How Has Homelessness in America Changed?

Yvonne Vissing
16 min readFeb 1, 2021

A 25 Year Retrospective

by Yvonne Vissing and Diane Nilan

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Homeless is far from a new phenomenon, one that has triggered crises for individuals, families and communities for decades. Commemorating our Silver Anniversary of homelessness research and advocacy, we figured it would be valuable to share our historical retrospective of how homelessness in America has changed over the last 25 years, with a particular focus on child and family homelessness.

When our paths crossed in the early 1990s, with one of us researching homelessness as a college professor in Massachusetts and the other serving families as a shelter director in Illinois, we experienced the synergy that comes from mutual wrath against injustice that shackles people in poverty. We have skin in the game. Neither one of us personally has ever been far from housing distress — the precursor to homelessness. Nevertheless, we have stared it down, studying it in film, surveys, interviews, observations, case studies, reports, and virtually every data type available. We have worked with boards of directors trying to create good programs. We have steered clear of the mainstream “homelessness industry,” and have taken the sometimes lonely route as advocates for the inclusion of families in the federal “10-Year Plans to End Homelessness” approaches that are oblivious to their needs. We have shouted our concerns and alternatives into the mainstream media headwinds. We have examined housing distress from multiple vantage points, pursuing outside-the-box solutions with perspective and heart.

We have seen the surge of homelessness from coast to coast. We’ve met many well-intended individuals and organizations trying to ease the suffering of those with no place to call home. We’ve encountered community leaders committed to do something about it — not because they actually cared about those who are homeless, but because they had to do “something” to appease locals offended or inconvenienced by those who dare to be homeless. We’ve been amazed at the apathy of folks and saddened by those who prefer to blame the victims for their misery. We’ve been around the block often enough to know that given time, those “with” could suddenly turn into those “without.” From meeting with bureaucrats in elegant rooms in Washington to sitting on folding chairs with children staying in shelters, we have learned much about this often misunderstood and complex problem. We offer our Silver Anniversary to guide our nation’s efforts to address homelessness henceforth.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

How has homelessness changed over the last quarter of a century?

First of all, there’s more of it. Significantly more individuals and adults have lost their housing and become homeless. Remember the economic recession of 2008–09? Tax cuts for the rich and the escalating growth of people in poverty helped set the stage for homeless-causing devastation. Today, especially since the pandemic, foreclosures and evictions are causing immeasurable housing losses that push vulnerable households closer to, or into, homelessness, despite the off-again/on-again eviction moratorium. Millions have lost jobs, fallen months behind on rent and utility payments, have had to quit jobs to take care of family, and teeter on the edge of homelessness, joining the already-homeless throng in communities everywhere.

Definitions and data-undercounts mask the problem. The general public’s perception of homelessness depends primarily upon three things — what they see with their own eyes, what media portrays, and what government reports. All are problematic.

Aside from those assumed to be homeless — individuals with signs on street corners begging for money — today’s homeless person is likely to be invisible — out of sight and thus out of mind. Stereotypes foster the belief that homeless people live on the streets. Many, particularly families and children, end up staying in a variety of unstable locales. Surprisingly, many homeless people work full or part time. Remember, a roof over one’s head does not constitute a home, safety, or stability. Children, whose healthy development hinges upon having a secure home, suffer the most from housing insecurity.

Government accounts on how many people are homeless are a significant under-count but these inaccurate numbers are frequently reported by the media. Part of the confusion is the definition used to determine who is, and is not, considered homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funds most poverty housing in the US, defines homelessness to be primarily single adults with substance abuse or mental health disabilities. Families, including unaccompanied youth who have runaway or been thrown out, often do not qualify for needed services or are counted as homeless by HUD. On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) uses a broader definition of homelessness reflecting the realities of a variety of housing distressed situations. They count students who have lost housing due to hardships and are staying in shelters, campgrounds, dilapidated/unsafe arrangements, vehicles, motels/hotels, and abandoned buildings. This variance in definition creates a vast difference in the scope of homelessness reported to Congress and to the public.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Another problem causing undercounts has to do with the methodologies employed. The commonly cited numbers come from HUD’s mandated annual “Point In Time,” or PIT, count of homeless people. The PIT excludes millions of families, youth on their own, and individuals outside HUD’s constrained definition. HUD’s PIT counts is deeply flawed for its inconsistent methodology, omission of significant groups of people (those in hospitals, jails, etc.) and its narrow definition. HUD didn’t offer estimates of how many people were homeless back in the mid-90s. HUD now reports around 500,000 being homeless. The DoE annual count reports around 1.5 million students in verifiable homeless situations. At least 75% are doubled up. The DoE count does not include younger/older siblings, parents or other house-less-hold members, which leads experts to estimate that upward of 7 million children could be homeless. The New York Times admits that no one really knows for sure how many homeless people are in the US because of inconclusive data gathering. Since the pandemic, scholars estimate that there has been an increase of 45% of homelessness over the past year. Taking a more longitudinal approach to viewing homelessness may give a more accurate picture than a one-moment snapshot.

