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Understanding Homelessness

The causes of homelessness are complex. A slide into homelessness is the result of a number of economic and social factors that impact an individual or family at a personal level. No one chooses to be homeless and it can happen to anyone, from a teenager escaping an abusive home to a senior citizen on a fixed income that cannot cover a rent or tax increase to a child whose parents suddenly become unemployed.

Understanding the factors that lead to homelessness is not easy considering the heterogeneity of the population and the fact that there are many pathways to homelessness. In most cases, it is the intersection of structural factors, personal histories and individual characteristics that lead to homelessness. Addressing the root causes is necessary to improve circumstances and foster stability in a person’s life.

Structural factors include the growing gap between the rich and the poor; the decrease in affordable housing supply; the decrease in services, supports and social assistance; and discrimination and racism. Personal histories and individual characteristics include catastrophic events; loss of employment; family break up; onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses; substance abuse by oneself or family members; a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; and involvement in the child welfare system.

Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. People who are poor are frequently unable to pay for necessities such as housing, food, childcare, health care, or education. Being poor can mean a person is one illness, one accident or one paycheck away from living on the streets.


There is an undeniable connection between domestic violence and homelessness. Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Young people who are victims of sexual, physical or psychological abuse often become homeless. As well, seniors who are experiencing abuse and neglect are increasingly at risk of homelessness.

The relationship between substance abuse and homelessness is also complex. Many people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs never become homeless, but people with low income and addictions are at increased risk of homelessness. Additionally, the rates of alcohol and drug use are disproportionately high among the homeless population.

A critical shortage of housing that is affordable, safe and stable directly contributes to homelessness.

New immigrant families continue to be especially vulnerable to poverty and the risk of homelessness. This is the result of their considerable settlement needs and difficulty in securing appropriate and affordable housing due to unavailability, low-incomes and discrimination.

People with serious mental illness typically experience more barriers to employment and are isolated from friends, family and other social networks, leaving them more vulnerable to experiencing homelessness.

The causes of homelessness for street youth are also somewhat unique. Between 40-50% of street youth report prior involvement with child welfare services and approximately 70% of homeless youth experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children. Discrimination is also a factor. Young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are overrepresented amongst the street youth population.

The many causes of homelessness give rise to special issues of social policy at the intersection of many fields of study, including economics, medicine, community planning, child and family protection and welfare reform. The formulation of opinion on these issues demands insight into the specialized fields in which they emerge

Source: Homeless Resource Center

Homelessness in America

On a single night in January 2014, 578,424 people across the United States were experiencing homelessness, meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.

From 2013 to 2014, a period of ongoing recovery from the Great Recession:

Overall homelessness decreased by 2.3% and homelessness decreased among every major subpopulation: unsheltered persons (10%), families (2.7%), chronically homeless individuals (2.5%), and veterans (10.5%). 34 states saw decreases in overall homelessness, while 17 states saw increases. 40 states had decreases in the number of people living in unsheltered locations, including the street, cars and abandoned buildings.

The national rate of homelessness fell to 18.3 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population, but the rate in individual states ranged from 120 in Washington, D.C. to 7 in Mississippi.

The rate of veteran homelessness continued its descent of the past several years to 25.5 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population, but the rate in individual states ranged from 146 in Washington, D.C. to 9 in Virginia.

The majority of states had decreases in every major subpopulation: family homelessness (32 states), chronically homeless individuals (27 states) and veteran homelessness (28 states).

Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness



Homelessness in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 4,300 families with children and/or pregnant women have accessed shelter through the Massachusetts Emergency Assistance Shelter Program. 1,296 families were living in motels as of June 2015. The data does not reflect families living in overcrowded conditions, unsafe places or who are sleeping in a vehicle.

In the first two quarters of Fiscal Year 2016, a total of 2,395 families have received assistance to exit shelters in Massachusetts.

Early results of Lynn’s annual community Point-in-Time count revealed that 58 chronically homeless individuals were found to be living on the streets with an estimated additional 100 people uncounted for because they were staying in substandard conditions.


The National Alliance to End Homelessness ranks Metropolitan Boston as one of 25 of the largest areas with the highest population of homeless people in the country. They indicate that a total of 14,557 people are homeless in the area, including:

625 Homeless Veterans 9,939 Homeless Families 1,995 Chronically Homeless People 283 Homeless Youth In March 2016, Lynn celebrated as the city received certification from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs for effectively becoming the first city in the Commonwealth to eliminate homelessness among veterans.

Source: MA Department of Housing and Community Development