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A volunteer serves Christmas dinner to a man at St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village, New York

"Homelessness" is a word with several different meanings. It usually means that a person or family does not have a house or apartment in which to live. That person or family sleeps outdoors or in a shelter. Outdoors, homeless people may sleep in a car or in a structure not meant to be used as a dwelling space (a barn, for example),

Homelessness can also refer to those who do not have permanent homes because of their jobs. In the United States, people in this category have included cowboys, loggers, fishermen, and migrant farmworkers.

Refugees may also think of themselves as homeless even when they have new places to live. This happened in the United States, during the Great Depression of the 1930's. About 1 million people moved to California from the Midwest as the result of hard economic times.

How Many People Are Homeless?

There are millions of homeless people around the world. But specific figures are hard to come by. The United States is the only country that attempts to carefully count the number of homeless people. But even in the United States, statistics can be unclear. That is because homeless people can be very difficult to find unless they are living in shelters.

The number of people who are homeless can also vary from day to day. If we ask how many adults are homeless in the United States on a particular night, the answer is probably about 300,000. However, the number of adults who are homeless at some time during an entire year is closer to 1 million. This includes about 200,000 children.

Statistics on homelessness are based on counts of people living in shelters. Recent statistics show that most homeless people in the United States are single men, followed by families with children, then single women.

Causes of Homelessness

Sometimes people become homeless due to natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes. When this occurs in very poor countries, people often stay homeless for a long time. This is because the government is not able to help them find or build new homes.

In the world's wealthier countries, people are homeless mainly because they are very poor. Homeless people may be employed. But they do not make enough money to pay for apartments or houses. Poor people without jobs usually become homeless if they do not have families or friends with whom they can live.

Approximately half of all homeless adults suffer from a serious mental illness or are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Often, these conditions make it impossible for them to work. And it makes it hard for their friends and families to care for them. Under these circumstances, people become homeless because the financial help they get from the government does not cover housing costs.

Solutions to Homelessness

Since the 1980's, there has been considerable research in the United States to find solutions to its homelessness. The results of this research have shown that many homeless people need medical care, more education, and job training. They may also need treatment for a mental illness or addiction. What they need most of all, however, is affordable housing. These other kinds of help may then make it possible for them to keep their homes.