The changing face of homelessness

People who work with the homeless say they’re seeing more families, more women and children, and more people who were knocked down by a job loss, divorce or domestic violence – or by jobs that paid too little and medical bills or housing that cost too much. They are also seeing more people who have jobs that pay minimum wage or less and can’t afford housing.

Shelters are teeming with veterans and teenagers, people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, people who have been homeless for years, and new arrivals who never imagined they would be homeless.

The factors contributing to homelessness are complicated, but so is the public response to it. Some cities, fed up by complaints about panhandling and loitering, are passing ordinances that restrict where charitable groups can feed and aid the homeless. Some, disturbed by violent attacks on the homeless, are trying to add protections to hate-crime legislation.

Religious groups are a primary source of food and shelter for homeless people. But now more religious groups are turning their attention to public advocacy on root causes of homelessness – issues such as access to affordable housing and mental health services. In other words, rather than working to “catch the falling families,” as one researcher put it, they’re pushing lawmakers to change policies so people are less likely to fall.


Why it matters

Most religious traditions teach the importance of caring for the least and the lost. The suffering of men, women and children who have no place to live presents significant questions of public policy – for the schools that must educate homeless children, for the military, for health care institutions, for determining what’s fair in setting wages and housing policy, and much more.

Angles for reporters

  • Many advocates for the homeless say the population is changing. They’re seeing more women and children, and sometimes teenagers on their own. How are service providers – and public policy efforts – responding to this changing population?
  • Some people of faith are getting involved not just in providing direct services – giving food and warm clothing to the homeless, offering shelter – but also in public policy advocacy, trying to influence legislation involving affordable housing and the payment of a living wage, for example. The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless is helping day laborers trying to improve working conditions and wages.
  • Some faith communities are making outreach to the homeless a direct part of their ministry – look around for examples of creativity.
  • Some homeless people refuse to stay in shelters because they consider them unclean, unsafe, too crowded or too restrictive. Find out what conditions are like in your community. And sometimes congregations get involved in trying to minister to those outside the shelter system – cruising known sleeping spots with warm blankets, for example, when the weather gets particularly frigid.
  • Talk to local librarians. In many cities, homeless people pack the libraries each morning after shelters close their doors.
  • Find out how shelters are dealing with concerns about sexual orientation. Some studies estimate that as many as one in five homeless youth may be gay or lesbian, and some teenagers leave home because of conflicts over their sexuality.

Federal legislation

State and local legislation

  • Some U.S. cities, including Dallas, Las Vegas, Fort Myers and Orlando, have passed ordinances that prohibit or restrict charitable organizations and groups from operating feeding programs for the homeless. Orlando, for example, passed an ordinance in July 2006 prohibiting charitable groups from feeding large groups of people in downtown parks without a permit. Proponents of the legislation said business owners and residents had complained that the homeless were causing problems in the parks.
  • Responding to reports of attacks on homeless people, some states have considered adding violence against the homeless to state hate crime legislation.

Data and research

Accurate statistics on how many people are homeless can be hard to come by – estimates vary considerably.

Another group to consider is what the National Coalition for the Homeless describes as “couch-homeless” – people who are staying with friends or relatives because they don’t have a place to live. Some estimate that 1 to 2 percent of the U.S. population fits this category – perhaps 4.7 million people.

Articles and publications

National sources


  • U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness

    The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) was formed in 1987 to coordinate the federal response to homelessness. It works to create a national partnership at every level of government and with the private sector to reduce and end homelessness in the nation while maximizing the effectiveness of the federal government in contributing to the end of homelessness. Contact external affairs manager Liz Osborn.


  • National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

    The mission of the Law Center is to prevent and end homelessness by serving as the legal arm of the nationwide movement to end homelessness. It is based in Washington D.C.

    Contact: 202-638-2535.
  • National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

    The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth works to make sure that children without a home have access to education.

  • National Center on Family Homelessness

    The National Center on Family Homelessness, based in Washington D.C. as a part of American Institutes for Research, is dedicated to helping homeless families. Their website includes resources for media members interested in homelessness. Contact Makini Nyanteh.

  • Camillus House

    Camillus House is a Miami, Fla., organization that is dedicated to caring for the city’s poor and homeless. Their website includes information and resources on homelessness. Contact Sam Gil.

  • Family Promise

    Family Promise is a national nonprofit that helps low-income families achieve sustainable housing independence. It has 124 volunteer affiliates across the country, with more than 4,500 congregations involved.

    Contact: 908-273-1100.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness

    The National Alliance on Mental Illness, based in Arlington, Va., works on public policy issues affecting the mentally ill, including access to affordable housing. Contact Lauren Gleason, the director of public relations and media.

    They have a page with advice to family members on assisting mentally ill loved ones who may have become homeless.


  • Frank S. Alexander

    Frank S. Alexander is a professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. He is co-editor of The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics & Human Nature (2007). He is an expert on homelessness and housing policy.

  • Richard Axtell

    Richard Axtell is an associate professor of religion and college chaplain at Centre College in Danville, Ky. He is concerned with issues of hunger and homelessness, has served as director of Louisville United Against Hunger and also was a case manager working with homeless men through the St. Vincent DePaul Society. In his teaching and ministry, he invites students to learn about hunger and homelessness and has had his students sleep in homeless shelters.

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

  • Pamela D. Couture

    The Rev. Pamela D. Couture is the inaugural holder of the Jane and Geoffrey Martin Chair in Church and Community at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. She is the author of Child Poverty: Love, Justice and Social Responsibility and Seeing Children, Seeing God: A Practical Theology of Children and Poverty.

  • Dennis Culhane

    Dennis Culhane is a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies homelessness and housing policy.

