What causes homelessness?

The Bay Area is home to some of the wealthiest and most expensive places to live in the world. In the shadow of this great wealth, thousands of people are homeless and many thousands more live below the poverty line on the verge of homelessness.

We know from talking with our Team Members and hearing their stories that there are many reasons people can become homeless: a traumatic event, loss of a job, the inability to pay for needed health-care, or a criminal background got in the way of finding a job.

How do people become homeless?

Top reasons people become homeless:

  • 42.5% Lost job or economic issues
  • 20% drugs or alcohol use
  • 17% divorce or separation
  • 15% an argument with a family member who asked them to leave
  • 7.5% eviction
  • 10% mental health or physical health issues

What are the largest barriers to obtaining permanent housing?

  • 63% Can’t afford rent
  • 37% Do not have an income
  • 19% Do not have the funds for moving costs
  • 18% Say the housing process is too difficult
  • 15% Cite no available housing

What could prevent homelessness?

When asked what would have prevented their homelessness, respondents reported:

  • 34% employment assistance
  • 31% rental assistance
  • 28% drug or alcohol counseling
  • 19% mental health services

How is homelessness defined?

Any person living in a temporary location, such as a shelter or a place not fit for human habitation (encampment, car, abandoned building, etc.), is considered homeless, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For the official federal definition click here.

These statistics are drawn from various counties’ point in time counts, such as Santa Clara's or San Francisco's.


Homelessness affects our communities on a national, regional and local level. The extent of the challenge is mind-boggling. Take a look at the numbers from the Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley report.

United States:

  • In January 2020, there were 567,715 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States
  • Of that number, 171,670 are people in families, and 396,045 are individuals
  • About 17% of the homeless population (96,141) are considered "chronically homeless” individuals
  • About 7% of People Experiencing Homelessness (49,933) are veterans


  • California hosts a total of 151,278 homeless individuals
    • This represents 20% of all homeless people in the United States
  • There are approximately 10,980 homeless veterans


It takes a toll on the economy, environment, health care and criminal justice systems, and the lives of fellow human beings.


We cannot afford to allow homelessness to continue.


Financial Cost


Homelessness costs Santa Clara County $520 million a year, as high as $83,000 per chronically homeless individual, according to the Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley. In San Francisco, The Chronicle reports that San Francisco spends upwards of $40,000 annually on people experiencing homelessness.


As demonstrated through Care Coordination Project, housing first program, the direct cost to taxpayers is an average of $62,473 for high users of the system while homeless, whereas the average post-housing cost is estimated at $19,767, resulting in annual cost reduction of $42,706 for those who remained housed.


Health Care System


Chronic homelessness can lead to extremely adverse mental and physical health effects – one year of homelessness can lead to post traumatic stress. According to one study, people living on the streets are ten times as likely to die than those housed of the same age.


Health care costs accounted for 53% of expenditures for people experiencing homeless. However, the costs of medical care for the homeless population are heavily skewed toward a comparatively small number of frequent users of public and medical services. For example, for all Santa Clara County residents experiencing homelessness in 2012, the average annual cost per person was $5,148. However, individuals with costs in the top 5% accounted for 47% of all costs and had average costs of over $100,000 per year.


Serious healthcare issues both cause homelessness and result from homelessness. Healthcare issues such as addiction, psychological disorders, HIV/AIDS, and a host of ailments require long-term, consistent care. Homelessness inhibits this care, as housing instability often detracts from regular medical attention, access to treatment, and recuperation. The inability to treat serious medical conditions can aggravate a person’s health issues, thus contributing to cost.


Environmental Impact


Recently, attention has been focused on the ecological impact of homelessness. Trash, human waste and other refuse from homeless encampments pollute waterways and our public city spaces. Since public restrooms and trash receptacles are limited, and because many businesses prohibit the homeless from accessing restrooms, People Experiencing Homelessness are forced to use whatever location they can find to dispose of their trash and other waste. This phenomenon results in a public health hazard and contributes to additional city costs.


In 2014, the Santa Clara Water District released a report showing that it, with the City of San Jose, spent $275,542 last year and removed 2,011 cubic yards of debris from homeless encampments along creeks and rivers in Santa Clara County. When the Story Road Encampment in San Jose, colloquially known as the “Jungle Encampment,” closed on December 4, 2014, city officials removed 600 tons of trash and over 1,500 pounds of human waste. While the Jungle is an extreme example, it speaks to the severe impact trash and human waste have on our environment.


