Written By: Security.org Team | Published: April 12, 2021

Homelessness impacts every American city and all 50 states. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is responsible for conducting an annual count of unhoused people, and does so each January, although the data is not reported until March of the following year.

The analysis in this report comes from the most recent data gathered in January 2020 and shows that homelessness continued its upward trend before the pandemic crisis even began. We look at data by age, metro and state, and other factors for the past five years.

Key findings:

  • The number of homeless people in the U.S. has gone up every year for the past four years. From a low in 2016, the number of people counted as homeless went up by about six percent by 2020.
  • About 39 percent of homeless people are unsheltered, and this percentage has increased for six consecutive years.
  • Children account for 18 percent of homeless people.
  • The Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California metro area has the highest population-adjusted rate of homelessness among cities with at least 250,000 residents. Los Angeles ranks fourth, and New York City ranks eighth.

This is part of an annual series from Security.org, see our last report here on the state of homelessness in 2019.

The State of Homelessness in the U.S.

In 2011, an estimated 624,000 people were considered homeless, spending their nights in shelters, vehicles, or on the streets. By 2020, that number had fallen to about 580,000 people, which on the surface is good news, representing a decline of about seven percent in the number of homeless people in the U.S.

But that tells only one part of the story. That’s because while the number of unhoused people has declined over the course of the decade, since 2016 we’ve seen a yearly increase in the number of people considered homeless.

All of this before the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. An eviction crisis has been unfolding across the country, and combined with job losses, there’s every reason to believe that the number of homeless people today is far higher than 580,000. One Columbia University professor projected that high unemployment could increase homelessness by as much as 45 percent.

The population-adjusted rate has gone up for the past three straight years, though it’s declined by about 12 percent over the past 10 years.

Just as the overall number and rate of homelessness has risen in recent years, so, too, has the share of unhoused people who spend their nights in unsheltered situations.

There is some positive news in the most recent count figures. While children account for 18 percent of homeless people, that rate is down from 23 percent a decade ago.

Major disparities continued along racial lines, and these differences have remained quite consistent over the past several years. No racial group is more overrepresented among the unhoused population than Black Americans. Black people account for about 13 percent of all people in the U.S. but 39 percent of the homeless population. Native Americans are also overrepresented, making up less than a percent of all Americans but more than three percent of homeless people.

Men continued to account for a higher share of homeless people (about 61 percent of all unhoused people), and they are also more likely to be unsheltered than female homeless people are.

About two in three unhoused people spend nights in shelters. That means that just over 226,000 Americans slept on the streets, in vehicles, or in other places that aren’t meant for people to sleep in.

But for homeless people who identify as trans or gender non-conforming, being unsheltered at night is far more common than for those identifying as either male or female. About 60 percent of these individuals sleep on the street or other unsheltered situations.

About 57 percent of homeless Native American people are unsheltered, compared to about 46 percent of homeless white people, 41 percent of homeless Hispanic or Latino people, and 27 percent of homeless Black people.

The number of homeless veterans has declined, but the percentage of homeless veterans who are unsheltered increased slightly between 2019 and 2020, and about 41 percent of homeless veterans are unsheltered.

Families with children account for about 30 percent of homeless people, but just under 10 percent of them are unsheltered.

Homelessness by State

Homelessness is far more common in some states than in others. Mirroring overall population figures, two states — California and New York — account for more than 40 percent of all unhoused people. D.C. had the highest population-adjusted rate of homelessness in 2020, though that’s not surprising considering the intense population density the district experiences.

New York ranks second overall both in number and per-capita homelessness, while California falls to fourth after population differences are taken into account.

Did You Know: The state with the highest homicide rate is Louisiana. Learn more about the state of homicide in 2021.

Ten states, including D.C., have population-adjusted homelessness rates that exceed the national rate of about 174 per 100,000 people — Alaska, California, D.C., Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.

Most states have seen their homeless numbers decline over the past decade, but less than half managed to lower their population-adjusted homelessness rate between 2019 and 2020. This further points to a potentially devastating pandemic-related impact in the years to come.

Also, among those that did have a decline, nine of those were within one or two percentage points, meaning that in many places where progress was being made, it wasn’t much.

Homelessness by City

The figures contained in HUD’s point-in-time report are gathered at the local level. All across the country are networks of what are called CoC programs, or Continuums of Care. These CoCs consist of local or regional agencies that provide services or funding for unhoused people.

These are the groups responsible for conducting and reporting the point-in-time count information, and the ground-level information they provide underlies HUD’s reporting (and this story).

Homelessness is more common in big cities than in rural areas, but this is far from a problem that’s isolated to mega-cities like New York City or Los Angeles. Even many mid-sized cities and metro areas have relatively high homeless populations when compared to the total number of people who live there.

Did You Know: You can protect your country home with one of the best security systems for rural areas.

For example, while the HUD report indicated that there are about 2,250 homeless people in the Santa Cruz-Watsonville metro area in northern California, with a total population of about 273,000, that means the community’s homelessness rate is 826 per 100,000. That’s about five times higher than the national rate.

On the other hand, for some cities like Phoenix, relatively high overall homeless numbers are balanced out by high population. About 7,400 unhoused people were reported in Phoenix, but the metro area’s population of more than five million means its population-adjusted homelessness rate is 147 per 100,000, which is well below the national average.

A total of 42 medium-to-large cities had population-adjusted rates that were higher than the national rate of 174 per 100,000. Eighteen of those cities, including the top six, are in California, and three each are in Florida, New York, and Oregon.

Only about one-third of the 132 medium-to-large cities with data for both 2020 and 2019 showed that their unhoused populations fell during that time. That means that most cities have seen their homeless populations increase, and some have seen double-digit increases in a matter of just a couple of years.

Of those with increases to their homeless population, the average jump was 10 percent, and 36 cities had increases that were even bigger than that.

Some cities have made progress in the effort to end homelessness, and 14 cities saw their homeless population shrink by double digits between 2019 and 2020. Again, though, as we’ve mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the housing situation for millions of Americans, both those who already are homeless and those who weren’t before the pandemic.

In some cities, like Madison, Wisconsin, homeless individuals were opting to sleep in places other than shelters to avoid being exposed to the virus, while in Akron, Ohio, eviction filings dipped during a couple of points in 2020 but are now returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Memphis, which had the third-biggest decline among medium-to-large cities in the number of homeless people, had one of the highest numbers of evictions during the pandemic.

In short, even in cities where things were getting better, it’s unlikely those improvements have survived a year of COVID-19.

Conclusion

Cities and states have vastly different approaches to tackling homelessness. Some communities have drawn praise for their efforts, while others have drawn mixed reviews at best. But with the homeless crisis deepening even before the pandemic and all signs pointing to COVID-19 having made things much worse, good solutions are in high demand.

Methodology

As mentioned, the information we analyzed on homelessness in the nation, states, and cities came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Point in Time homelessness count. You can access the tables and HUD’s report to Congress here.

The population data we analyzed came from the U.S. Census Bureau, which lists cities and metro areas using a different method than the count’s CoC. In order to reconcile the differences, in cases where multiple CoCs may provide services across a large metro area, such as Seattle-Tacoma, numbers for all applicable CoCs were combined.