  • Benedict Giamo

    Benedict Giamo is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. He has written about the spiritual in the works of Jack Kerouac and teaches a course about Kerouac and other Beat writers. He is the co-author of Beyond Homelessness: Frames of Reference (with Jeffrey Grunberg); and author of On the Bowery: Confronting Homelessness in American Society.

  • David A. Snow

    David A. Snow is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He has studied and written widely on homelessness and poverty.

  • Yvonne M. Vissing

    Yvonne M. Vissing is a sociology professor at Salem State College in Salem, Mass. She is the author of Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America and can speak about the spiritual lives of homeless children.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Christopher Jencks

    Christopher Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is the author of The Homeless and has written about poverty, welfare reform and changes in American family structure.

  • Heather Larkin

    Heather Larkin is an assistant professor in the school of social welfare at the State University of New York in Albany. She has done research on the impact that childhood neglect and abuse has had on homeless people in Albany and Petaluma, Calif.

  • New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness

    The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH), a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Manchester, N.H., was founded in 1990. It organizes leaders in the state to research solutions on ending homelessness, educate providers on best practices and empower people to advocate on behalf of the homeless.

  • Operation Safety Net

    Operation Safety Net is a health care outreach program operated through the Pittsburgh Mercy Hospital System and Catholic Health East. It provides medical care to homeless people living on the streets of Pittsburgh and recognized as one of nation’s first, targeted, full-time street medicine programs. Dr. Jim Withers started the program in 1992.

  • Project ORE

    Project ORE serves emergency kosher meals and provides counseling, case management and other supportive services to isolated, poor, homeless, mentally ill, elderly Jews (including Holocaust survivors) in New York City. It is a program of the Educational Alliance.

  • Coalition for the Homeless

    The Coalition for the Homeless implements programs to help end mass homelessness in New York City. According to their website, they provide services to more than 3,500 homeless people in New York each day.

In the South

  • Robert Wineburg

    Robert Wineburg is the Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who has looked at IRS investigations of churches for political activities related to elections. He is the author of the Faith-Based Inefficiency: The Follies of Bush’s Initiatives, and he has been writing comprehensively about faith-based politics and social services since the Reagan era.

  • Karen Dudley

    Karen Dudley is the founder and senior pastor of Dallas International Street Church, a nondenominational church of homeless people in Dallas.

  • Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida

    The Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida provides services to the area’s homeless, with support from individuals, businesses, philanthropic and faith-based groups. John E. Hearn is the president and CEO.

  • Room in the Inn

    Room in the Inn is a coalition of nearly 200 congregations in Nashville, Tenn., which provide shelter and other services to the city’s homeless. It has become a model for similar programs around the South. Contact executive director Rachel Hester.

  • UNITY of Greater New Orleans

    UNITY of Greater New Orleans is a nonprofit organization which coordinates over 60 organizations in order to provide housing and services to prevent, reduce and end homelessness.

  • Louisville Coalition for the Homeless

    The Louisville Coalition for the Homeless serves the homeless population of Louisville, Ky., by educating the community about homelessness, advocating for system changes and coordinating the community response. Natalie Harris is the executive director.

  • Green Doors

    Green Doors looks to prevent and end homelessness in Central Texas and provides services in hopes of accomplishing their goals.

In the Midwest

  • Diane Nilan

    Diane Nilan of Naperville, Ill., is a former shelter director who founded the nonprofit group Hear Us, to allow the voices of homeless children and youth to be heard. In 2005, Nilan sold her home and set off across the country to interview more than 70 homeless children and teenagers in 16 states, mostly in small towns and rural areas, and used those interviews to create the documentary video My Own Four Walls. She is the author of the 2006 book Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness.

  • Susan Grettenberger

    Susan Grettenberger is social work program director at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. She has done research for the Aspen Institute on the involvement of religious groups in providing social services. She also has done research for the for The Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy comparing secular and faith-based providers of housing for the homeless in Michigan.

  • Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH)

    The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) is a non-profit coalition of service providers, housing activists, members and homeless people that looks for solutions to homelessness.

  • Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network

    The Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network is a nonprofit coalition of congregations in Johnson County, Kansas that provides services to homeless families. They are affiliated with Family Promise. Vicki L. Dercher is the executive director.

    Contact: 913-345-2121, 1001.

In the West

  • Jana Drakka

    The Rev. Jana Drakka is a senior Zen Buddhist priest, calligrapher and community activist. She provides meditation, memorials and harm reduction groups for marginally housed people and those who work with them in San Francisco. She also advocates for the rights of those living in poverty.

  • CATCH (Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless)

    CATCH is a partnership among the city of Boise, Idaho; 12 local congregations; and the business community to provide long-term housing and supportive services to the area’s homeless population. Each participating congregation sponsors a homeless family’s housing for six months or a year; CATCH also is developing a 10-year plan to address homelessness.

  • Mental Health Chaplaincy

    The Mental Health Chaplaincy is a Seattle program based at Prospect Congregational United Church of Christ that has trained chaplains walking the city streets looking for vulnerable, mentally ill people who may need assistance. Contact Kae Eaton.

  • Temple Beth Am

    Temple Beth Am is a Reform congregation in Seattle, Wash. Through its Tikkum Olam Committee (Repairing the World), Temple Beth Am has become involved in advocacy and outreach on behalf of the homeless. It has hosted Tent City, a traveling community of people lacking permanent homes, and supports the Homeless To Renter (H2R) program, which helps homeless families move into affordable rental housing. Temple Beth Am also has sponsored educational forums exploring factors that contribute to people becoming homeless, including economic justice and health care issues. Contact communications lead Rachel Raman.

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