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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Record Homelessness Amid Ongoing Affordability Crisis

Homelessness spiked 12 percent (71,000 people) in 2023, with more than 650,000 people unhoused, the highest number recorded since data collection began in 2007. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s point-in-time estimates show an increase in nearly every state and also for both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. The growing number of unhoused people is driven in part by the expiration of many pandemic-related relief measures and an influx of migrants. However, the most fundamental driver of the nation’s growing homelessness is the ongoing housing affordability crisis that has left a record number of renters cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of income on housing and utilities, as detailed in our latest report, America’s Rental Housing 2024.

Pandemic-Era Relief Measures Are Expiring

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 after the onset of the pandemic, homelessness service providers across the country restricted their shelter capacity and the level of sheltered homelessness fell as a result, from 355,000 people in January 2020 to 326,000 in January 2021. As many of these de-congregating measures ended, sheltered homelessness grew to 349,000 people in 2022 and further to 396,000 in 2023. Of course, this restoration of shelter capacity is not the only driver of rising homelessness since the current level of sheltered homelessness is higher than before the pandemic, and we did not see any complementary decrease in unsheltered homelessness.

Likewise, other pandemic-era measures that successfully assisted renters and homeowners to remain housed during the tumult of the pandemic are also winding down, including eviction moratoriums, rental subsidies, and income assistance. The loss of these temporary supports is evident. Eviction filings have returned to pre-pandemic levels and the median amount of income that a renter household has after paying for housing and utilities has hit an all-time low, which leaves people with the lowest incomes increasingly at risk of homelessness.

Migrant Crisis Is Straining the Shelter System

The record number of migrants arriving at the southern border is also contributing to the recent growth in homelessness in some states. While homelessness data does not include information about immigration status, it does provide basic data about race and ethnicity. Given that a large share of migrants currently entering the United States are from Central or South America, Hispanic ethnicity can serve as a ough proxy measure of unhoused migrants.

Using that approach, we can infer that an increasing number of people experiencing homelessness are migrants. Specifically, the number of unhoused Hispanic people grew by 28 percent (40,000 people) from 2022 to 2023, far faster than the 7 percent (32,000 people) increase among non-Hispanic unhoused people. A similar pattern of growth can be seen in states that have received large numbers of migrants, many of whom are being directly bussed or flown to Chicago, Denver, and New York City, among others. In New York state, for example, homelessness grew from 2022 to 2023 by 29,000 people, of which 24,000 identified as Hispanic, and the share of the state’s unhoused population who are Hispanic increased from 34 to 48 percent. Similarly, in Illinois, where the state’s unhoused population grew by 2,700 during the same period, 2,500 were Hispanic, raising the Hispanic share of that state’s unhoused population from 12 to 30 percent. In contrast, the share of California’s unhoused population that is Hispanic remained unchanged in 2023 at 37 percent, with 3,400 of the additional 9,900 unhoused people in California identifying as Hispanic. The migrant crisis, then, seems to be having a substantial impact in certain states, and a more limited effect in others.

Unaffordable Housing Is Primary Driver of Growing Homelessness

In the book Homelessness Is a Housing Problem—the focus of a recent event hosted by the Center—authors Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern argue that the lack of affordable housing is the root cause of homelessness. Economic hardship is not unique to any one place in this country, but cities and states with high housing costs make it even harder for residents experiencing hardship to stay housed. This is the likely driver behind the correlation between homelessness and the share of renters with severe cost burdens (Figure 1). The pandemic has only exacerbated this issue, as rents and home prices have risen rapidly across the country. The rate of homelessness grew in all but 10 states from January 2020 to January 2023, while the share of severely cost-burdened renters grew in all but two states from 2019 to 2022.

Figure 1: Homelessness Highest in States with Most Severely Cost-Burdened Renters

Policies encouraging the development of more affordable housing are key to easing both the housing and homelessness crises. However, shorter-term action is also needed to aid the record number of people struggling with homelessness—a number which may have grown since this last count in January 2023.