Relying upon numbers that are counted at one point in time doesn’t include those people who were homeless recently or those who at the brink of homelessness. Housing distress is a continuum of housing options, whereupon having no where to go is at the bottom. It may not include the people who are staying in campgrounds, in people’s basements, or places not fit for human habitation. Taking a more longitudinal approach to viewing homelessness may give a more accurate picture than a one-moment snapshot, essential to shift more resources to this crisis.

Despite seismic disparity between HUD and DOE numbers, most government officials prefer HUD numbers because they are smaller so the government is not obligated to spend as much money for housing services. Denial does nothing but push people into more desperate situations which ends up costing the local communities money and resources. For families and youth, the cost to provide required educational services rises considerably. Students struggle to cope with homelessness, impacting their educational progress and future prospects. Babies fail to achieve developmental milestones because of their deprived conditions which will affect them — and all of us — for a lifetime. Parents wrestle with unimaginable survival challenges and may understandably crumble.

Because homelessness is associated with poverty, and poverty is associated with race, racial inequalities must not be ignored as they have been historically. People of color are impacted more by homelessness, something that speaks volumes about the need for racial justice.

Categories of homelessness have changed. Twenty-five years ago, most homelessness was dismissed as single adults with substance abuse or mental health problems. It was never that simple, nor is it today.

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

Families, always a part of the overall homeless population, albeit ignored, continue to add to the ranks. The surprising (to some) realization is how many adults experiencing homelessness today also were homeless as children. The impact of trauma on one’s physical and mental health is also a new focus, tying the child’s distress to unaddressed physical and mental health issues that can afflict them into adulthood, increasing their risk of homelessness. Families with older boys face the additional dilemma of many shelters not allowing the boys to stay with the rest of the family, pushing parents (often single mothers) to either farm out their older boys to possibly risky alternatives or to find somewhere else to sleep.

Another revelation — how many homeless individuals and parents are working. They are doing the best they can to hold a job on incomes that can’t meet bare-minimum expenses. Homeless veterans, women and men who served their country only to discover the elusive promised benefits like jobs, homes, and good healthcare — continue to add to the homelessness census. We’ve seen a concerted effort to better serve those who served, but it’s not enough.

A quarter of a century ago, awareness of youth on their own was minimal, at best, and usually limited to urban communities. Most states then had very few shelters for youth under the age of 18. Even today, laws prohibit adult shelters from serving young people on their own. Shelters for youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ+) thrown out of their homes are, in some states, still nonexistent. A growing subset, teens on their own with babies, also discover few programs to help them get on their feet.

HUD’s stereotype of homeless people as single adults with substance abuse or mental health disabilities prevails. However, the increase of individuals without serious health issues, plus families and youth continue unabated and unaddressed. The redefinition of homelessness to reflect all categories who have lost housing is critical to constructively prevent and address this epidemic of homelessness.

Where homeless people stay has changed. Twenty-five years ago, families tended to invisibly double-up with others. They still do, bouncing around and often not knowing where they’ll sleep night to night. Many communities have strict zoning regulations to prevent overcrowding, lack year-round, or even seasonal, shelters. Families, as a result, may end up in constant, stress-inducing housing flux.

Today as well as twenty-five years ago, some families opt for the camping route. They might stay in campgrounds during the summer and then turn to cheap winter-rentals (lacking adequate heat). Families may turn to dilapidated campers (RVs) because they cannot afford housing. Unable to pay campground fees, they may park overnight in places like Walmart, where they can go inside in the morning to clean up — but it all depends on how forgiving or punitive the managers are. A growing number of communities have ordinances prohibiting this, but enforcement varies. Despite the idyllic sound to this nomadic lifestyle, plenty of hardships make this a brutal way to exist.

