The number of homeless Americans is at the highest number ever recorded according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2023 annual homeless count. Why? Let’s play “Two Truths and a Lie.” Can you guess what the lie is?

A. Most children and families are excluded under the HUD’s modified definition.
B.  In 2013, the federal government institutionalized Housing First as the nation’s exclusive approach to homelessness and promised this policy shift would end homelessness in a decade.
C. 20-30% of the unsheltered homeless population struggle with mental illness or addiction.

Let’s take these statements one at a time:

A. TRUTH! The HUD modified the federal government’s definition of homeless—the McKinney-Vento Act—resulting in many homeless families becoming disqualified from the annual homeless count AND from receiving help. When “couch surfing” or when paying for their own motel room in order to avoid a night on the streets, they are not considered “homeless enough”… though they are considered homeless if the HUD funds their room

The nation’s crisis is much grimmer than the HUD is reporting. While the HUD reported 653,000 homeless Americans in 2023, the Department of Education, using the unaltered McKinney-Vento definition, reported a vastly different figure. They documented 1,099,221 homeless K-12 students in the 2020-2021 school year, a figure that does not include the students’ parent(s) nor any siblings outside of the K-12 system.

B. TRUTH! Despite their promise, the number of homeless Americans peaked ten years later. Homelessness is now at the highest point ever recorded, including a 147% increase in the unsheltered population.

California— the only state in the nation to embed Housing First as a one-size-fits-all approach into state statute (2016)— is now home to nearly 50% of the nation’s homeless population and 30% of the nation’s overall homeless population.

Speculations as to what led to this humanitarian catastrophe include the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortage of affordable housing, and a lack of spending. But the HUD’s very own data suggest that these three factors are not the main drivers of increased homelessness. Instead, the numbers point to a consistent and stark rise in homelessness after the 2013 seismic policy shift to Housing First as a one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness.

C. LIE! While the HUD’s annual homeless counts suggest that 20-30% of the unsheltered homeless struggle with mental illness or addiction, the reality is that a much greater share of the homeless population struggles with these challenges.

The UCLA Policy Lab and the LA Times found that 78% of the chronically homeless population struggle with the diseases of mental illness and/or addiction. 

However, when the federal government instituted Housing First as the country’s exclusive approach to homelessness, clinical services such as mental health and substance use disorder counseling were wholly defunded. Those resources were instead allocated to additional permanent housing vouchers. 

Bottom Line: 

The federal government is homelessness’ largest funder. Its one-size-fits-all, housing-focused approach has failed the homeless and failed the nation. Any policy solution must be human-centered, versus housing-centered, and its foundation must be built on a human being’s inherent needs. 

Human beings are designed for purpose, not just mere existence in housing. We must help the homeless heal from the issues that underlie their homelessness—largely mental illness, addiction, and trauma—to gain clarity and purpose. 

By putting humans first, we will ensure that underlying diseases are addressed, that quality of life is improved, and that dignity and purpose are restored to each individual, family, and community experiencing homelessness.

To learn more, read the Policy Focus on America’s Failure to Address Homelessness