A large graffiti'd mural, painted in a cartoonish style, showing an apparently homeless family of three standing near a traffic light. The mother is handing a box or carton of stuff to the child, whose other hand is reaching to the father figure. He is holding up a sign that says "Help us." Facial features were not drawn on these figures, giving them a universal quality.

Opinion | Homelessness

What’s Driving Homelessness? It’s Not Immigration and It’s Not Opioids.

Homelessness rose by 12 percent between 2022 and 2023. Blaming drug use and immigration for the increase distracts us from the real causes.

Photo by Flickr user Valerie Everett, CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

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A large graffiti'd mural, painted in a cartoonish style, showing an apparently homeless family of three standing near a traffic light. The mother is handing a box or carton of stuff to the child, whose other hand is reaching to the father figure. He is holding up a sign that says "Help us." Facial features were not drawn on these figures, giving them a universal quality.

Photo by Flickr user Valerie Everett, CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

With the December 2023 announcement of a tragic 12 percent rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness from 2022 to 2023, it’s not surprising that people might look to recent events to explain the increase. It’s also human nature to look for quick solutions to (or reasons to ignore) an urgent problem. However, after analyzing the dataand having helped to produce HUD’s annual report to Congress on homelessness for 16 years—we know the long-term causes that have been driving homelessness in this country.

Ending homelessness will be neither easy nor quick, especially if we allow ourselves to be distracted from these actual drivers. Two particular factors—opioid use disorders and increased immigration—have been cited in the wake of the latest report, and their already-high media profiles divert us from solutions to the true primary causes of homelessness: stagnating wages, an insufficient supply of affordable housing, and systemic racism.

First, let’s address the recent rise in immigration within the context of homelessness. Many communities have experienced considerable increases in migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees who, in some communities, are putting additional stress on already stressed homeless response systems. However, between 2022 and 2023, we found that more than 7 in 10 communities across the country reported increases in people experiencing homelessness—including areas unaffected by recent influxes of people coming to the U.S.

[RELATED ARTICLE: What LA’s New Shelter Program Can Learn from Statewide Efforts]

Substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder, will complicate a person’s ability to maintain housing. But substance misuse can be a result of homelessness as well as a risk factor for it. People with substance use disorders sometimes do experience homelessness because of the illness’s effect on income. Others turn to substances after they fall into homelessness to escape the trauma of being on the street or in a crowded shelter.

But individual people—whether they’re coming to the U.S. to begin a new life or are already here and struggling with substance use disorder—are not responsible for the rise in homelessness. Rather, people are getting caught in bigger policies and systems that are working against them.

Let’s take a look at these causes, and what we actually need to do to address them. 

We know what the drivers are, but how do we address them? From research we have led and participated in, we know that increasing the number of Housing Choice Vouchers or other permanent housing subsidies will help both prevent homelessness and help people leave homelessness for permanent housing. We must also develop more rental housing in which people can use those vouchers. One of the reasons the number of people experiencing homelessness has gone up recently is that COVID-era protections—such as the eviction moratorium and emergency rental assistance—have expired; seeing this spike after the sunsetting of those programs tells us that such government interventions do work. Many of those protections were for families with children, and levels of both family poverty and family homelessness dropped substantially during the pandemic. 

At the state level, the creative use of hotels and motels during the pandemic brought people off the streets and often transitioned them to permanent housing. On a daily basis, robust supportive services, low-barrier shelters, and rapidly moving people to permanent housing have proven to help people leave homelessness and maintain stable housing, including people experiencing substance use disorders.

Addressing the substance use crisis in this country, including the opioid epidemic, is critical. So is finding humane solutions to the humanitarian and practical problems of immigration. But we must resist the urge to conflate these issues with the ongoing homelessness crisis. To eliminate homelessness in America, we must keep our focus on the challenges that are actually driving it: an insufficient affordable housing supply, stagnating wages, and systemic racism. 

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