It is very difficult to determine how many homeless people there are in the world because countries have different legal definitions for homelessness. Natural disasters and sudden civil unrest also complicate the picture. The best we have is a conservative estimate from the United Nations in 2005, which puts the number of homeless at 100 million.
The 2005 U.N. report looked only at people who did not have any homes whatsoever. Not included were people who lived in terrible semi-permanent places such as abandoned buildings, vehicles, hastily put together shelters or tents. The report also did not include the “hidden homeless,” who bounce from shelter to shelter or from friend’s house to friend’s house. Countries such as England include the hidden homeless as legally homeless. No one really knows just how many people do not have any permanent place to call their own. It is estimated that there could be as many as another 100 million hidden homeless in the world, bringing the conservative estimate of the total population of homeless to 200 million.
How Many People are Homeless in the United States?
One approximation of the annual number of homeless in America is from a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which estimates between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experience homelessness. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report an estimated 671,888 people experienced homelessness in one night in January 2007. Some 58 percent of them were living in shelters and transitional housing and, 42 percent were unsheltered.
How many of the homeless are children?
One out of 50—or about 1.5 million—American children are homeless each year, according to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
See state-by-state rankings on child homelessness.
What is chronic homelessness?
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 23 percent of homeless people are reported as chronically homeless. According to HUD’s definition, a person who is “chronically homeless” is an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition (e.g., substance abuse, serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness) who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. In order to be considered chronically homeless, a person must have been sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation and/or in an emergency homeless shelter.
What are the greatest causes of homelessness?
For persons in families, the three most commonly cited causes, according to a 2008 U.S. Conference of Mayors study (pdf) are:
- Lack of affordable housing
For singles, the three most commonly cited causes of homelessness are:
- Substance abuse
- Lack of affordable housing
- Mental illness
Are veterans more likely than other populations to be homeless?
Yes. About 40% of homeless men are veterans, although veterans comprise only 34 percent of the general adult male population, according to research on veterans by the National Coalition for Homeless. On any given night, 200,000 veterans are homeless.
What are some other demographics of homeless people?
Racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans, are overrepresented.
- 39% are non-Hispanic whites (compared to 76% of the general population)
- 42% are African-Americans (compared to 11% of the general population)
- 13% are Hispanic (compared to 9% of the general population)
- 4% are Native-American (compared to 1% of the general population)
- 2% were Asian
Note: The above figures are based on a 2006 study (pdf) by the US Conference of Mayors.
Homelessness continues to be a largely urban phenomenon.
- 71% are in central cities
- 21% are in suburbs
- 9% are in rural areas
Note: The above figures are based on 1996 data from Samhsha’s National Mental Health Information Center.
People who are homeless frequently report health problems.
- 38% report alcohol use problems
- 26% report other drug use problems
- 39% report some form of mental health problems (20-25% meet criteria for serious mental illness)
- 66% report either substance use and/or mental health problems
- 3% report having HIV/AIDS
- 26% report acute health problems other than HIV/AIDS such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, or sexually transmitted diseases
- 46% report chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or cancer
Of the 100 Million Homeless in the world, Most areWomen and Children
Up to 100 million people are homeless throughout the world, the majority of them women and dependent children.
The problem is not just homelessness. Overall, at least 600 million people — again, most of them women and dependent children — live in shelters that are life threatening or health threatening in developing world cities.
Every day, some 50,000 people, mostly women and children, die as a result of poor shelter, polluted water and inadequate sanitation. Some 70 million women and children live in homes where smoke from cooking fires damages their health.
Of the estimated 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70 percent are women and girls. Women and girls are also the fastest increasing group of impoverished, a process called “the global feminization of poverty.”
India is one of the few developing countries that has tried to count its homeless, finding more than 2.3 million. Western Europe, on the other hand, counts just 6,300 homeless.
The percentage of squatter housing, almost always substandard and likely to be headed by women, also shows housing problems in developing countries, especially in cities. Some 5.5 percent of Turkey’s households are squatters but 23.3 percent of all households in the capital of Ankara are squatters. In Peru, 5.6 percent of all households are squatters, but 8.1 percent of households in the capital of Lima are squatters.
Other reasons for female homelessness include:
- Women have few or no property rights in many parts of the world. Many women of the world are barred, mostly by custom but sometimes by law, from inheriting or owning the homes in which they live, condemning them and their children to poverty and destitution. Women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population, but they own only one percent of the world’s wealth, United Nation statistics say.
