In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homelessness in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Homelessness in the United States
  • Estimating the Homeless Population
  • Lived Experience of Homelessness
  • Understanding the Homeless Population
  • Geography of Homelessness
  • Individual Explanations of Homelessness
  • Structural Explanations of Homelessness
  • Understanding Homelessness as the Interaction between Individual and Structural Causes
  • Consequences of Homelessness
  • Responses to Homelessness
  • Homelessness: Perceptions, Politics, and the Law

Urban Studies Homelessness in the United States
Gregg Colburn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0076


Homelessness is a stubborn and persistent phenomenon in the United States. According to 2022 data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, over a half million people experience homelessness on a given night in the United States. This single night count fails to capture the fact that over a lifetime, approximately 4 to 7 percent of the US population will experience homelessness at some point. These lifetime prevalence estimates underscore that homelessness is not a fringe issue affecting a small number of unfortunate individuals, but rather is a structural challenge that requires and demands a robust societal response. A comprehensive body of research describes the scope of the problem, the people who experience homelessness, its history, its causal drivers, the individual and societal costs of homelessness, and potential solutions to the problem. The scholarly literature also considers how broader structural changes are needed to address the systemic racism and inequality that contribute to the homelessness crisis. This bibliography includes research from scholars from a broad array of disciplines and fields, including anthropology, medicine, nursing, public health, social work, psychology, sociology, geography, economics, political science, public policy, urban planning, and real estate. The homeless population is not uniform, so understanding who experiences homelessness is essential because it tells a critical story about the nature of the crisis and its causes. Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and families are substantially overrepresented in the homeless population. This disproportionality speaks to the important role that racism and discrimination in a range of systems and institutions—such as housing, education, healthcare, and criminal justice—have played in shaping the scale and composition of this crisis. At its core, homelessness is the result of limited or restricted access to housing. As numerous studies demonstrate, housing ends homelessness. As it is for many phenomena in the social world, identifying the causal pathways into and explanations of homelessness is a complicated exercise. Individual attributes and behavior can produce a bout of homelessness, but so can the context in which people live.

General Overviews

This section includes a set of excellent books and articles that provide readers with a general overview of homelessness in the United States. Shinn and Khadduri 2020 is recommended reading for all who are new to the topic. It provides a clear and concise overview of the problem and its potential solutions. Hopper 2003 uses ethnography to describe the lived experiences of people experiencing homelessness. This book provides a rich description of homelessness that is lacking in much homelessness research. The three literature reviews cited in this section—Lee, et al. 2010; Lee, et al. 2021; and O’Flaherty 2019—are excellent resources for readers beginning their study of homelessness. Ellen and O’Flaherty 2010 distills the many factors at play when trying end or prevent homelessness. More recently, Colburn and Aldern 2022 explains regional variation in rates of homelessness for a general audience.

  • Colburn, Gregg, and Clayton Page Aldern. Homelessness Is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520383791

    Explains regional variation in rates of homelessness across the United States. Identifies housing market conditions as the primary driver of this variation. Other competing explanations of homelessness such as addiction, mental illness, or poverty may explain who is more likely to experience homelessness, but these factors do not explain why San Francisco has five times the homelessness of Chicago.

  • Ellen, Ingrid Gould, and Brendan O’Flaherty, eds. How to House the Homeless. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2010.

    Provides an excellent survey of homelessness, its causes, and the ways in which communities can respond. The first section covers strategies for helping people leave homelessness. The second part highlights ways in which housing policy can be used to prevent homelessness. The final part includes a chapter that offers a theoretical understanding of how a range of factors (including bad luck) interact to produce bouts of homelessness for the individual.

  • Hopper, Kim. Reckoning with Homelessness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

    Provides readers with a riveting overview of homelessness in the United States. Begins with two chapters that explore the historical roots of the crisis, then presents a series of chapters that use ethnography and fieldwork to understand homelessness and the people who experience it. Concludes by exploring the role of policy advocacy in ending and preventing homelessness.

  • Lee, Barrett A., Marybeth Shinn, and Dennis P. Culhane. “Homelessness as a Moving Target.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 693.1 (2021): 8–26.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716221997038

    Serves as the introduction to an issue of The ANNALS called “The Dynamics of Homelessness: Research and Policy.” Describes the dynamic nature of homelessness as people cycle in and out of this state. Homelessness is not a static condition. Highlights the increasing use of longitudinal data to understand changes in homelessness over time. This dynamic perspective is then positioned within the conventional micro (individual) and macro (structural) explanations of homelessness.

  • Lee, Barrett A., Kimberly A. Tyler, and James D. Right. “The New Homelessness Revisited.” Annual Review of Sociology 36 (2010): 510–521.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-115940

    Provides a comprehensive summary of existing scholarship that explores the modern era of homelessness (post-1980), “the new homelessness.” Describes literature that summarize how best to count or estimate the homeless population, the consequences of homelessness, and micro- and macro-level causes of homelessness. Concludes by examining societal responses to homelessness.

  • O’Flaherty, Brendan. “Homelessness Research: A Guide for Economists (and Friends).” Journal of Housing Economics 44 (2019): 1–25.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jhe.2019.01.003

    Provides an excellent summary of relevant research on homelessness. The article is broken down into individual- and aggregate-level studies. There is a focus on articles that use economic methods, but it is relevant and accessible to a broader audience. Concludes with a section called “Mysteries” which is a summary of trends and dynamics in homelessness that are not well explained by current research.

  • Shinn, Marybeth, and Jill Khadduri. In the Midst of Plenty: How to Prevent and End Homelessness. New York: Wiley, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119104780

    A comprehensive overview of the history, trajectory, and current state of homelessness in the United States. Also provides an excellent overview of the range of programs and interventions designed to address and prevent homelessness.

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