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Homelessness facts for kids

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A Man's Best Friend
A homeless man in Edinburgh

Homelessness means people who do not have a place to stay. The word "homelessness" also includes people who sleep in warming centers, homeless shelters, or in abandoned buildings, parking garages, or other places not meant for humans to live in. Homelessness occurs for many reasons. It may happen when people or households are unable to buy and/or maintain housing they can afford. International human rights law includes the right to housing.

Homeless people

Street Sleeper 4 by David Shankbone
Street sleeper in a major city

In academic articles and government reports, these people are called "homeless people". You may hear different words to describe homelessness and homeless people. Some of these words apply to people who might not be homeless. Sometimes they are based upon stereotypes. For instance, in slang, a vagabond is someone who travels without the money necessary to stay in good hotels. Such a person may or may not have a home somewhere. Sometimes police reports use the word "transient" to describe people from out of town or who are passing through. Many times these words confuse the issues because someone just passing through might own a mansion somewhere or might not.

There are tough questions in sorting out homeless people even when trying to create programs and services to help them. Homeless counts are required by the government agencies that deal with homelessness. In the USA, for instance, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency requires a homeless "enumeration" count every two years. They classify "homeless" in a careful way and that way is very influential and a lot of other agencies and church groups copy it.

HUD definitions

Housing and Urban Development of the United States spreads information about what does and does not work when providing shelter for homeless people. That information about the things that seem to works is called "best practices". HUD defines homeless as 1. somebody who lacks a fixed, regular, and decent place to sleep at night or 2. somebody who sleeps at night in A.a supervised shelter (including welfare hotels, homeless shelters, warming centers and transitional housing) ; B.a place that provides a temporary residence for people waiting for space in a place like a hospital, jail or hospice; or C.a place not designed for human beings to sleep, such as parks or public streets.

A new focus: people who live outside

The "C" part of the HUD definition is now getting more attention. It is called "chronic homelessness". (HUD) defines a "chronically homeless" person as "an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition". There are other conditions to that definition. It has to be someone who has either been homeless for a year or more, or has been homeless four episodes times in the past three years."

People who study these things believe that the "chronic" homeless cost a lot more than the rest. A new approach is to seek information on who those folks are. They are using what is called a vulnerability index system. It was invented by a doctor in Boston who works with a New York organization called Common Ground. These "Vulnerability Index's" code for things like bad liver, kidney disease, HIV-AIDS, age and visits to the hospital.


In the sixteenth century in England, the government first tried to give housing to vagabonds instead of punishing them. In the eighteenth century, these houses were replaced by workhouses. These were later replaced by dormitory housing ("spikes"). By the early 1930's in England, there were 30,000 people living in these places.

In most countries, many towns and cities had an area where all the poor, transients, and afflicted lived, such as a "skid row". In smaller towns, there were hobos, who camped near train tracks and hopped onto trains from place to place. Many places where people were once allowed to loiter(such as churches, public libraries and public atriums) became more strict as the number of homeless people grew.

In the 1980s, in the United States, some new laws were made for the homeless as a result of the work of Congressman Stewart B. McKinney. In 1987, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was enacted. Several organisations in some cities, such as New York and Boston, tried to help the growing number of homeless people in a new way.

Main causes

The main reasons for homelessness have been studied in many reports and studies. For example:

Health care

Health care for the homeless is a major public health challenge. Homeless people are more likely to suffer injuries and medical problems from their lifestyle on the street. Some have skin conditions from being out in the sun without sunscreen to protect themselves from UV radiation. It is hard to find places to wash up, and homeless people are exposed to extreme cold and hot sun. It is tough finding good food for many homeless people so they tend to suffer from medical conditions. This can include obesity if they eat a lot of poor quality food with empty calories. Homeless people also may have more severe dental problems than the general population due to lack of access to washrooms and in some cases excess intake of sweets, which may be the only food available. Diabetes and liver problems are not uncommon, as are diseases associated with cigarette smoking.

Vulnerability Index

The vulnerability index is a tool for finding out who among the street homeless population needs health care and housing the most.

The vulnerability index is from the work of Dr. Jim O'Connell of Boston's Healthcare for the Homeless. He was concerned about the causes of death of unsheltered homeless individuals living on the street. A national drive is underway by Common Ground to work with the HUD homeless count. Since communities are doing the count, he believes that is a good time to do the vulnerability index too. Its' people say that using it will help getting needy individuals off the street.

