Why are people homeless?

Why are people homeless?

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Published on

July 1, 2024



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Prevention Programs

Homelessness often results from a combination of personal and environmental factors. 

  • Personal factors include poverty and sudden income loss due to termination of employment, family crises, divorce or domestic violence, release from jail or prison, health emergencies or chronic health problems, substance abuse, and mental illness.
  • Environmental factors include rent increases, stagnant wages, lack of employment opportunities, lack of affordable housing, housing discrimination, and eviction.

Any combination of these factors can lead homeless people into homelessness.

Low Wages/Unemployment

In Los Angeles County, 46% of people experiencing homelessness cite unemployment and financial crises as the primary cause of homelessness, making it the leading cause by far. When the average family is cost-burdened, meaning the cost of housing exceeds 30% of the household income, rates of homelessness drastically increase. The most common reason for someone with a lease to fall into homelessness is the sudden loss or reduction of income.

Once homeless, PEH encounter significant barriers to securing employment. Health issues, substance abuse, lack of vocational training, and lack of practical resources needed to gain and keep a job (a resume, technological access, transportation, childcare, etc.) can keep a homeless person circling in place. Homelessness can also be a barrier for potential employers who are unwilling to take the risk of hiring someone who lacks home stability.

Medical Conditions

Homelessness and health influence one another through multiple, reinforcing mechanisms. From a causal perspective, poor health can lead to employment problems, which, in turn, affect one’s ability to afford safe and reliable housing. Hypertension (44.2%), cardiovascular disease (18.4%), and hepatitis (18.1%) are among the most prevalent conditions among PEH, along with respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive lung disease (23%) and asthma (24%), which are experienced at a higher level than the general population.

The stress and the experience of homelessness may then exacerbate existing health issues or create new ones, in a vicious cycle that becomes more and more difficult to escape. And the cost of healthcare can be a substantial financial burden on people with chronic health conditions, making them more vulnerable to falling into homelessness.

Previous Incarceration

Incarceration is a significant factor in LA County's homelessness. LAHSA found that 60% of LA’s homeless population has cycled through the criminal justice system with one out of five homeless people on parole. In 2022, 17% of people on parole said they were homeless, according to data obtained from the California prison system. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, and are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated again.

Substance Abuse and Mental Illness

While not as prevalent a cause of homelessness as believed, substance abuse and mental health conditions are frequently linked to the experience of homelessness. Both can be a cause and/or effect of homelessness.

Nearly a third (30%) of PEH report a substance use disorder. People who are homeless often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their problems either before becoming homeless or afterwards. While substance use provides temporary relief from personal problems and the stresses of homelessness, dependency only makes their problems worse and decreases their ability to get off the streets. Many homeless people have lost their support network of family and friends and rely on each other to survive.  This makes it difficult for the homeless to break out of addiction patterns when many of their regular contacts may be other substance users.

One-quarter (25%) of PEH in Los Angeles County have serious mental illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders. Medication and other forms of therapeutic support are vital for people diagnosed with these disorders, but are often absent for PEH due to barriers to healthcare. Mood and thought disorders make coping with street stressors especially difficult. Without medical intervention, continued homelessness makes their problems worse. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent among veterans, but also common among the general homeless population. The longer a person is homeless, the more trauma they will experience. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) occurs when a person experiences repeated traumas over and over again. C-PTSD can lead PEH to begin disassociating from their environment because of too much stress and too many perceived failures. They stop trying and refuse to seek help. The longer a person is homeless, the harder it is to get rehomed.

Melissa is a communications professional with 30 years of experience in digital and print content production, editing, research, community engagement, and development. She specializes in telling stories that allow people not only to understand a topic but also to embrace a mission.

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Melissa Amour