Breaking Down Homelessness
What Is Homelessness?
The word “homeless” often brings a particular image to mind. Typically, this image is an unkempt man, apparently living on the streets, and assumed to be struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. While that stereotype represents reality for a relatively small percentage of people who are homeless, the faces, ages, and situations of those who are homeless are widely varied. Homelessness includes families with children, young adults, couples, single men and women, and unaccompanied youth.
There are varied definitions of homelessness:
- Unsheltered: People who live in places not meant for human habitation – on the streets, in cars, wooded areas, or abandoned buildings.
- Sheltered: People who are staying in homeless shelters or transitional housing until they find stable permanent housing of their own.
- Doubled Up: People that experience an eviction or similar crisis may have natural support networks and can avoid a homeless shelter by staying with family or friends, even though they cannot afford to find their own housing.
- Couch Surfing: People moving from one place to another in quick succession.
Generally, “homeless” means lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and living in temporary accommodations (e.g. shelter) or in places not meant for human habitation. Households fleeing domestic violence and similar threatening conditions are also considered homeless. For purposes of certain programs and funding, families with minor children who are doubled-up with family or friends for economic reasons may also be considered homeless, as are households at imminent risk of homelessness.
Housing Out of Reach
More often than not, there is a lack of housing that low income people can afford. Without housing options, people face eviction, instability and homelessness.
The scarcity of affordable and appropriate housing is the primary factor causing and perpetuating homelessness in Florida. Most people who become homeless in Florida have extremely low incomes and have difficulty maintaining stable rental housing. Multiple studies reflect the critical shortage of housing for households with low income.
The 2020 Gap Report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that there are only 36 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. Due to the lack of access to affordable rental units for these households, those who rent must pay a large share of their income toward housing costs.
Out of Reach 2016 reports that a household earning minimum wage would need to work 99 hours weekly to afford a two-bedroom rental unit in the average Florida community. Even for those who are working multiple jobs, being able to afford a rental unit in Florida is challenging. For the average two-bedroom rental unit to be affordable working 40 hours per week, the household would need to earn almost $20 per hour. However, many low-income workers earn minimum wage, which is just over $8 per hour.
Today, 11 million extremely low-income households pay at least half of their income toward housing, putting them at risk of housing instability and homelessness.
Income and Housing Affordability
Today, most households become homeless because they simply do not make enough money to pay for housing.
Low-income households are typically unemployed or underemployed due to a number of factors, such as a challenging labor market; limited education; a gap in work history; a criminal record; unreliable transportation or unstable housing; poor health or a disability.
Over the past several years, homelessness in Florida has declined steadily and significantly. In large part this reduction is due to an improved economy and job growth. This is good news for our state and for those who have been homeless. To see continued declines in homelessness, it is important to recognize the critical importance of adequate household income and employment in preventing and reducing homelessness.
With due recognition of the challenges for households that include wage-earners, the difficulty is even more severe for special needs households. A single, disabled individual whose sole source of disability income is Social Security Income (SSI) receives a total of $735 monthly. Because market-rate affordable housing does not exist for a household living solely on SSI, subsidized affordable housing must be created to meet this need. For people surviving on SSI or similar levels of income, the primary sources of independent affordable housing are through deeply subsidized units or housing vouchers. The scarcity of those types of assistance cannot be overemphasized.
Many of those who experience homelessness are unable to work due to a disability, or are not able to quickly earn the money they need for rent turn to programs like:
- Social Security Income (SSI)
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly referred to as "food stamps")
- Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC)
Health and Homelessness
Health and homelessness are inextricably linked. Health problems can cause a person’s homelessness as well as be exacerbated by the experience. The lack of access to health care affects homelessness in several ways.
First, a health emergency and related uninsured health costs can cause a person to become homeless. Not only does a health problem often result in the loss of employment and income, but medical debt can exhaust all financial resources. Without support systems and safety nets, a household can become homeless because of a health issue.
Second, uninsured physical health costs for those who are chronically homeless in Florida sap community resources. Because people who are homeless are less likely to access primary health care and address health concerns early, health issues are exacerbated. Uninsured emergency room visits and inpatient stays skyrocket.
Third, like physical health costs, treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse among those who are homeless is often limited to crisis response and emergency services. Ultimately, people who are uninsured and homeless cycle in and out of crisis and health systems, resulting in high community costs but limited improvements in health.
Escaping Domestic Violence
It is common for youth, single adults and families to become homeless due to a domestic violence experience. Survivors of domestic violence often look to homeless service programs for temporary shelter after fleeing an abusive relationship.