Criminal Justice System


People who are homeless spend more time in jail or prison than the general population due to violations of quality of life crimes, resulting from their homelessness. This is tremendously costly to taxpayers throughout the state and in cities with high instances of homelessness. Often, time served is a result of laws specifically targeting the homeless population, including regulations against loitering, sleeping in cars, and begging.


According to the University of Texas’ two-year survey of homeless individuals, each person costs taxpayers $14,480 per year, primarily for overnight jail. A typical cost of a prison bed in a state or federal prison is $20,000 per year.


Social Cost


No one should live on our streets; homelessness is detrimental to our community, disempowers those experiencing it and affects the quality of our city life and accessibility to public space. Moreover, marginalization and isolation from our community leads to a sterile society that perpetuates the cycle of poverty.


Anyone can become homeless at any time. The 2013, U.S. Federal Reserve survey of more than 4,000 adults found that many household’s savings accounts were depleted after the Great Recession. Among those who had savings prior to 2008, 57% said they’d used up some or all of their savings in the Great Recession and its aftermath. What’s more, only 39% of respondents reported having an emergency savings account adequate to cover three months of expenses, and only 48% of respondents said that they could completely cover a hypothetical emergency expense costing $400 without selling their possessions or borrowing money.


Myth: The cause of homelessness is drug and alcohol abuse.

False. Only 20% of people report drugs and alcohol as the cause of their homelessness. Drug and alcohol abuse are often the result of homelessness, not the cause.


Myth: Homelessness is a choice. Most homeless people choose to live on the streets.

False. According to the Homeless Census in Santa Clara County, 93% of homeless respondents want affordable housing.

The biggest barrier to housing is affordable rent.

  • 68% couldn’t afford rent
  • 50% had no work or income
  • 38% reported no available housing
  • 20% had criminal records that prevented their access to housing


Myth: Homeless people don’t need cell phones. Cell phones are a luxury.

False. Cell phones are a lifeline for people experiencing homelessness and are sometimes their only connection to family, services, housing and employment.


Myth: Homeless people move to the Bay Area because of the weather.

False. 70% of San Franciscans experiencing homelessness lived in the City prior to homelessness. 78% of People Experiencing homelessness in Alameda County lived there prior to their homelessness and 81% of homeless individuals in Santa Clara County are native to this County.



Homeless people are lazy. Why don’t they just get a job?

People Experiencing Homelessness spend every moment struggling to find their next meal, shower and shelter. Most People Experiencing Homelessness experience overwhelming barriers to employment. Common barriers include criminal backgrounds, lack of internet access to reply to job opportunities, a lack of transportation to interviews and job fairs and not having access to a shower and clean clothing.


Should I give homeless panhandlers money?

The basis of our model sprouted from this very problem: how do we decrease panhandling? Giving panhandlers money is a personal choice, and also a temporary fix. We suggest handing them an address to a shelter, a pair of socks, or another resource. Our staff members keep general cards in their cars and pass them out to people standing on the streets. The best thing you can do is donate or volunteer time to an organization that helps solve homelessness.


Why do they sleep on the streets, buses and in cars?

Sleeping in a shelter seems like an obvious solution to being on the street. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Shelters can be quite difficult to get into; usually they require lots of paperwork and all parties must comply with the program, which doesn’t always fit their needs or beliefs.

Another common barrier for homeless individuals is having a companion animal. Pets are generally not allowed in temporary housing or shelters. We can’t blame someone for turning down a shelter if their best friend, and possibly only family, isn’t allowed to come with them.

Other reasons include:

  • There are not enough beds
  • There are more men’s shelters than women’s
  • They don’t always know where to find the closest shelter
  • They have to think about whether they have the energy or the means to make the trek to the closest shelter. Choosing between spending money on bus fare versus eating is a hard, daily choice.

People who are homeless are constantly in survival mode and thinking of two things:

  1. Their health
  2. Their safety

Buses are warm during cold seasons and cool during hot seasons. Getting sick while being homeless is bad news, especially if adequate medical coverage is not available (this is the case for many People Experiencing Homelessness). Buses are also safe, and a person may manage to get a good hour or two of sleep on a long bus line. Sleep is a necessity that’s difficult to come by when safety is top priority. Often, sleeping on the streets makes a person vulnerable to theft and abuse. Naturally, people try to stay awake at night to protect themselves and the few personal items they have. These circumstances can also extend to shelters.

Did you know?

As coined by one of our Team Members, what we’re doing is a “win-win-win:” The community wins, the environment wins and homeless people win.

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1671 The Alameda, San Jose, CA 95126

Downtown Streets Team is a 501(c)3 Organization. Donations are tax deductible. EIN 20-5242330