What Causes Homelessness?

March to Close the Gaps

(Image by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue)

I’ve worked in social services for about a decade, almost all of it working on various forms of supportive housing. These days I chair the Suburban Metro Area Continuum of Care, and sit on the governing board of Heading Home Ramsey, in addition to my actual job cobbling together finances for housing and homeless programs at a non-profit. I spend a lot of my days working on regional strategies to end homelessness. 

With the recent uptick in visible homelessness in the Twin Cities, I see and hear a lot of Very Bad Takes about homelessness. So really, this could be a whole series about myths and bad ideas when it comes to homelessness and those experiencing it. But I want to zoom out and focus on something very basic. 

Homelessness is caused by not having a home. That’s it.

I know, you’re going to say “but Matt, Wilder says about 85% of individuals experiencing homelessness statewide report having a serious or chronic disability, defined as a ‘mental illness, substance abuse disorder, or other condition that limits work or activities of daily living,’ doesn’t that cause homelessness?”

“Wilder also says 24% of individuals experiencing homelessness have a chemical dependency diagnosis, doesn’t that cause homelessness?”

The answer is that no, those things don’t cause homelessness. Nor do physical disabilities, lack of sufficient gumption, or any other of the myriad things I’ve heard blamed.

Let me focus on mental illness, since this is the one I hear most often. NAMI says that 1 in 5 adults in the US experience some sort of mental illness, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness. Chances are even if you are lucky enough not to, you have family members and friends with some sort of mental illness, and you probably know somebody or multiple somebodys with a serious mental illness, as well. I certainly do.

Now, 4% of the population is certainly not homeless, so what’s different about the .1% of the population that ends up homeless? Well, it turns out that they don’t have a home. I know this sounds reductive, but I’m trying to make a point here. If mental illness causes homelessness, why are only a fraction of the people diagnosed with a serious mental illness winding up on the streets?

Any number of things can go wrong and cause someone to miss a rent check and end up getting evicted. Whether it’s an unexpected car repair, a relapse, a broken leg and expensive ER trip, or a need for a couple weeks of inpatient treatment that means you can’t work, the end result is the same: you don’t have a home. And once you’re homeless, it’s so much harder to get back on track and find a place to live. Minnesota is particularly bad on allowing landlords to evict extremely quickly with very little cause, which is a topic for another day.

Trying to parse and solve all these different causes, you’ll chase your tail until the end of time. The bottom line is that for some reason, a person can’t afford a home. The solution to that is to help them be able to afford a home.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve mental health care in this country, raise the minimum wage, reduce our dependence on expensive automobiles, and fix our broken health care system. We should! But that’s not how you end homelessness. You end homelessness by giving people homes.

So. The thing that causes homelessness is not having a home. It follows that the most important thing we can do to end homelessness is to provide homes for those who need them. This is the theory behind Housing First, the best practice in providing housing for those in need. If you have a home, it immediately becomes easier to deal with all the other things you have going on in your life. 

Why is this important? Because it focuses on the actual cause of homelessness, which allows us to look at the solutions that will actually work. We need more homes. Of all kinds. Public housing, subsidized affordable developments, market-rate housing – we need it all. We need more subsidies for people who need them. There are a lot of closed waiting lists on this page. And we need more workers to help them navigate that whole mess of a housing/subsidy world. If we had so many homes that affordable homes are readily available, and we had subsidies for those who needed them, we could live in a world where homelessness is brief, rare, and non-recurring

How do I know this? Because we had that world. There were mental illness, chemical dependency, and medical emergencies back in the 70s, too. But homelessness was almost non-existent. Then we spent 50 years slashing funding for public housing and making it impossible to build low cost housing (or really, much housing at all) in our cities. And now we’re here. If we truly believe that everyone has a fundamental right to housing, we’re doing a bad job of showing it.

The best time to start reversing this trend was 50 years ago. The second best time is now.

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30 Responses to What Causes Homelessness?

  1. Elizabeth Larey February 10, 2020 at 9:30 am #

    I have a question. I agree with everything you mentioned. But years ago we had facilities for people suffering from mental illness. Reagan closed them all in the 80’s. Do you think that made things worse? I know people don’t like large scale public housing, but could something like that be built for people suffering who also end up homeless? It could have services on site to help people transition back to where they can work again. Helping people get off the streets without having services to help them get better doesn’t solve the problem.
    Just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

    • Matt Lewis February 10, 2020 at 10:50 am #

      I think overall the idea of de-institutionalization was a good one. For a long time, we were essentially putting people with mental illness in jail, and calling it caring for them. The place we dropped the ball was in not providing the community supports and care needed when we closed those facilities. Where we’ve been able to provide wrap-around services, we’ve seen great success. But the funding for that level of intensive service is very hard to come by.

