While it may be true that a significant proportion of homeless people have mental and physical health issues, problems with alcoholism or substance abuse, none of these are the most common cause of homelessness. As part of the United States Conference of Mayors, Hunger and Homelessness Survey, December 2007, cities were asked to record the top three most common causes for both singles and households with children. The lack of affordable housing was rated third highest (43%) behind mental illness for singles and came out a clear cut winner for families, scoring a staggering 87%. In the UK, homeless charity Crisis says their own research cites breakdown in family or relationships as the main cause.
The largest growth sector in homelessness is homeless families. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development’s latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) claims that 37% of the total homeless population are persons in families. It further shows that 28% of those persons in families were unsheltered i.e. rough sleeping or living in places considered unfit for human habitation. A sheltered family is described as typically consisting of a mother and two or three children. Around half of these children are under the age of six.
Despite the common misconception, not all homeless people are idle. According to the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers (NSHAPC), 44% of homeless participants had done paid work during the past month. UK based charity, Crisis, claim that 2% of homeless people are currently in full-time employment and a further 12% work part-time. Their surveys also show that 77% of homeless people would like to be employed and the vast majority have worked in the past.
Homeless people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of assault. The NSHAPC shows that 22% of all homeless people have been physically assaulted and 7% have been sexually assaulted. 38% have had money or possessions stolen directly from them. According to Crisis, homeless people are 13 times more likely to be a victim of violence than the general population.
Research from The National Runaway Switchboard (2001) suggests that one in every seven children will have run away from home before they reach eighteen. The US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that in 1999, more than one-fifth of an estimated 1,682,900 children who ran away from home or were thrown out by their caregivers had been physically or sexually abused at home in the twelve months prior, or was afraid of being harmed if they returned. A 1997 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services states that 46% had been physically abused and 17% had been forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member. The National Runaway Switchboard research shows that each year, assault, illness and suicide claims the lives of approximately 5000 homeless minors.
Children in care are overwhelmingly more likely to be homeless as adults. In a 1997 Shelter study, Report on Transitional Housing for Emancipated Foster Youth in Los Angeles County, it was found that an estimated 45% of all youths who ‘age out’ of the foster care system each year will be emancipated directly onto the streets and into homelessness, or will lack a life plan to prevent the likelihood of homelessness within the near future.
Figures concerning homeless veterans vary but it is likely that they represent between 12% and 17% of the total homeless population. The US Department of Veterans Affairs projects that almost 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and around 400,000 will experience homelessness in any twelve month period. 4% of homeless veterans are women and 89% received an honorable discharge.
Another common misconception is that the homeless are content to leech off state benefits and services. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2002 shows that more than 40% of homeless people qualify for disability payments but less than 11% receive them. 48% of families do not receive welfare benefits to which they are entitled. Crisis research shows that although homeless people are far more likely to have health problems than the general public, they are 40 times less likely to be registered with a doctor or clinic.
Homeless women, although fewer in numbers are not necessarily given priority treatment. Crisis states that 60% of homeless women have slept rough and 40% report having been excluded from a service. One in five homeless women became so to escape violence and yet less than one in three are accepted by local authorities for housing.
It is often assumed that food and shelter assistance is readily available. The AHAR estimates that in January 2007, there were 672,000 homeless persons on a given night. This is likely to be grossly below the true figure which other sources estimate to be as high as 2.5million. What is known is that there were 611,000 beds available and facilities outside major urban centers are extremely limited. In the 2007 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, 52% of participating cities reported that they are unable to meet the need for providing shelter and that it is necessary to turn people away some or all of the time. Cities also reported that they are not meeting the need for emergency food assistance. On average, 17% of all those in need and 15% of families with children are not receiving it. Furthermore, 95% expected demand for food assistance to increase during 2008.