The vulnerability index has been tried out in a lot of other places not just the East Coast. These include New Mexico and Santa Monica

Developing and undeveloped countries

The number of homeless people worldwide has grown steadily in the past few years. In some Third World nations such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa, homelessness is a very big problem, with millions of children living and working on the streets. Homelessness has also become a problem in China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan.

Assistance and resources

Further information: List of homelessness organizations

Most countries provide a variety of services to assist homeless people. Provisions of food, shelter, and clothing and may be organized and run by community organizations, often with the help of volunteers, or by government departments. Assistance programs may be supported by government, charities, churches, and individual donors. However, not all homeless people can access these resources. In 1998, a study by Koegel and Schoeni of a homeless population in Los Angeles, California, found that a significant minority of homeless did not participate in government assistance programs, with high transaction costs being a likely contributing factor.

Social supports

While some homeless people are known to have a community with one another, providing each other various types of support, people who are not homeless also may provide them friendship, relational care, and other forms of assistance. Such social supports may occur through a formal process, such as under the auspices of a non-governmental organization, religious organization, or homeless ministry, or may be done on an individual basis.



The United States Department of Labor has sought to address one of the main causes of homelessness, a lack of meaningful and sustainable employment, through targeted training programs and increased access to employment opportunities that can help homeless people develop sustainable lifestyles. This has included the development of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which addresses homelessness on the federal level in addition to connecting homeless individuals to resources at the state level. All individuals who are in need of assistance are able, in theory, to access employment and training services under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), although this is contingent upon funding and program support by the government.

Income sources outside of regular employment

Waste management

Homeless people can also use waste management services to earn money. Some homeless people find returnable bottles and cans and bring them to recycling centers to earn money. They can sort out organic trash from other trash or separate out trash made of the same material (for example, different types of plastics, and different types of metal). In addition, rather than sorting waste at landfills, they can also collect litter found on/beside the road to earn an income.

Street newspapers
A street newspaper vendor, selling Street Sheet, in San Francisco, United States

Street newspapers are newspapers or magazines sold by homeless or poor individuals and produced mainly to support these populations. Most such newspapers primarily provide coverage about homelessness and poverty-related issues and seek to strengthen social networks within homeless communities, making them a tool for allowing homeless individuals to work.


The 2010 passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act could provide new healthcare options for homeless people in the United States, particularly through the optional expansion of Medicaid. A 2013 Yale study indicated that a substantial proportion of the chronically homeless population in America would be able to obtain Medicaid coverage if states expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

In 1985, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program was founded to assist the growing numbers of homeless living on the streets and in shelters in Boston and who were suffering from a lack of effective medical services. In 2004, Boston Health Care for the Homeless in conjunction with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council published a medical manual called The Health Care of Homeless Persons, edited by James J. O'Connell, M.D., specifically for the treatment of the homeless population. In June 2008 in Boston, the Jean Yawkey Place, a four-story, 7,214.2-square-metre (77,653 sq ft) building, was opened by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. It is an entire full-service building on the Boston Medical Center campus dedicated to providing healthcare for homeless people. It also contains a long-term care facility, the Barbara McInnis House, which expanded to 104 beds and is the first and largest medical respite program for homeless people in the United States.

In Los Angeles, a collaboration between the Ostrow School of Dentistry of the University of Southern California and the Union Rescue Mission shelter offer homeless people in the Skid Row area free dental services.

Studies on the effects of intensive mental health interventions have demonstrated some improvements in housing stability and to be economically beneficial on cost-analysis.


Permanent supportive housing (PSH) interventions appear to have improvements in housing stability for people living with homelessness even in long-term.

Savings from housing homeless in the US

In 2013, a Central Florida Commission on Homelessness study indicated that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person to cover "salaries of law enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals – largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks – as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues. This did not include "money spent by nonprofit agencies to feed, clothe and sometimes shelter these individuals". In contrast, the report estimated the cost of permanent supportive housing at "$10,051 per person per year" and concluded that "[h]ousing even half of the region's chronically homeless population would save taxpayers $149 million over the next decade – even allowing for 10 percent to end up back on the streets again." This particular study followed 107 long-term-homeless residents living in Orange, Osceola or Seminole Counties. There are similar studies showing large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado from focusing on simply housing the homeless."