      And at this point, it’s not a choice. The Olmstead decision means we’re not going back to forcibly segregating people with disabilities. The way forward is providing the support needed while allowing people to live their lives integrated into the community.

  2. Tom Quinn February 10, 2020 at 10:25 am #

    Putting disabilities aside, as you do in your article, if the reason for most homeless is simply the lack of affordable housing in the city, then why not move to an area where that is not the case? I just checked and the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in the small rural Minnesota town I grew up in is $512/month. Efficiency apartments average $437, and low end houses don’t cost much more than a new car. At the same time, there are plenty of jobs.

    Wouldn’t moving be a better alternative to sleeping in the street, or begging on the corner?

    • Matt Lewis February 10, 2020 at 11:20 am #

      I find this kind of thinking to be short-sighted If there’s anything that we know keeps people from falling into homelessness, it’s a robust social safety net of family and friends who can step in to help. Taking people away from that is a good way to set them up to fail. Plus most of those places are places where a car is completely necessary, and the expense of buying and maintaining a car will more than counteract any savings on housing.

      And frankly, telling someone that the answer to being homeless is to move away from everyone they know to a place where the housing is cheap largely because there are fewer economic opportunities just seems cruel.

      I come at this from a position of compassion and wanting people to be able to live their lives with dignity. So this doesn’t work as a solution, if you ask me.

      • Tom Quinn February 11, 2020 at 10:28 am #

        Moving from a place where one knows everyone to place with better economic opportunities is cruel? Really? Thats more often the case than not and pretty much the way things have been for a thousand generations. I left all my family at the age 18 to increase my opportunities. It’s what everybody did, and I see no reason that the able bodied homeless in the Twin Cities can’t do the same thing.

        You have a strong bias against rural Minnesota if you say someone moving there for economic opportunity can’t live a life of “dignity”.

        I wonder how little money it would take to hitch to a small Minnesota town, get a job, find a cheap apartment, find a junker car, and establish a life. With some ambition, I think is very doable. This would make for an interesting article. Or book.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller February 11, 2020 at 10:35 am #

          You know it takes money to move, right? And that sort of by definition, a place with cheaper housing isn’t a place with greater economic opportunity.

          • Matt Lewis February 11, 2020 at 11:59 am #

            Yeah, if you’re homeless, you probably have literal $0 in savings, and just security deposit and first month’s rent (if you’re lucky and that’s all you’re asked to pay) is $1000-2000. Plus buying a car. And where are you living while you’re finding that cheap apartment? You don’t have a friend’s couch to crash on anymore, because they all live in the metro.

            And ditto Adam on cheap housing generally not meaning it’s a place of greater opportunity. The unemployment rate in Greater MN is quite a bit higher than in the metro.

        • A February 18, 2020 at 9:45 am #

          Is this really a serious solution you are proposing, or are you trolling? First, why would a homeless person think that this rural area will be a land of opportunity? There are tons of dying rural towns that have very cheap rent but no jobs. Second, where would they get the money to move? Third, yes, it is cruel to tell an extremely poor person to go pull themselves up by the bootstraps in some town in the sticks, where they will most likely not be welcomed with open arms.

  3. Scott Walters February 10, 2020 at 10:53 am #

    Tom Quinn’s comment is interesting. Any drive through almost any rural area reveals scores of abandoned homes falling in on themselves…while almost every small town with an excess of jobs has housing shortages as bad as those in the cities. What’s up with that? it’s impossible to build a new house in a small town that will appraise for anywhere near the cost of construction. Why? Because “low end houses don’t cost much more than a new car.” It’s impossible to build a new house, and sell it for not much more than that old house costs.

    We’ve truly built ourselves into a paradox. It’s become impossible to build a new house for what it will be worth when it’s finished in almost all of the country. Yet we’re so short of housing, at almost every price point, that we are in a crisis.

    The crisis is now feeding on itself. Activists in urban areas fight like wolverines to stop any new development that will result in high-end apartments, or even just “change in neighborhood character.” We desperately need to change the character of almost every neighborhood. In 20 years, those high end apartments will become naturally occurring affordable housing, and they will begin a cascade of today’s high end becoming tomorrow’s middle, and tomorrow’s middle becoming Wednesday’s NOAH. We should be encouraging construction of incremental housing units pretty much anywhere inside the built up perimeter of the cities (and encouraging it be built as densely as possible).