- The sharp increase of households headed by women. Some 33 percent of families globally are headed by women, but 45 to 50 percent of households in some African and Latin American countries are headed by women.
- Women are much less likely to have steady employment than men, and working women are lower paid, including those in industrial countries. In France and Belgium, women earn about three-quarters of the average male wage, and in Japan, only about half. In Singapore, women earn the equivalent of 72 percent of men’s wages; in Hong Kong, 63 percent; in the Republic of Korea, 57 percent.
- Some 75 percent of the world’s women cannot get formal bank loans because they lack permanent employment and title deeds to land or housing that they can offer as security, or because the laws of their countries classify them as minors, not eligible to make legal transactions.
- Of the 23 million refugees, and 27 million internal displaced (within their own countries) worldwide, some 70-80 percent are women and children.
- In order to investigate and develop workable solutions for the world’s cities, the United Nations General Assembly has called for the global conference named Habitat II. It is the last major UN global conference of the century. Some 20,000 participants from governments, the private sector, non-government organizations and international agencies will participate in Habitat II
Women’s Health Directly Tied to Housing
The United Nation estimates that if all housing could be brought to a minimum acceptable standard, there would be five million fewer deaths and two million fewer permanent disabilities annually on a global basis.
It is estimated that one in four of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water and that in many developing countries, about 50 percent of the urban population does not have water within 200 meters of their dwelling.
In the least developed countries, 53 percent lack access to water, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, the figure goes as high as 59 percent. Some countries such as Congo have as much as 80 percent without access to safe water.
In such situations, it is generally the women and older girls who have to provide water. In some parts of rural Africa, women have to use as much as 85 percent of their daily energy intake in fetching water. In these regions, 40 percent of non-pregnant women and 63 percent of pregnant women are anemic (due to a combination of poor diet and heavy work loads).
Medical research has documented cases of permanent damage to women’s health directly attributed to carrying water — among them spinal and pelvic deformities, and degenerative rheumatism. More immediate problems include exposure to water-borne diseases, chronic fatigue and the threat of miscarriage for pregnant women.
Since women often have to work in or near the home, they are the most affected by failures in planning housing and settlement projects.
Examples of bad urban planning that fail to consider women’s needs are: the absence of day-care facilities; the inappropriate location of public water points in poor communities; the lack of children’s play parks; inadequate lighting of streets and public areas; costly and inconvenient public transportation facilities; and “modern” housing designs that do not take into consideration women’s traditional use of space.
Zoning laws that prohibit economic activities and food-growing in residential areas particularly hurt women’s income-producing strategies.
“Women’s needs, along with those of men and children, can only be adequately met if women and men participate equally in human settlements planning and management at community, local and national levels,” says Dr. N’Dow.
Women’s Land and Property Rights in Africa
In many parts of Africa, when a man dies, his widow suffers a double tragedy: she not only loses her partner but also loses all material wealth they ever owned. Her in-laws claim all the property and land, leaving her with none of the wealth she helped to create through her efforts.
If the widow is childless or has no sons, she may be evicted from the land and forced to return to her parents. If the widow has children, particularly sons, she could continue to stay on the land because her sons will inherit it.
A study on widows of the Zambian national football team members who died in a 1993 air crash found that 24 of the 27 widows lost property to which they were entitled.
In Africa, deeply entrenched patriarchal traditions and values dictate that wealth, property and land belong to men. In such social systems, women do not inherit or own land or property because customarily these belong to husbands or fathers, and it is the sons who inherit. A woman is perceived as a “temporary resident” in her parents’ home until she gets married, and a resident in her husband’s home so long as he is alive and satisfied with her.
Ironically, in most countries the law does not discriminate against women in land property ownership. Indeed, national laws in many African countries give women equal rights with men to own land or property. But the reality is very different because of traditions, customs and attitudes that have existed for centuries.
Women have a slightly better situation in urban areas than in rural ones, because women can buy and own land. But because of their economically disadvantaged position, most women cannot afford to buy land, which is often very expensive. Women’s access to urban land and property is also affected by the fact that they do not have access to rural land, which their male family members often use as security for loans to acquire property in urban areas. Even when women have an income, it is usually inadequate as they often hold poorly-paid jobs. Also, the procedures for urban land acquisition are cumbersome, time consuming and difficult to comprehend.