The “Cause” of Homelessness

A few days ago, I heard someone on a local radio station make a comment about how “almost everyone who is homeless has some form of mental illness” as a way to explain the irrational behavior of someone. There is no way that could be true, I thought. A bit of digging found some very different numbers.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than one-fifth of the homeless people in the United States suffer from a severe mental illness. The Treatment Advocacy Center puts the number of homeless individuals with untreated mental illnesses closer to approximately one-third of the total homeless population. The real number could be much higher, as these statistics only include those individuals who have received a diagnosis.

Why does this number matter? Indeed, mental illness is a very serious concern; homeless people who struggle with poor mental health are often at a higher risk of being mistreated, and their illness is often viewed and thus treated as a crime. The nation severely lacks enough resources to effectively help those with mental illnesses, homeless or not.

That said, mental illness is by no means the only or even primary cause of homelessness.

Attributing mental illness to nearly all homeless people only widens the divide between a person with a home and one without. If I’m a healthy, mentally sound person, it’s easy to assume homelessness could not happen to me. It’s called othering. The Homeless Hubs explains this well: 

“People who are homeless are not a distinct and separate population. In fact the line between being homeless and not being homeless is quite fluid.  In general, the pathways into and out of homelessness are neither linear nor uniform. Individuals and families who wind up homeless may not share much in common with each other, aside from the fact that they are extremely vulnerable, and lack adequate housing and income and the necessary supports to ensure they stay housed.”


It is when we look at all the possible causes of homelessness – a loss of job, inadequate income, unpaid medical expenses, a foreclosure, a personal crisis, domestic violence, an addiction, a lack of affordable housing – that the possibility of becoming homeless ourselves becomes a lot more real.

man2In fact, according to Market Watch, a study this January found that more than one-half of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the street. And with the lack of affordable housing nationwide, that number is not likely to decrease anytime soon. 

Yet no matter the numbers, we are all humans deserving of the same compassion and consideration, regardless of our circumstances. 

“Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” – Mike Yankoski

By Kerry Dirk