The homelessness crisis in big cities and solutions to address it

Lera Blog

Homelessness is a persistent and complex problem affecting major cities across the United States. According to recent estimates, more than 500,000 people are homeless every night in the country. The increase in homelessness over the past decade, particularly among vulnerable populations such as veterans, youth and families with children, highlights the need for comprehensive solutions to address this crisis.

The scale of the problem

Homelessness presents itself differently in different cities and regions, but some trends are clear. A lack of affordable housing, stable jobs with decent wages, and access to health care and support services have all contributed to the increase in homelessness. Major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco have seen large increases in their homeless populations. For example, there are estimated to be more than 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County alone. The increase in the number of homeless people has strained city resources and led to the formation of makeshift encampments in public spaces.

Factors contributing to the increase in the number of homeless people

Several interrelated factors contribute to homelessness among individuals and families. The lack of affordable housing in major cities is one of the biggest factors, especially as rents and home prices have skyrocketed. Stagnating wages and income inequality also make it difficult for low-income households to maintain stable housing. For certain subgroups like veterans, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder can contribute to job loss and housing instability. Domestic violence is also a common cause of homelessness among women. Without a support system, a simple life event like losing a job or having a medical emergency can quickly turn into homelessness.

Public health impacts

Homelessness has wide-ranging impacts on public health and safety in cities. People experiencing homelessness have higher rates of physical and mental illness, substance abuse, and shorter life expectancies. Camps may lack sanitation or access to clean water and health care, increasing the risk of disease transmission. The lack of stable housing also makes it difficult to manage chronic physical and mental illnesses. From a public safety perspective, an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets can contribute to petty crime and a decrease in the perception of neighborhood safety and cleanliness.

Potential solutions

Although homelessness is a complex problem for which there is no single solution, cities can employ multiple strategies to help alleviate this crisis. Among the most promising solutions are:

  • – Increase the stock of affordable housing through zoning policies, rent controls and development incentives.
  • – Develop rental assistance programs and housing vouchers
  • – Invest in supportive housing models that provide social services alongside housing
  • – Improve coordination between health systems, homelessness services and housing authorities
  • – Establish centralized data systems to connect homeless people with appropriate housing options.
  • – Expand mental health and addiction treatment resources
  • – Offer vocational training, placement and other employment assistance services
  • – Deploy local teams to put homeless people in contact with available resources.
  • – Consider pilot programs to provide temporary shelters or authorized encampments
  • A combination of short-term emergency measures and long-term system reforms is needed. Solutions must be adapted to the needs and resources of each city. But by learning from successful models and making housing solutions a priority, big cities can create real change.

    Other solutions

    Housing First Approaches

    The Housing First model has shown promising results in cities like Salt Lake City and Houston. This approach quickly provides permanent housing without preconditions, coupled with supportive services as needed. Prioritizing rapid placement into stable housing may be less costly than managing long-term homelessness. Housing First programs help combat myths that homeless people must “earn” housing or that providing housing enables substance use. This approach has been successful for both chronically homeless people and families.

    Innovative architectural designs

    Some cities are getting creative by converting underutilized space into affordable housing. Examples include micro-apartments, modular housing and shipping containers converted into housing units. These innovative designs can provide transitional or permanent housing quickly and affordably. Architectural competitions and partnerships with developers can stimulate creative solutions.

    Prevention and diversion programs

    Initiatives focused on prevention can prevent at-risk individuals and families from becoming homeless. Strategies include short-term rental assistance, mediation programs for landlord disputes, and cash assistance for security deposits or moving expenses. For the newly homeless, diversion programs can quickly rehouse them without having to enter the shelter system, which is traumatic and costly. It is essential to identify people’s support networks.

    Street work and camp management

    Outreach teams work directly with people living in encampments or public spaces to build trust and connect them to services and housing options. Best practices include integrating formerly homeless workers into outreach teams. Encampments can also be managed by designating permitted locations, providing basic sanitation services, and partnering with residents to transition to shelters or housing.

    While increasing the number of affordable housing units is essential, integrated services are also essential to enable people to obtain and maintain stable housing. A continuum of care is needed, from temporary shelter to transitional housing to permanent supportive housing. Cities must also address root causes such as a lack of fair wages, access to healthcare and support systems to reduce the risk of homelessness.


    Homelessness requires a multifaceted response from cities, community organizations and government agencies. While major cities have made progress through increased funding and pilot initiatives, broader solutions focused on expanding affordable housing, income supports and access to health care are needed. Addressing homelessness requires political will at all levels to prioritize marginalized populations. Through smart policies, evidence-based programs, and the support of a compassionate community, cities can ensure all residents have a safe, stable place they can call home.