Law Professor, Loyola University New Orleans, CCR Associate Legal Director
Renee Delisle was one of over 3,500 homeless people in Santa Cruz when she found out she was pregnant. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported she was turned away from a shelter because they did not have space for her. While other homeless people slept in cars or under culverts, Renee ended up living in an abandoned elevator shaft until her water broke.
Jerome Murdough, 56, a homeless former Marine, was arrested for trespass in New York because he was found sleeping in a public housing stairwell on a cold night. The New York Times reported that one week later, Jerome died of hypothermia in a jail cell heated to over 100 degrees.
Paula Corb and her two daughters lost their home and have lived in their minivan for four years. They did laundry in a church annex, went to the bathroom at gas stations, and did their studies under street lamps, according to America Tonight.
Fact 1: Over half a million people are homeless. On any given night, there are over 600,000 homeless people in the U.S., according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Most people are spending the night either in homeless shelters or in some sort of short-term transitional housing. Slightly more than a third are living in cars or under bridges or are in some other way living unsheltered.
Fact 2: One quarter of homeless people are children. HUD reports that on any given night, over 138,000 of the homeless in the U.S. are children under the age of 18. Thousands of these homeless children are unaccompanied, according to HUD. Another federal program, No Child Left Behind, defines “homeless children” more broadly and includes not just those living in shelters or transitional housing but those who are sharing the housing of other persons due to economic hardship; living in cars, parks, bus or train stations; or awaiting foster-care placement. Under this definition, the National Center for Homeless Education reported in September 2014 that local school districts reported there are over 1 million homeless children in public schools.
Fact 3: Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless. Over 57,000 veterans are homeless each night, according to HUD. Sixty percent of them are in shelters, the rest unsheltered. Nearly 5,000 are female.
Fact 4: Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), more than 90 percent of homeless women are victims of severe physical or sexual abuse, and escaping that abuse is a leading cause of their homelessness.
Fact 5: Many people are homeless because they cannot afford rent. The lack of affordable housing is a primary cause of homelessness, according to the NLCHP. HUD has seen its budget slashed by over 50 percent in recent decades, resulting in the loss of 10,000 units of subsidized low-income housing each and every year.
Fact 6: There are fewer places for poor people to rent than before. According to the NLCHP, one eighth of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001. The U.S. needs at least 7 million more affordable apartments for low-income families, and as a result, millions of families spend more than half of their monthly income on rent.
Fact 7: In the last few years millions have lost their homes. Over 5 million homes have been foreclosed on since 2008; that’s one out of every 10 homes with a mortgage. This has caused even more people to search for affordable rental property.
Fact 8: The government does not help as much as you think. There is enough public rental assistance to help about one out of every four extremely low-income households. Those who do not receive help are on multi-year waiting lists. For example, Charlotte just opened up their applications for public housing assistance for the first time in 14 years, and over 10,000 people applied.
Fact 9: One in five homeless people suffers from untreated severe mental illness. While about 6 percent of the general population suffers from severe mental illness, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness, according to government studies. Half of this population self-medicate and are at further risk for addiction and poor physical health. A University of Pennsylvania study tracking nearly 5,000 homeless people for two years discovered that investing in comprehensive health support and treatment of physical and mental illnesses is less costly than incarceration, shelter and hospital services for the untreated homeless.
Fact 10: Cities are increasingly making homelessness a crime. A 2014 survey of 187 cities by the NLCHP found that 24 percent of cities make it a city-wide crime to beg in public, 33 percent make it illegal to stand around or loiter anyplace in the city, 18 percent make it a crime to sleep anywhere in public, 43 percent make it illegal to sleep in your car, and 53 percent make it illegal to sit or lie down in particular public places. And the number of cities criminalizing homelessness is steadily increasing.
For more information, look to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, whose publications were very helpful with this piece, as well as the National Center for Homeless Education and the National Coalition on the Homeless.