Study finds US homelessness could increase by 45% this year

Photo of homeless tents

Photo courtesy of Grendelkhan.

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Homelessness in the United States may increase by as much as 45% this year, according to a new study from Columbia University economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty

Two hundred fifty thousand more people could join the approximately 568,000 currently homeless people in the country by this summer, the study’s author found

O’Flaherty tracked the past relationship between unemployment and homelessness to reach that estimate. Using data on homelessness and unemployment from the Great Recession, O’Flaherty’s model found that for every 1% increase in the unemployment rate, the rate of homelessness per 10,000 people increased by 0.65. 

The American unemployment rate reached 14.7% in May, and some economists say it may already be at or near 20%. The last time U.S. unemployment was this high was the Great Depression, when it rose above 25% in 1933. That year, there were over 1 million homeless people in the US. 

“This is unprecedented,” O’Flaherty said. “No one living has seen an increase of 10% of unemployment in a month.”

The model does not account for changes like new rent relief legislation or possible changes in the housing market, like a decline in rental prices. But O’Flaherty also noted to the Los Angeles Times that homelessness is a “lagging” outcome — people do not become homeless until they’ve exhausted all other resources, leaving them nothing with which to try to re-enter the housing market. 

In other words, the increase in homelessness is likely to stay even after the economy begins to improve. Moreover, since unhoused people are more at risk for COVID-19 than housed people, the increase in the size of the homeless population will likely prolong the health crisis.

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