Causes of
Homelessness

Despite stereotypes that oversimplify the nature of homelessness, the true causes of homelessness are complex and nuanced. Rather than stemming from any single cause, homelessness is typically the result of several compounding and interrelated factors that vary from person-to-person. And a deeper examination will find that the root causes of homelessness lie in entrenched, long-standing social inequities.

Why Do People Fall into Homelessness?

In surveys conducted during the biannual Point-in-Time Count, homeless individuals report a wide-range of different “primary causes” for their homelessness - none of which came close to representing a majority of individuals:1

While the data fails to point to any predominant cause, the most commonly reported factors relate to economic problems or changes in household dynamics. Dispelling the myth that alcohol and drug use are the main drivers of homelessness, we see a significantly higher percentage of people citing a job loss as the primary cause of their homelessness.

These varied responses also reflect that homeless individuals commonly report multiple, compounding factors - rather than one single cause - that ultimately pushed them into homelessness.

The Root Causes of Homelessness in Our Community

While homelessness is often perceived as the result of a personal or moral failure, the individual factors that contribute to homelessness are rooted in structural problems plaguing our society. Here, in Santa Clara County, we can point to a few key systemic forces that are pushing even more of our neighbors into homelessness every day:

Rising Economic Inequality

Rising Economic Inequality

Our region’s growing income gap has been a major contributor to our homelessness crisis.

Over the past few decades, our region has become a global economic engine that has created enormous wealth for those with high-paying jobs in tech and other major industries. However, our lowest-income workers - including those in the service industry or who rely on minimum wage jobs - have not reaped the same benefits. In fact, Santa Clara County workers at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder have actually seen wages decline over the past decade-and-a-half.1

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the wealthiest 10% of families in the Bay Area now have more than 12 times the income of the 10% of families with the lowest incomes in the region.3

As a result, it is now virtually impossible for our lowest-income workers to keep up with the rising cost-of-living - and particularly exorbitant housing costs - being driven by the region’s high-wage earners. A Santa Clara County resident would need to earn $54/hour to afford the average-priced apartment on the market.4

A Lack of Affordable Housing

A Lack of Affordable Housing

Our homelessness crisis has been further compounded by an extreme lack of housing that’s affordable for our lowest-income residents.

For decades, Santa Clara County (and the larger Bay Area) has failed to produce enough housing to match the needs of our growing population. This constrained supply, combined with the growth in high-wage earners in the region, has resulted in skyrocketing rents that has made most housing units simply unaffordable for a large segment of residents.

To make matters worse, our community continually falls short of our development targets for subsidized low-income housing units - particularly when it comes to units dedicated to Extremely Low Income residents (our lowest-income residents earning less than 30% of the area’s median income - or appx. $47,000 for a family of four in Santa Clara County).

As a result, we have a huge shortfall of affordable and available housing in our community - with the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimating that there are only 29 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low income households in our community.5

With so few affordable housing options available, the vast majority of our lowest-income families and individuals are left severely rent burdened (meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on rent and utilities) and often just one crisis away from homelessness. Data shows communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness.

Underinvestment in Programs Serving our Most Vulnerable Residents

Underinvestment in Programs Serving our Most Vulnerable Residents

Over the past several decades, policymakers have failed to maintain a strong safety net to support our most vulnerable residents. We’ve continually seen underinvestment, as well as outright spending cuts, to programs that are critical to helping our most vulnerable residents maintain stable housing (i.e. low-income housing subsidies, disability benefits, financial assistance programs).

In the most stark example, a lack of investment in federal housing initiatives has resulted in just one out of four low-income at-risk renters receiving Federal rental assistance:

This lack of investment in our most vulnerable families is even more shameful given that the resources are often shifted towards programs that benefit higher-income individuals. For example, the money spent on the mortgage tax deduction and capital gain exemptions for homeowners far exceeds the federal housing subsidies available for low-income renters.6

As a result, our most vulnerable residents have been left without the resources and support needed to maintain stable housing and avoid homelessness.

Systemic & Structural Racism

Systemic & Structural Racism

For communities of color, structural racism accelerates these inequities. Our history of systemic racism - and the way it has prevented people of color from accessing housing, community resources, opportunities for economic mobility and more - continues to play a major role in our homelessness crisis.

For example, decades of discrimination in the housing market have prevented people of color, particularly African Americans, from attaining homeownership and building personal wealth. This has created an enormous racial wealth gap that has sustained over multiple generations. In fact, the average white household has seven times more wealth than the average African American household.7

With so much less accumulated wealth available to weather a crisis, it should come as no surprise that African Americans and other people of color are more likely to be extremely low income and so much more susceptible to falling into homelessness. And race continues to shape opportunities for upward mobility in the Bay Area and across the country, even when starting from the same economic standing. Data shows that in 99% of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys, despite both growing up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth, and education.

When taken together, these systemic forces have created an environment where a growing number of our neighbors are being pushed into homelessness every day. And while these forces are particularly strong here in the heart of Silicon Valley, they are hardly unique to our community. A growing body of scholars and experts have directly linked a number of these very same factors to our current homelessness crisis in America.8

While all of this evidence points to how deeply ingrained homelessness is intertwined to other problems plaguing our society, it also offers a signal of hope: since homelessness is truly the result of our own collective actions as a society, it also means that we have the power to solve this crisis.

  1. While the PIT survey specifically asks respondents to report a 'primary cause' It’s also worth noting that many homeless individuals commonly attribute their homelessness to a combination of interrelated or compounding factors.
  2. Bay Area Equity Atlas, "Earned income growth for full-time wage and salary workers: Santa Clara County, CA, 2000–2015."
    https://bayareaequityatlas.org/indicators/income-growth#/?geo=04000000000006085
  3. Public Policy Institute of California, "Income Inequality in California." 2020.
    https://www.ppic.org/publication/income-inequality-in-california/
  4. California Housing Partnership, "Santa Clara County’s Housing Emergency and Proposed Solutions." 2018.
    https://1p08d91kd0c03rlxhmhtydpr-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Santa-Clara-2018-HNR.pdf
  5. National Low-Income Housing Coalition, "The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes." 2021.
    https://reports.nlihc.org/sites/default/files/gap/Gap-Report_2021.pdf
  6. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, "Federal Housing Spending is Poorly Matched to Need." 2017.
    https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/chart-book-federal-housing-spending-is-poorly-matched-to-need
  7. SPUR, "Homelessness in the Bay Area." 2017.
    https://www.spur.org/publications/urbanist-article/2017-10-23/homelessness-bay-area
  8. For a deeper dive into the research on structural causes of homelessness, we recommend browsing the resources on the National Alliance to End Homelessness website:
    https://endhomelessness.org

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