What causes homelessness?

March 24, 2024 | By Cathy Reisenwitz

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In January I hosted a workshop at The Center at Shenanigans Comedy Theater about homelessness, both nationally and in Huntsville. This post is adapted from a portion of that talk.

Before my talk, I posted a link to the details in the Huntsville subreddit. A few people helpfully posted some myths about homelessness in the comments.

They included:

  • “While I agree that [affordable housing] would go a long way to help homelessness it would most definitely not solve it. Most of those going into housing need support, jobs, training (work and life), treatment (substance, mental), etc.”
  • “Mental health issues are the ultimate cause [of homelessness]”
  • “Poverty. That is the answer.”

Elsewhere, I’ve heard people blame disability and stagnant wages for homelessness.

Research does show a correlation between the following individual factors and homelessness:

  • Being male
  • Being unmarried
  • Having low income
  • Being older
  • Being non-white
  • Identifying as LGBTQ, especially among youth
  • Having low levels of family support
  • Having depression
  • Experiencing mental illness or other psychiatric disorders
  • Using or abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • Having a criminal record and/or history of incarceration

These individual factors contribute to homelessness at the level of the individual.

But none of these factors explains homelessness at the community level. They don’t explain what causes the phenomenon of homelessness.

To better understand, let’s look at how each individual risk factor relates to rates of homelessness.


  1. Comparing cities across the US, there’s no connection between employment and homelessness rates.
  2. A 2021 University of Chicago study found that 53% of homeless shelter residents and 40% of unsheltered people were employed. A more recent CA study found 40% of unhoused individuals were engaged in paid work. 

Severe mental illness/addiction/disability

  1. There’s also no correlation between a state’s rates of severe mental illness and/or disability and their rates of homelessness.
  2. Most people experiencing homelessness (PEH) don’t have addiction or mental illness and most people suffering from addiction and/or serious mental illness do not become homeless (Homelessness is a Housing Problem p 53)
  3. Between 25 and 40% of unhoused people have a substance use disorder (Homelessness is a Housing Problem p 52) However, that’s among the individual (i.e., non-family) homeless population. Rates are lower among unhoused families. And that rate is only about three times higher than the US population (7.4%).
  4. Substance abuse and illicit drug use explain just 6% of the variation in rates of homelessness between states. “These findings are consistent with past research, which has found that drug use and dependency are not related to overall levels of homelessness.” (Homelessness is a Housing Problem p 88) 
  5. California is home to 30% of all US PEH and 50% of those experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the U.S. Many blame California’s homelessness problems on high rates of mental health and substance-use problems. But California does relatively well on these measures. West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of overdose deaths and the highest rates of mental health and substance-use problems and one the nation’s lowest rates of homelessness. Source


  1. Cities with less poverty actually tend to have more homelessness than cities with more poverty (Homelessness is a Housing Problem)
  2. “At the level of the city, homelessness thrives amid affluence, not poverty.” (Homelessness is a Housing Problem p 81)

Stagnant wages

  1. Cities with higher median wages actually tend to have more homelessness than cities with lower median wages (Homelessness is a Housing Problem)
  2. Home prices have increased 1,608% since 1970, almost 1000% faster than inflation generally (644%). 

The above factors do describe the kind of person who tends to become homeless. But they don’t explain why anyone has to be homeless in the first place.

To illustrate this point, the authors of Homelessness is a Housing Problem use a musical chairs analogy. Musical chairs players who are slower or less coordinated tend to lose more quickly. But their slowness or lack of coordination didn’t cause them to lose their chair. They lose their chair because someone had to lose, because in every round there’s one more player than there are chairs. The lack of a sufficient number of chairs is the fundamental reason the player who loses has nowhere to sit.

There’s a strong consensus among most researchers who study the causes of homelessness that the cost of housing is, by far, the biggest contributor to rising homelessness

This includes a landmark report published earlier this year from the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco. 

  • The single deepest study on homelessness in America in decades
  • The largest representative study of homelessness since the mid-1990s
  • The first large-scale representative study to use mixed methods (surveys and in-depth interviews)

The authors: “High housing costs left participants vulnerable to homelessness. While participants faced many barriers to returning to housing, the primary one was cost.”

“Virtually every study of intercommunity variation in homelessness rates identifies rent costs as a significant predictor of homelessness.” (Homelessness is a Housing Problem p 56)

At least three studies connect a one percent increase in median rent to an increase in rates of homelessness:

  • Study one found a one percent increase in the rate of homelessness. 
  • Study two found a 0.9 percent rise in the rate of homelessness.  
  • Study three found a 0.9 to 1.2 percent rise in the rate of homelessness. 


Looking at the data, it appears Huntsville is no exception. 

Both housing prices and the number of unhoused individuals began to rise around 2016.  

A lack of affordable housing is the number-one cause of homelessness in the US and in Huntsville.  

The only reason this very obvious and well-supported fact is at all controversial is that some people benefit from the confusion.

This includes:

  • People who don’t want affordable housing (and thus the people who live in it) in their neighborhoods and in their kids’ schools
  • People who don’t want housing to become more affordable because it would impact their housing wealth
  • People who prioritize preserving a particular aesthetic over others’ basic human needs

Simply building a lot more housing, including affordable housing, in growing cities like Huntsville, and continuing to build in line with demand, would permanently solve most homelessness here and throughout the US.

It is impossible to permanently reduce US rates of homelessness in the US without building a lot more affordable housing in high-demand cities like Huntsville.

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