive cities:
- New York City: $2,950/month
- San Francisco: $2,800/month
- Seattle: $2,435/month
- Boston: $2,410/month
- Washington DC: $2,210/month
- Los Angeles: $2,100/month
It comes as no surprise that the cities with the highest rental prices also experience the highest incidence of homelessness. Even with a full-time job, many people simply can’t afford to pay rent — let alone buy food or other basic necessities.
Meanwhile, the average American spends $9,596 on healthcare each year. One in four people is struggling to pay off medical debt, while 60% of all bankruptcies are linked to medical causes.
Low or Stagnant Wages
While the cost of living continues to go up and up, wages have increased at a much slower rate. The federal minimum wage sits at an appalling $7.25/hour, while some states (such as Georgia and Wyoming) pay even less — just $5.15/hour.
Commendably, lawmakers in many states are boosting the minimum wage well above the federal level. In New York, the 2021 minimum wage was raised to $12.50/hour, while California and Washington are now paying $13-$14/hour.
Is it enough, though?
In a recent 60 Minutes interview, one Seattle man revealed that he works a full-time job at Hard Rock Cafe earning $19.50/hour. And yet, for the past 18 months, he, his wife, and their three-year-old son have been residents of Tent City Three — one of the largest homeless encampments in the state.
Why? He would need to earn at least 50% more to qualify for even a small one-bedroom apartment in Seattle.
The Housing Bust & Ongoing Pandemic
When the housing bubble burst in 2008, followed by an economic recession, most US cities saw a sharp increase in homelessness. Experts estimate that chronic homelessness increased by over 15% between 2008 and 2019.
If things looked bleak before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated the homeless crisis to a whole new level. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs and had to wait for unemployment benefits to kick in — if they even qualified for them at all.
The CDC’s National Eviction Moratorium helped some families, but it was equivalent to placing a Band-Aid on a war wound. As the pandemic drags on, prices continue to rise for housing, food, and healthcare. It’s little wonder that big cities like Seattle have seen a 50% increase in encampment tents between 2019 and 2020.
What Will You Do With These Homelessness Facts?
Chronic homelessness has become an unfortunate reality in our modern society. As we’ve discussed, it’s a complex issue that involves a lack of affordable housing along with economic downturns.
It’s not a problem we’ll solve overnight. But hopefully, with cooperation between the government and volunteer efforts, thousands of Americans will soon get a roof over their heads again.
Were you surprised by some of these homelessness statistics? Would you like to read more fascinating articles like this one? Stay right here and keep browsing our site.