On a single night in 2019, homeless services providers had more than 48,000 beds set aside for survivors of domestic violence.
Impact of Racial Disparities
Most minority groups in the United States experience homelessness at higher rates than Whites, and thus make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population.
This includes African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Hispanics make up a share of the homeless population approximately equal to their share of the general population, and Asians are underrepresented in homelessness.
By far the most striking disproportionally can be found among African Americans, who make up more than 40 percent of the homeless population despite only representing 13 percent of the general population. This imbalance is not improving over time.
The largest population of people that experience homelessness are single adults. On a single night in 2019, roughly 568,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. Nearly two-thirds (63%) were staying in sheltered locations—emergency shelters or transitional housing programs—and more than one-third (37%) were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation.
Homelessness among single adults, like homelessness among other populations, is a result of the lack of affordable, available housing. Because of the cost of housing and inadequate incomes, even a temporary financial or life crisis, such as losing a job, the end of a relationship, death of a partner, or health emergency, can result in a loss of housing and homelessness.
The experience of homelessness for this population is most often brief and non-recurring. Despite common stereotypes, most homeless single adults do not suffer from chronic mental illness, substance abuse, or other disabling conditions and most are homeless for a relatively short time before reconnecting to housing.
Children and Families
Homeless families with minor children living on the streets, in shelters, or in transitional programs represents about 28 percent of homelessness (as defined by HUD) in Florida. Nationally, family homelessness is 33 percent of the total homeless population. However, despite Florida’s family homelessness numbers being better than other states, reducing family homelessness must continue to be a priority.
With an average family size of 3.2 people, just under 54,000 family households experienced homelessness on a single night in 2019.
Adults and children in families make up about 33 percent of the homeless population.
Over the course of 2016, roughly half a million people in families stayed at a homeless shelter or transitional housing program: 292,166 were children, and 144,991 were under the age of six.
Children who experience housing instability are more likely to have emotional and physical health issues, and are less likely to participate in and do well in school. Further, the experience of homelessness makes it more challenging for the head of household wage-earner to become or stay employed, precipitating a downward spiral making it even more difficult to recover housing and family stability.
As with total homelessness and consistent with national data, Florida reports a steady decline in homelessness among veterans. Indeed, homelessness among veterans is dropping more rapidly than homelessness in other subpopulations. Since 2011, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has dropped by 43.3 percent. And since 2018, the number has dropped 2.1 percent.
The amount of veterans who experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2019:
- 37,085 veterans were experiencing homelessness — a 2.1% decrease since January 2018.
- 37,085 veterans were experiencing homelessness — a 2.1% decrease since January 2018.
- 37,085 veterans were experiencing homelessness.
- Most homeless veterans were without children; only 2 percent were homeless as part of a family.
- 90.3 percent were men, while 8.9 percent (3,292 veterans) were women.
Ending homelessness amongst veterans:
- Rapid Re-Housing through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program
- Permanent Supportive Housing through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program
Persons who are identified as “chronically homeless”are those who have been homeless for longer than a year and have a disabling condition. People who have been homeless a long time and have disabling conditions tend to be the most frequent utilizers of community emergency services and costly community resources. Many are also among the most medically vulnerable of people who are homeless due to serious medical conditions.
For both these reasons – the cost of chronic homelessness and the vulnerability of that group – helping chronically homeless people move out of homelessness and into permanent housing is one of the country and Florida’s top priorities. Despite the fact this group makes up less than 16 percent of those who are homeless in Florida, it is likely that when a typical taxpayer, business owner, or tourist thinks about the word “homeless,” chronically homeless individuals are most likely to come to mind.
The amount of people who experience chronic homelessness on a single night in January 2019:
- There were 96,141 homeless individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness. That is 24 percent of the total population of homeless individuals.
- 65 percent of chronically homeless individuals were living on the street, in a car, park, or other location not meant for human habitation.
- Since 2007, the number of individuals with patterns of chronic homelessness has declined 20 percent.
Youth and Young Adults
Every night, thousands of young people experience homelessness without a parent or guardian, and go to sleep without the safety, stability and support of a family or a home.
The amount of youth who were homeless on a single night in January 2019:
- 35,038 unaccompanied youth were counted as homeless. Of those, 89 percent were between the ages of 18 to 24. The remaining 11 percent (or 3,976 unaccompanied children) were under the age of 18.
- 50 percent of homeless youth are unsheltered — sleeping outside, in a car, or some place not meant for human habitation.
- The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that over the course of a year, approximately 550,000 unaccompanied youth and young adults up to age 24 experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week. More than half are under the age of 18.
