Five Homelessness Trends from 2017 and What They Could Mean for 2018

by Veronica Gaitán

In 2017, communities across the nation experienced a housing affordability crisis, high rental demand, a wave of major natural disasters, and tax uncertainty. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, homelessness increased for the first time in seven years. On a single night in January 2017, 553,742 people in the United States lived in emergency shelters or transitional housing or were not sheltered at all. Compared with 2016, more than 3,800 additional people experienced homelessness, marking a 0.7 percent increase. As the annual point-in-time homelessness count approaches, we explore the dimensions of five trends from last year and their implications for 2018.

1. West Coast homelessness

The West Coast’s affordable housing crisis was a significant factor in the rise in homelessness nationally. California was one of 20 states where homelessness increased in 2017. As one of the most populous states, its homelessness count greatly affects the numbers for the US overall. In just one year, the number of people experiencing homelessness in California rose 13.7 percent—an additional 16,136 people. This includes increases in every category, including families with children, veterans, and chronically homeless people. In Los Angeles alone, homelessness rose nearly 26 percent.

Unsheltered homelessness is especially common in the state. California was one of four states in which nearly two-thirds of families with children were unsheltered. In Fresno and Los Angeles, three in four homeless people are unsheltered, and the likelihood of lacking shelter is even higher among unaccompanied youth and others experiencing homelessness as an individual. California’s size amplifies the problem. It comprised more than half the country’s unsheltered, chronically homeless people and reported the largest numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth. Twenty-nine percent of veterans experiencing homelessness lived there.

Further, the number of homeless people rose in Washington State and Oregon in 2017. Meanwhile, homelessness among families with children decreased. Washington experienced an uptick in veteran homelessness, while homelessness among veterans in Oregon decreased. Seattle was the 18th-largest city in the country, but had the 3rd-largest homeless population, and both Seattle and Portland have experienced mounting pressures to find solutions to their homelessness problems.

2. Chronic homelessness

The number of chronically homeless people (people with disabilities who have been homeless for a year or more or have experienced a pattern of homelessness over the past three years) in the country increased 12 percent between 2016 and 2017 and included sheltered and unsheltered people. Nearly a quarter of all people experiencing homelessness were chronically homeless, and nearly 70 percent of them were staying outdoors, in abandoned buildings, or in other unsuitable locations rather than shelters. People were most likely to experience chronic homelessness in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Washington, DC. More than half lived in California, Florida, and New York. Major city continuums of care accounted for nearly 60 percent of all chronically homeless people. In Hawaii and California, nearly 9 in 10 chronically homeless people were unsheltered. But Wyoming and Maine sheltered all chronically homeless people, and Rhode Island an Indiana did a better job providing shelter for chronically homeless people than the country as a whole.

3. Youth homelessness

In 2017, 40,799 unaccompanied youth under age 25 were homeless. This includes about 4,800 youth younger than 18. California reported 15,458 unaccompanied homeless youth, 82 percent of whom were unsheltered. Nationally, unaccompanied homeless youth were more likely to be unsheltered than all people experiencing homelessness, and 62 percent were men and boys. A quarter were Hispanic or Latino, and unaccompanied homeless youth were more likely to be Hispanic or Latino than homeless people overall. In San Jose (96 percent), Las Vegas (93 percent), San Francisco (88 percent), and Los Angeles (80 percent), at least 80 percent of unaccompanied youth were unsheltered. This is not the first year for counting homelessness among unaccompanied youth, but communities have focused on improving their methods, so 2017 will be the baseline year for future comparisons. Other research also highlights homelessness among young adults and adolescents.

4. Family homelessness

Whether viewed as the number of households or the number of people in those households, homelessness among families with children declined 5 percent in the past year. In all, 57,971 families that included 184,661 people were homeless on a single night in 2017. Despite evidence about how to end family homelessness, family homelessness increased in 13 states, including New York and California. On average, homeless families included three people, 59 percent of whom were under 18. In 9 out of 10 cases, people experiencing family homelessness had shelter. Fifty-three percent of sheltered homeless families with children were African American. In the past decade, the number of homeless families declined 26 percent, and the report attributes most of this to a decrease in unsheltered family homelessness.

5. Veteran homelessness

Last year, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness increased for the first time in a decade. Sixty-two percent stayed in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, while 38 percent were unsheltered. More than 950 veterans experienced homelessness as part of a family with children. The 2 percent increase in homeless veterans obscures the different directions that the sheltered and unsheltered counts have taken. The number of unsheltered veterans rose 18 percent, while the number of sheltered veterans declined 7 percent. Differences in veteran homelessness by state did not necessarily reflect differences in their population of veterans. Virginia, for example, ranked 25th in veteran homelessness but has the 8th-largest veteran population, while Oregon had the 5th-largest number of homeless veterans but ranked 25th in the size of its veteran population. In contrast to national trends, veteran homelessness declined in 36 states and Washington, DC.


Though 2017 saw alarming rises in homelessness among some of the most vulnerable populations, states and local governments have recognized the mounting problem and its costs to society and are tackling it head-on. Strategies vary with the targeted population, but most involve a common theme: collaboration. Nashua, New Hampshire, effectively ended veteran homelessness with the help of an organization that connects veterans with supportive housing, secure employment, and employment. Phoenix, Arizona, launched a coordinated effort to reduce the number of homeless encampments and connect homeless people with vital services. Los Angeles County’s program that houses acutely ill homeless people has saved taxpayers thousands of dollars. A hospital in Dallas, Texas, started an initiative that joins community partners, including homeless shelters and food pantries, to ensure assistance for discharged homeless patients. With uncertain federal support for programs supporting veteran homelessness and fair housing, continued state and local engagement to combat homelessness will be critical in 2018.