What’s behind rising homelessness in America?

The number of Americans living without homes, in shelters, or on the streets continues to rise at an alarming rate. Judy Woodruff reports on why that is, and what more can be done to prevent it.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Homelessness is not a new issue, but it is one that often doesn't receive a lot of attention. The number of Americans living without homes, in shelters, or on the streets continues to rise at an alarming rate.

    Judy Woodruff has this report on why that is and what more can be done to prevent it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Homelessness often gets extra attention during the holiday season, of course, but the problem has grown year-round, particularly in many cities.

    Estimates show that as many as half-a-million people are homeless in the U.S. on any given night.

    Nan Roman is the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And she joins me now.

    Nan Roman, thank you for joining us,.

    And, full disclosure, I serve on the board of the Alliance.

    But, first, let me ask you, how serious is the homelessness problem in this country compared to a few years ago?

    Nan Roman, CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness: Well, the problem of homelessness has been getting worse in this country compared to a few years ago.

    From 2007 to 2016, it had been going down pretty steadily every year. Starting in 2016, it has been creeping up every year, including this year, as far as we know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you understand why that is?

  • Nan Roman:

    I think it is largely due to the lack of affordable housing and housing getting more expensive, and also what people earn purchasing less housing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is that due to federal policies, state policy? What would you ascribe it to?

  • Nan Roman:

    It's due to the market, to some degree.

    I mean, we really don't have an adequate supply of housing in the U.S. anymore. We're about five million units short of having an adequate supply of housing overall. And in the affordable housing category, it's even worse. We are about seven million units short of enough affordable housing for all of the low-income households that need it. And that really is the driver around homelessness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you have a sense — we were just talking about this — of how COVID has affected people's ability to be in a home?

  • Nan Roman:

    It's sort of a mixed bag.

    I think that, on the one hand, a lot of the benefits that have been coming to people, in terms of the child tax credit, the income tax credits, the boost in unemployment insurance and so forth, have given people resources. And the eviction moratorium, I should also mention.

    They have given people resources or protected them, so that they didn't become homeless. Our data isn't so good because some of the counts over the past two years have been stopped because of COVID. But we also see in some populations that it looks like there's an increase. There appears to be an increase in unsheltered homelessness, for example, whereas family homelessness is down, we think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I saw that — I believe you were saying that more than a third of those who are homeless are completely unsheltered. They don't have any place or don't go anywhere, don't have a place to go.

  • Nan Roman:

    That's right.

    So, the homelessness system is not — is basically just not large enough for the problem to help people who are homeless. And 39 percent of people who are homeless don't even have a shelter bed, so they're living on the streets, in encampments, vehicles, places not meant for human habitation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nan Roman, you were also telling me that there was a good amount of money that was allocated to address housing, the homeless in the legislation that was passed because of COVID, the American Rescue Plan, the CARES Act.

    And you were saying not all that money has been spent. Why not? Can you give us a sense of what's happening there?

  • Nan Roman:

    I think there are a couple reasons.

    There was about $14 billion between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act specifically targeted to people who are homeless. Some of the issues around it being slow have to do with just the ability of the sector to absorb it. Staffs being low, the hiring, the same sorts of things you hear about businesses, that's also happening in government and nonprofit sectors.

    And so many resources flowing into communities have made it a little bit difficult for them to get the money out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that an argument that more federal money right now, that many of these communities are just not equipped to handle it?

  • Nan Roman:

    I think the communities are equipped to handle it, but not probably quite as fast as we might hope they could handle it.

    Still, these resources are so critical. And, as I said, they really are — this is a once-in-a-lifetime injection of funds into solving this problem. We estimate that the resources of Build Back Better, should that prevail, could house 80,000 households.

    So, that's quite a big dent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to come back, finally, to why people, so many people are homeless in this country.

    I know I hear many people saying, well, they think — they will say it's because of mental illness, or they think it's because of substance abuse. But, as you suggested earlier, it is more complicated than that.

  • Nan Roman:

    It really is about affordable housing and wages.

    I will age myself, but I will say, when I first started working in the late '70s, there really was — on housing issues, there was not homelessness. Very, very few people were homeless.

    And what's changed since then is that then there was an adequate supply of affordable housing. And now we're seven million units short. And that's the driver. If housing is affordable, people will be housed. They won't be living on the street. It's really that housing is not affordable that they're homeless.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, at this holiday season, what would you want Americans to know about homelessness in this country?

  • Nan Roman:

    Well, I would want them not to blame homeless people for their homelessness, to understand that the solution is really not that complicated, and to have compassion for people.

    It seems to me that, in a country as wealthy as ours and as wonderful as ours, we really should not have hundreds of thousands of people living on the street.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nan Roman, who is the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, thank you very much.

  • Nan Roman:

    Thank you, Judy.

Listen to this Segment