Humans thrive on security and dependability. Knowing where their next meal will come from without question allays people’s worries, allowing them to focus on other things. Abraham Maslow proposed in 1943 his famous hierarchy of needs, which illustrated that people must achieve or receive foundational needs before being able to pursue higher-order needs. For example, physiological needs including food, water, and safety-based needs such as a home and health come before attaining love and belonging, self- and peer-esteem, and self-actualization. You can’t have secure belonging without a dependable food source because you devote your energy to living rather than building relationships.
This relationship between having access to necessities and the ability to find meaning indicates that homelessness, a reality for millions of Americans, fundamentally affects every aspect of someone’s life. While the causes of homelessness are complex, there are several common and interwoven factors. Read on to learn the top causes of homelessness in America and how they each function.
Caveat About Causes
The interwoven nature of the top causes of homeless in America is worth special attention. While this necessitates a careful dissection of each cause, parsing out what is distinct about each, you must acknowledge how factors such as a lack of income and mental illness relate to one another. The issue is manifold, and when discussing patterns in people’s lives, it’s nearly impossible to talk about it by isolating factors.
A Lack of Income or Affordable Housing
First, the lack of income or affordable housing leaves many people without a home. Most directly related to the ability to rent an apartment or pay a mortgage, these two factors are unsurprisingly very common. Lacking a dependable job or another source of money makes monthly payments for a living space a non-starter. The reasons someone does not have a job can vary, including a lack of education or job skills. Many employers require a high school diploma, some college experience, or even a full bachelor’s degree before they’ll hire an employee. If there were barriers to education—perhaps an undiagnosed learning disorder or a poor childhood support structure—this increases a person’s risk of being jobless. If that person doesn’t have someone to provide them dependable shelter as an adult, they often go without a traditional home.
Also, though someone may have a limited income, the rising price of rent in America and the general lack of affordable housing in some areas contributes to homelessness. After the 2008 recession, fewer people owned their own homes. The demand for renting increased and remains high, pushing the overall cost of renting up. This excludes many near the poverty line from using their limited funds for housing.
Domestic Violence Displacement
For women, one of the most significant causes of homelessness is domestic violence. Those subjected to physical violence and emotional abuse face hard decisions, particularly those with kids whom their abusers will use against them. Their situation forces these women to choose homelessness over a life of continual victimization. Because they often have kids in tow, these women, many of whom lack education or work experience, face an uphill climb to achieve self-sufficiency. Many abusers also limit partners’ access to money and possessions, meaning women need to leave behind nearly everything when they escape. Though domestic violence shelters exist, these women too often don’t have the right connections to gain housing. Also, those still in an abusive relationship can lose their home due to housing laws that lack the nuance to protects domestic violence victims. Landlords can enforce a zero-tolerance policy for violence and force a family to evacuate if they learn about a violent episode. There is no differentiation between the abuser and the abused.
Related to several other factors, mental illness greatly complicates someone’s journey off the street and back into a stable home. Chronic issues including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and many more affect every aspect of someone’s life. They limit the extent of someone’s education by keeping them from the classroom and limiting their ability to motivate themselves to work. As they age, those who lack a history of educational and other kinds of achievement lower their expectations for themselves, a phenomenon social scientists have termed “learned helplessness.” Furthermore, mental illness prevents someone from holding down a job when their symptoms magnify, resulting in income unpredictability and homelessness.
Substance Abuse & Addictions
Sometimes tied together with mental illness are chronic substance abuse and addiction. Addictions dominate individuals’ attentions, taking them away from their work, applying for jobs, or other vital pursuits. Moreover, addictions can drain people’s funds quickly. Without the impulse control to abstain from buying more cigarettes, illicit drugs, or other things, addicted people spend money quickly. Without adequate treatment to reduce their dependence, it’s difficult for them to consistently pay for housing. Like those with a chronic mental illness, those who try and fail repeatedly to quit their addictions lose their sense of agency over their lives, increasing their risk of not earning enough to pay their rent.
Natural Disasters & Other Crises
There are other, less predictable elements that contribute to homelessness. Natural disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes, upend people’s lives while other crises—the Coronavirus pandemic for one—do the same. Natural disasters destroy homes and cost people thousands as they face down rebuilding. For those already living in poverty, this can push people closer to homelessness. The Coronavirus crisis and others that shock the economy lead to massive job losses, uncertainty around housing, and the possible death of income earners. Taken together, those at the center of unexpected difficulties struggle to recover and keep a roof over their heads.
While not directly related to homelessness, racial inequality plays an indirect role. Minority communities in America do not attain the same economic status as majority-white communities due to long-term inequality and the lack of financially supportive structures over time. Black individuals are more likely than white people to come from lower-income families. This lack of a financial foundation contributes to their future outcomes, such as access to schooling and potential job connections, which keeps the cycle of low income and potential homelessness going. Even for minority representatives with an education, their earning potential over time is lower than that of a white person with a similar background.
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