The reality and complexity of homelessness in America


April 15, 2024

Editor’s note: Kali Daugherty is a mother, advocate, and RESULTS Expert on Poverty from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This article first was published on RESULTS’ blog and is cross-posted with permission.

By Kali Daugherty
Imagine losing everything you had. Your stability, your privacy, and in many cases basic respect from others. In 2023, over 653,000 individuals (about half the population of Hawaii) in the U.S. experienced homelessness.

Homelessness is defined as a condition where an individual or family lacks a fixed, regular, nighttime residence. The reality of being homeless means sharing a crowded space with strangers and conforming to the rules of a shelter. If you aren’t lucky enough to get into the limited shelter space, then you are left to make your way on the street. I have met people living under bridges, encampments in the woods, sewer crates, tents, park benches, and everything in between.

Homelessness is a complex and pervasive issue — affecting individuals in all walks of life. There’s an outdated belief that those experiencing homelessness are lazy or don’t want to work. Yet studies show that over 50 percent of people living in shelters and 40 percent of unsheltered people are employed either part-time or full-time. More than half of the people I’ve worked with who were homeless were employed full-time or had a steady income. But it still wasn’t enough for them to survive.

There is a trend in our country right now to punish those experiencing homelessness, with multiple states working to “outlaw homelessness”. Florida lawmakers passed a bill that will ban homeless individuals from camping or sleeping on public propertyWisconsin tried passing a similar bill that would make it illegal for individuals to sleep anywhere but on designated camping areas without getting fined. These pointless fines and the criminalization of homelessness will lead to unpaid tickets, open warrants, overcrowding in our jails, and more barriers to finding stability later. If individuals don’t have access to housing, can’t get into shelters, and now can’t sleep outdoors, where are they supposed to go? By June 30, the Supreme Court will decide if states can continue passing laws like these which will have major implications for the future.

We need to address the real problems that contribute to homelessness in our country — the lack of resources and economic systems that are holding people back.

The primary contributor to homelessness is pretty obvious — the lack of affordable housing. Many struggle to find housing that fits within their monthly budget and with housing costs soaring it makes so many vulnerable to homelessness. In 2021, there were almost 10 million households paying over 30 percent of their income on rent and over 11 million households paying over 50 percent of their income on rent. All these households are forced to decide daily which of their bills to pay. The balance between rent and food is one the underprivileged know well. Out of all those that qualify for housing assistance, only one in four receive it.

Another contributing factor is economic instability. Low wages, job loss, and social safety nets that don’t support enough. Seventy-six percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Some face difficulties in maintaining employment due to mental health, substance abuse, or lack of education and skills. The average income paid by a single full-time job is not enough to keep up with monthly expenses. These challenges make it difficult for so many to secure and maintain housing.

Right now, the resources and laws in the U.S. are not working to meet our basic needs and human rights. We need more affordable housing and living wages. The only way to make that happen is coming together as a community, demanding action and change. This is what we do at RESULTS every day.