These numbers are imprecise, and the single night number is likely an under count. Communities are working to improve the way they collect data and their Point-In-Time Counts in order to more accurately reflect the numbers of unaccompanied young people experiencing homelessness.
- An Emerging Framework for Ending Unaccompanied Youth Homelessness
- Department of Education Numbers Show the Consequences of America’s Affordable Housing Crisis
- The Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program: A Comprehensive Approach to Reduce Youth Homelessness
- Ending Homelessness for Unaccompanied Minor Youth
- Rapid Re-Housing for Youth Toolkit
A Coordinated Systems Approach?
Communities should take a coordinated approach to address homelessness, transitioning from a group of individual programs to a community-wide response that is strategic and driven by data.
Communities that adopt this appraoch take advantage of the data about the necessities of those experiencing homelessness to inform how they allocate resources, services, and programs
Key Elements of a Coordinated Systems Approach:
- Coordinated Entry: This is a process designed to quickly identify, assess, refer and connect people in crisis to housing and assistance, no matter where they show up to ask for help.
- Planning: Establishing a plan helps communities set goals and conceptualize what they should prioritize.
- Collecting & Analyzing Local Data: Collecting data and using it to inform decisions, locally and nationally, is critical to addressing homelessness.
- A Shared Data System: A Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) is a local information technology system used to collect client, program, and system-level data on the provision of housing and services to homeless individuals and families and persons at risk of homelessness. Each Continuum of Care is responsible for operating an HMIS system according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Data Standards.
- Performance Measurement & Evaluation: Performance measures can be used by communities to examine progress and to assess what steps they should be taking to further reduce homelessness. HUD has developed system-level performance measures to help communities gauge their progress in preventing and ending homelessness.
A housing intervention designed to move a household into permanent housing (e.g. a rental unit) as quickly as possible, ideally within 30 days. This is the best way to help households with moderate to high barriers to housing.
Rapid Re-Housing typically provides:
- Help identifying appropriate housing.
- Financial assistance (deposits and short-term or medium-term rental assistance for 1-24 months).
- Support services for as long as needed and desired, up to a certain limit.
Rapid Re-housing can end homelessness by quickly connecting people to a home and services.
Permanent Supportive Housing
Safe and affordable housing for people with disabling conditions, with legal tenancy housing rights and access to flexible support services.
PSH should prioritize people who are chronically homeless with the longest terms of homelessness and the highest level of vulnerability/ acuity in terms of health and services needs. This is the best way to help households with the greatest barriers to housing stability and the greatest needs for long- term assistance, such as those who are chronically homeless.
Permanent supportive housing is a proven solution to homelessness for the most vulnerable chronically homeless people. It pairs housing with case management and supportive services.
Investments in permanent supportive housing have helped decrease the number of chronically homeless individuals by 27 percent since 2007.
A crisis response system can effectively help people exit homelessness.
The objectives of an efficient crisis response system are to identify those experiencing homelessness, prevent homelessness when possible, connect people with housing quickly and provide services when needed.
A well oiled system achieves these by:
- Outreach: This is a strategy that involves engaging with unsheltered homeless people in whatever location they naturally stay (e.g. in campsites, on the streets), building trust through assertive engagement, and offering access to appropriate housing interventions.
- Coordinated Entry: This is a standardized community-wide process to outreach, identify, and triage homeless households. This process consists of utilizing a common tool to assess the level and type of needs, enter the household information into the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), provide appropriate referrals, and prioritize access to housing interventions and services to end their homelessness.
- Diversion & Prevention: Prevention provides services and financial assistance to prevent someone from becoming homeless. Diversion is a strategy that prevents homelessness for people at the point when they are seeking shelter.
- Emergency Shelters/Interim Housing: A facility operated to provide temporary shelter for homeless people. Effective emergency shelters do not have barriers to entry (such as a sobriety requirement) and should be focused on connecting people with housing options to help them return to affordable rental units.
- Permanent Housing: Safe and affordable housing for people with disabling conditions, with legal tenancy housing rights and access to flexible support services. Rapid Re-Housing is designed to move a household into permanent housing (e.g. a rental unit) as quickly as possible, ideally within 30 days.
Programs designed to assist low-income people increase their income are critical to supporting housing stability.
A housing crisis is often the result of a financial one. With incomes typically much lower than is needed to comfortably pay average rental costs, millions of people are financially vulnerable to homelessness and housing instability. A reduction in work hours, a lost job, an illness or an unexpected expense can spiral into an inability to pay the rent, an eviction, reliance on extended family for a place to stay, and, sometimes, entry into a homeless shelter.