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

More shelters operate now than twenty-five years ago. Some are year-round, others seasonal. Some are limited to adults, others accept families. Small towns and rural communities tend to not have shelters. In the 90s, as now, the belief was that if a town built (or operated) a shelter, it would attract outsiders. Despite abundant proof to the contrary, that myth still keeps communities from providing refuge to those with nowhere to sleep. For some, building and operating shelters was a visible capitulation to their responsibility to provide for the basic human needs of families in a community. More likely, the fear of “build it and they will come” fable kept shelters and services at a minimum.

In yesteryear, shelters were run by faith communities or nonprofits. Today the “shelter industrial complex” has begun to creep into the mix. Shelters have become a business, with hefty contracts offered to well-connected companies and a variety of for-profit companies and service providers.

Despite efforts to make shelters more hospitable, many are so unpleasant that people avoid them because of health, privacy, and safety matters. Families, in particular, face challenges finding shelters that will let them stay safely together, especially those with teenage sons. If they can afford it or if agencies are willing to pay, motels become a precarious, expensive alternative. Factor in the often disconcerting clientele and/or unscrupulous motel management, motel living is often perilous for families. The cost factor, compared with providing families a modest apartment where they could enjoy a sense of community, attend nearby schools and become productive, seems ludicrous.

Currently, COVID forced most shelters to severely restrict occupancy to reduce dangers of communal living. Some shelters undertook heroic measures to provide a safe, distanced environment, necessitating a significant reduction in how many could be housed. Families were shuffled to motels, an expensive and logistically challenging arrangement. Reliant on the community’s commitment to providing basic human needs — food, clothing and hygiene supplies — and access to internet for students in distance-learning arrangements, families in motels often find themselves isolated and forgotten.

Motels in many communities have evolved as the primary way families get a roof over their head; they have bathrooms and many offer mini refrigerators, microwaves and hotplates. Again, the motel option sounds better than it is. The lack of privacy, stress-fueled isolation and tight quarters creating a germ incubator diminish this alternative. Possibly appropriate for a very short time, motels should not be the 21st Century homeless shelters.

Stigmatization of homelessness continues. The millions who have lost their incomes or homes through no fault of their own in this pandemic joined the millions of already-homeless adults and kids with plenty of familiarity with being stigmatized. Decades later, homelessness continues to render children and adults repulsive. Many officials would rather they just go away. Years ago, “Greyhound therapy” was utilized, giving one-way bus tickets to move people along. This still happens today.

Parents often try to hide that they’re homeless so that their children won’t suffer ridicule. Even more devastating is the parental panic fueled by fear of their children being removed by child welfare authorities. Although, theoretically, homelessness is not cause to split up the family, it still happens, even 25 years later. The beleaguered foster care system that absorbs these kids is more expensive and often more devastating than the alternative of keeping the families together, with support.

Included in the current mix of unwanted and sometimes homeless groups are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. With a fragile safety net to begin with, individuals or families can find themselves without a place to live and in need of assistance. A growing wave of xenophobia has created a backlash which in too many cases can result in deportation, legal or not. It’s not uncommon for desperate non-native households to crowd in together, often in unsafe conditions, toughing it out until members of the extended family earn enough to move out. The difference between today and 25 years ago — the Immigration and Custom Enforcement, ICE. As the 21st century unfolded, the idea that our nation could repel outsiders — forgetting that other than Native Americans we are all outsiders — became official, and brutal. Historically, official (i.e., HUD) homelessness among immigrants was always minimal, with those in need of housing being absorbed into already crowded settings. The threat of ICE knocking on doors where families are crowded together is not a fantasy. Many find it better to handle their homelessness on their own, out of view from authorities.

Homelessness is seen as a crime. Police are increasingly ordered to “do something” to stop the homelessness crisis. This usually means getting them out of the community’s sight, especially in the business areas. Homelessness itself is often considered a crime. A quarter century ago, fewer laws banning sleeping in public, panhandling, loitering, or serving food to the poor were in effect, although any of those actions could be cause arrest, fines, or jail.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Today, in a growing number of communities, police have been ordered to tear down tents where people — individuals and families — live and destroy their possessions. This uproots those living in encampments, but the reason folks were camping out in the first place was because of the lack of accessible, available, affordable housing. Debtors with interaction with law enforcement often entangles them with the merciless criminal justice system. They end up with high bails, fines and court costs and/or extensive jail time, causing loss of job, housing and benefits. They emerge with a criminal record that makes employment, housing, and benefits almost impossible to regain. Families often end up as homeless in the process. Peter Edelman’s book, Not A Crime to Be Poor, elaborates on this twisted process designed to entrap people even deeper into poverty.