    To add to the challenge, we’re in the midst of a climate emergency. We need to simultaneously invest billions in transit, electrification of our lives, the elimination of the need to use natural gas to heat our homes, etc. While we need cheaper homes, we also need to stop building cheap homes. Every house should be, if not a passivhaus, pretty darn close to one. No new house (or apartment/multi-family dwelling) should be allowed to install a gas furnace or boiler, or a gas burning hot water heater. They should be so energy efficient that burning fossil fuels to heat them should be completely unnecessary.

    Not sure where to go with all that, but we’ve gotten ourselves into a real pickle. I imagine where we would be if Al Gore hadn’t given up on Florida, and instead of the catastrophe we now face, we had taken the Clinton surpluses and, as soon as we finished paying off the national debt, we had invested the ongoing budget surpluses in upgrading our housing stock, electrifying our transportation systems, and decarbonizing our new smart grid. We knew then what needed to happen, and just chose to ignore it.

    Enough for a cheery Monday morning!

    We also need to figure out how to balance

  4. Elizabeth Larey February 10, 2020 at 11:56 am #

    I agree with a writer about looking at different communities. I do know there are a number in Minnesota that are in need of workers and have a much lower cost of living. But I do understand the difficulty in moving away from family. I wonder why families can’t take their relative in until she/he can get on their feet. Sometimes people need to be realistic about what society can do/should do for people. That’s why I thought a large complex with a free place to live combined with services would work best.
    Large cities are getting expensive, and it’s a stretch to try and fit affordable housing in the core. But I understand people want that. Question is, who’s going to pay for it. Then there’s the person who wrote homes should be cheaper but not cheap. That’s an oxymoron. At the end of the day somebody has to pay. And the middle class is getting fed up with their taxes being raised. I don’t know what the answer is.

    • Nicole Salica
      Nicole Salica February 10, 2020 at 12:31 pm #

      Not everyone has a family, let alone being in contact with them, let alone being welcomed into their home for an extended period of time.
      Tax the rich, cut military spending.

      • Elizabeth Larey February 10, 2020 at 1:40 pm #

        There aren’t enough rich people to pay for everything this country needs. Honestly. I try to think about solutions that can actually work. Did you know the top bracket in Minnesota is around 72K

        • Julie Kosbab February 10, 2020 at 4:08 pm #

          Wealth is concentrated such that we don’t need “enough rich people.” The rich people who exist are more than enough to pay for everything, along with a more aggressive corporate tax structure.

          Amazon paid 1.2% in taxes on $13B in profits.

        • Mike Sonn
          Mike Sonn February 11, 2020 at 8:36 am #

          Where did you see that stat? I’m finding the top 5% of MN incomes is $210k+.

          https://statisticalatlas.com/state/Minnesota/Household-Income

          $77k is the 60th percentile. Median income is $63k.

      • Julie Kosbab February 10, 2020 at 4:08 pm #

        Tax corporations, too.

        Eat the rich.

        • Elizabeth Larey February 10, 2020 at 7:52 pm #

          You know that’s the problem with is blog. You can’t have an intelligent dialogue, it just disintegrates into go after the rich. I’m sorry I offered ideas on how to help the homeless population who have suffered from mental illness.
          I guess you’re saying 72k is rich, as that is the top bracket in MN. Even Bernie finally admitted the middle class will have to pay more to fund his programs.

          • Megan Kretsinger February 11, 2020 at 8:50 am #

            I do find that disappointing, and it seems to come from a select few who are also Board members. Honestly they should just turn off comments for articles since it seems they just want a sounding board for affirmation instead of an actual discussion. Sad really since 99% of everyone’s views align.

            • Adam Miller
              Adam Miller February 11, 2020 at 10:38 am #

              May I ask, do you believe this comment adds to intelligent discussion?

              Personally, I’m pretty tired of “it cost too much to do anything” as a discussion. We’ve spent 40 or so years making the country worse with that excuse. In truth, we used not to have a homelessness problem. Are we, as a nation, poor than we were in the ’70s?

              No, we are not. We could afford solutions then and we can afford them now. We’ve just chosen not to.