In general, housing interventions had mixed economic results on cost-analysis studies.

Innovative solutions

Los Angeles conducted a competition promoted by Mayor Eric Garcetti soliciting ideas from developers to use bond money more efficiently in building housing for the city's homeless population. The top five winners were announced on 1 February 2019 and the concepts included using assembly-ready molded polymer panels that can be put together with basic tools, prefabricated 5-story stack-able houses, erecting privately financed modular buildings on properties that do not require City Council approval, using bond money to convert residential garages into small apartments which are then dedicated to homeless rentals, and the redeveloping of Bungalow-court units, the small low-income iconic buildings that housed 7% of the city's population in the 1920s.

In the neighborhood of Westlake, Los Angeles, the city is funding the first transitionally homeless housing building using "Cargotecture", or "architecture built from repurposed shipping containers." The Hope on Alvarado micro-apartment building will consist of 4-stories of 84 containers stacked together like Lego bricks on top of a traditionally constructed ground floor. Completion is anticipated by the end of 2019.

Political action

Voting for elected officials is important for the homeless population to have a voice in the democratic process.

There are also many community organizations and social movements around the world which are taking action to reduce homelessness. They have sought to counteract the causes and reduce the consequences by starting initiatives that help homeless people transition to self-sufficiency. Social movements and initiatives tend to follow a grassroots, community-based model of organization – generally characterized by a loose, informal and decentralized structure, with an emphasis on radical protest politics. By contrast, an interest group aims to influence government policies by relying on more of a formal organizational structure. These groups share a common element: they are both made up of and run by a mix of allies of the homeless population and former or current members of the homeless population. Both grassroots groups and interest groups aim to break stereotyped images of homeless people as being weak and hapless, or defiant criminals, and to ensure that the voice of homeless people and their representatives is clearly heard by policymakers.

Organizing in homeless shelters

Homeless shelters can become grounds for community organization and the recruitment of homeless individuals into social movements for their own cause. Cooperation between the shelter and an elected representative from the homeless community at each shelter can serve as the backbone of this type of initiative. The representative presents and forwards problems raises concerns and provides new ideas to the director and staff of the shelters. Examples of possible problems are ways to deal with substance use disorders by certain shelter users, and resolution of interpersonal conflicts. SAND, the Danish National Organization for Homeless People, is one example of an organization that uses this empowerment approach. Issues reported at the homeless shelters are then addressed by SAND at the regional or national level. To open further dialogue, SAND organizes regional discussion forums where staff and leaders from the shelters, homeless representatives, and local authorities meet to discuss issues and good practices at the shelters.

Veteran specific

Homeless Veteran in New York
Homeless veteran man in New York, United States

There are a number of homeless organizations that support homeless veterans, an issue most commonly seen in the United States.

Non-governmental organizations house or redirect homeless veterans to care facilities. Social Security Income/Social Security Disability Income, Access, Outreach, Recovery Program (SOAR) is a national project. It is designed to increase access to SSI/SSDI for eligible adults who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and have a mental illness or a co-occurring substance use disorder. Using a three-pronged approach of Strategic Planning, Training, and Technical Assistance (TA), the SOAR TA Center coordinates this effort at the state and community level.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Administration have a special Section 8 housing voucher program called VASH (Veterans Administration Supported Housing), or HUD-VASH, which gives out a certain number of Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers to eligible homeless and otherwise vulnerable US armed forces veterans. The HUD-VASH program has shown success in housing many homeless veterans. The support available to homeless veterans varies internationally, however. For example, in England, where there is a national right to housing, veterans are only prioritized by local authority homelessness teams if they are found to be vulnerable due to having served in the Armed Forces.

Under the Department of Labor, the Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS) offers a variety of programs targeted at ending homelessness among veterans. The Homeless Veterans' Reintegration Program (HVRP) is the only national program that is exclusively focused on assisting veterans as they reenter the workforce. The VETS program also has an Incarcerated Veterans' Transition Program, as well as services that are unique to female Veterans. Mainstream programs initiated by the Department of Labor have included the Workforce Investment Act, One-Stop Career Centers, and a Community Voice Mail system that helps to connect homeless individuals around the United States with local resources. Targeted labor programs have included the Homeless Veterans' Reintegration Project, the Disability Program Navigator Initiative, efforts to end chronic homelessness through providing employment and housing projects, Job Corps, and the Veterans Workforce Investment Program (VWIP).

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