Homelessness remains a process before it becomes an outcome. Despite many points of intervention where services could be put into place to help both parents and children, assistance has decreased as the need for it increased. A cost-effective approach, in addition to the humane response, would be better for everyone. Systems, plans and reports have been created ad nauseum, yet family homelessness continues to skyrocket. Part of the problem — the lackluster effort on the part of the federal government in addressing the multiple factors contributing to homelessness. Their tepid “investment,” which never included a financial commitment equal to the need, continues to yield dismal results. Federal budget priorities don’t begin to include initiatives to strengthen families. Those at the bottom of the stratification ladder, and the gallant souls who struggle to help these disenfranchised families survive, continue to be doomed to receive the crumbs from the table, if that. The deep-seated reluctance to spend money to end homelessness matches the adverseness to tinker with the mortgage interest deduction for the most expensive homes that could free up an estimated $20 to $4o billion a year to address our nation’s housing needs.

In the meantime, those seeking assistance face a grueling, dehumanizing process to qualify for benefits. Punitive practices adroitly prevent a desperate applicant from getting nutrition assistance, health care, or housing support. Failure to check a box, put the wrong information, lack the proper paperwork, can cause a loss of benefits. Lacking an address, or not having internet access becomes a major barrier to getting assistance, as paltry as it is. The average food stamp, or SNAP, recipient receives $127 per month, a measly $1.40 per meal, far from what is needed to maintain a healthy diet. Once a family gets kicked off nutrition assistance, housing programs, or health care support, it takes months to be restored — even if the reason for getting benefits terminated wasn’t the applicant’s fault. Homeless families are stymied by red tape, with “coordinated entry” and diversion strategies being the latest approaches to reducing homelessness. These innocuous sounding strategies can make it more difficult for the besieged family to get a safe place to stay; while reducing official numbers of homelessness.

Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have a pandemic like COVID. The arrival of the virus brought increased health catastrophes, social distress and economic chaos as people have gotten sick, loved ones died, jobs lost, schools disrupted, and housing situations in flux. Meeting the housing, health, education and economic needs of families is a public health issue. A home is a public health protection; not having one is a public health risk. Protecting people’s ability to stay in their homes is of paramount importance; giving them the jobs that pay enough to allow them to do that is crucial. Designing functional education systems safe for everyone, from daycare through higher education, is within our capability — but a national commitment is essential.

Greater awareness of and commitment to homelessness as a preventable, solvable problem. What has improved over this quarter of a century are the number of dedicated people doing their utmost to alleviate some, if not all, of these unimaginable conditions facing millions of families on the edge of homelessness and those mired deep in it. Awareness of this social challenge has at least reached some with the power to improve lives of those struggling to survive. Despite efforts by committed activists, advocates, educators and lawmakers, significant work still needs to be done. After a quarter century, we know we cannot continue to lead the charge in this quest for housing justice. Those coming up behind us need to strengthen their resolve and break the logjam that has caused the crisis of family homelessness to skyrocket.

Crystal ball predictions. The trajectory of homelessness could continue to tumble into a troublesome direction from human dignity and public health perspectives, or not. Our government’s overarching refusal to invest in strategies to ensure stable housing, nutritious food, access to preventive healthcare — essential for good physical, mental, and cognitive health of little children — is nothing short of shameful. Without a massive shift in policies and practice, these young ones will encounter immeasurable, and devastating, tribulations.

At this, our Silver Anniversary, we stand in solidarity with the millions of forgotten and ignored children and families. We issue the challenge to people of good will — those with legislative power and those with powered by love — to create opportunities for families and young people to rise to their potential. We know the power of human goodness can conquer tremendous afflictions. We believe our country has the resources needed for all to live productive, healthy lives.

It is our ardent hope that we can shepherd good hearts, intentions and efforts that will result in the eradication of child and family homelessness. Urge your legislator to support the bipartisan legislation, “The Homeless Children and Youth Act,” to align HUD’s definition of homelessness with the education definition. Consider recommendations by Barbara Duffield to engage other federal agencies besides HUD to provide services to homeless children and families, agencies like the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Education. Also urge your legislator to support “The American Rescue Plan” which could significantly reduce child poverty.

Learn more about family homelessness:

Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness

Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness

Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America

The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Child and Family Homelessness in Small Town America

At Medium: and

Public Seminar: — a treasure-trove website with videos and materials about family and child homelessness