              • Megan Kretsinger February 11, 2020 at 12:25 pm #

                Yes, actually I do. You claim you’re not happy with the status quo, you want change, so you voice your concerns. I’ve done the same exact thing. I’m disappointed in the behavior of some board members. I’ve expressed that. I’d like change. Instead many users here, such as yourself quite frankly, are quick to silence those who dare to make comments or ask questions that don’t align with their own.

          • Stuart Munson February 11, 2020 at 10:51 am #

            Occasionally, there are comments like this, but I wouldn’t say that they are the norm for most of the streets.mn content.

            That said, The rich should be taxed more. So should the middle class. I’m not going to argue the best way to do this, but I will provide two pieces of information I just googled out of curiosity.

            In January 2018, the government counted ~553,000 homeless people in our nation.
            In 2019, there are an estimated 18,600,000 adult millionaires in our nation.

            Our society has more than enough money to eliminate homelessness if we wanted to.

        • Daniel Choma
          Daniel Choma February 14, 2020 at 4:46 pm #

          I think we miss a really big point when we say “eat the rich,” namely that the rich are really not gonna be all that tasty. I grew up with cattle farmers and I’ve seen what delicious animals eat and it shure darn isn’t what rich people eat. Maybe free range grass fed rich. But no this hog swill fed latte drinking rich. That’d be an awful cut of meat.

          All joking aside, I think its fair to take concerns of rural folks in good faith. One of the greatest successes of the original new deal was The Civil Corps. I could see a reforestation effort as a part of the Green New Deal solving some of the problems both sides in this feed are talking about: getting folks jobs, sending home money to family, etc. It likely wouldn’t end homelessness, but it could bring more money into working communities allowing families without means to (hopefully) afford to live in a home.

          Im just saying chill out a bit yall, nobody is eating anybody.

    • Daniel Choma
      Daniel Choma February 14, 2020 at 5:12 pm #

      Resettlement can be really expensive, and it’s super easy to have this conversation with a wide brush. Ive seen folks who move out to a different city to avoid homelessness. It isnt easy and often times it puts a lot of stress on family or children associated with the move because suddenly their support system lives in multiple places.

      Im not saying its impossible, but my heart does wish we had more affordable housing in cities so working families weren’t put in a situation where they are choosing between “moving to not be homeless” and “being around a support system that can help me raise a 6 year old”

      Given the housing crisis as it is, people often have to make that exact decision.

  5. Karen Nelson February 10, 2020 at 4:16 pm #

    Also important to note rise in homelessness is.strongly coorelated to increase in rents relative to lower end wages

    • Matt Lewis February 11, 2020 at 10:35 am #

      Yep. Because we underbuilt housing for the past 50 years, among other things.

  6. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller February 11, 2020 at 10:40 am #

    50 or 60 years ago we were building, real, honest-to-goodness, public housing, not just trying to subsidize our way into the affordable housing.

    We need both.

  7. Michael Daigh
    Michael Daigh February 11, 2020 at 11:21 am #

    This is a tough one. Your figures from NAMI aren’t wrong, but the National Coalition for the Homeless says that 20%-25% of homeless people experience “severe” mental illness, vice 6% of the general population.
    So, 1 in 5 of the general population by the NAMI numbers experiences a mental illness each year, but not “severe” mental illness.
    I won’t postulate here which is causal. But it’s an important distinction.

    Also: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-housed-the-homeless-in-upscale-apartments-it-hasnt-gone-as-planned/2019/04/16/60c8ab9c-5648-11e9-8ef3-fbd41a2ce4d5_story.html

    • Matt Lewis February 11, 2020 at 11:48 am #

      I don’t think this changes my point that it’s only a minority of those with severe mental illness that end up experiencing homelessness. The difference is that they don’t have a home. So the answer to getting them housed isn’t providing a psychiatrist, it’s providing a home. It’s easier to regularly see your mental health providers when you’re stably housed.

  8. Jenny Werness
    Jenny Werness February 11, 2020 at 3:33 pm #

    Thanks for writing this and sharing your expertise, Matt. Your perspective and experience in this area is so valuable, and really focuses the discussion on what ultimately matters: homes for people. We need to do so much better.

  9. Robbie Cape February 12, 2020 at 10:25 pm #

    I am happy to help donate to any cause in the TC area that affects homelessness. It is a vicious cycle. Please help us stop it at handymanmpls.com! Thanks so much!

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke February 13, 2020 at 1:53 pm #

      Stay tuned for the sequel to this piece: What causes? homelessness

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