Homeless nation: these cities are being crushed by homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue. While many want it to be a black and white issue, the reality is that the reason it’s so hard to fix is because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The pathways to homelessness varies from person to person and the solutions to getting those people out of homelessness varies from person to person. Of course, there are absolutely some things that could have a bigger impact on addressing homelessness such as a coordinated federal response that’s well funded and managed, but even that will leave some people behind.

Each year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) takes a count of homeless people throughout the country. To make it a little easier to compare city to city, I’ve opted to put it as a ratio so it’s one person experiencing homelessness per 100,000 people living in the city. If I didn’t do that, Los Angeles and New York City would absolutely dwarf every other city.

Some key take aways from this data:

  1. The west coast states (and Hawaii) really are worse than almost every other region in terms of overall amount of homelessness, but maybe not as much as we would have assumed.

  2. I have no idea why Minneapolis has so many more people who are homeless than Milwaukie or Chicago but it’s an interesting phenomena.

  3. Texas is doing something to keep the number of overall homeless on the low end, especially for having such a large population.

Overall though, not too many surprises. Most probably would have guessed that this map would have shown the same trends if they had even a small bit of background information on homelessness.

Change in Total Homelessness from 2010-2019

That said, the actual total number of people experiencing homelessness has actually decreased in many cities, including many of those same cities in California that stand out in the previous map. Remember that 2010 was the middle of the worst economic recession in nearly a century so even with the current trends in homelessness, it’s still likely less than ten years ago. What really stands out to me here is my home city of Portland, OR. In 2010, I would have assumed there were far fewer experiencing homelessness based on what I could see but the data suggests otherwise.

Unsheltered Homeless

When we take into account the amount of people who are homeless and unsheltered, the west coast really lights up. An “unsheltered homeless person” is anyone who is physically sleeping on the streets (or in a tent on the street) rather than at a friend’s/family member’s house, or at a shelter.

And so here we see the real difference in just why homelessness is so much more visible in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. While New York City had a comparable amount of people who were homeless in total, most of them are in shelters (of some sort). In any of those west coast cities I mentioned, most of the homeless populations are living in tents. It’s a striking difference looking at each coast.

Change in Total Unsheltered Homeless from 2010-2019

Since 2010 there’s been a significant increase in the amount of unsheltered homeless in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, and especially Oakland and Sacramento. Which at least helps explain the increase in amount of tents we see lining highways, parks, and other open spaces.

Again, this is all data that is imperfect. But as we look at trends we can start to explain some of the things we see in our everyday lives. Questions like “why are there so many homeless in Portland as compared to Atlanta?” are a little clearer. Despite having similar amounts of total homeless, because Portland has fewer shelters and programs to shelter people who are homeless, they’re far more visible.

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