Homelessness is a global problem. According to a 1996 United Nations report, 500 million people worldwide were homeless or residing in low-quality housing and unsanitary conditions in 1995. The number of homeless continues to rise, however, and quantifying this population is difficult. Most homelessness rates are reported by service providers, and countries with the best-developed service systems will therefore report the highest number of homeless, a condition referred to as the service-systems paradox. Various other problems, such as double-counts, overcounts, the problem of mobility, and hidden homelessness also affect estimates.

In the United States, homelessness gained national attention in the early 1980s. While some people thought the growth in the homeless population was a result of the recession that occurred during this period, the problem has not gone away.

It is estimated that two million people per year are homeless in the United States. A report issued by the Urban Institute in 2000 stated that 2.3 million adults and children in the United States are likely to experience homelessness at least once in a year.

A way to get at the root of the problem is to understand the causes of homelessness. Worldwide, homelessness is caused by a breakdown in traditional family support systems, continued urbanization, the effects of structural adjustment programs, civil wars, and natural disasters. A shortage in affordable rental housing and an increase in poverty are thought to be two major factors contributing to the rise of homelessness in the United States. Other potential causes are the lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, mental illness, and addiction disorders. Often, individuals will have several risk factors causing them to "choose between food, shelter, and other

The forced relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral lands has fueled homelessness among that population. Other homeless people have lost their homes to pay for unexpected medical expenses, or because of economic hardship. [Corbis Corporation. Reproduced by permission.]

basic needs" (National Coalition for the Homeless, p. 6). Shelter is often the lowest priority, and is often unaffordable, and thus homelessness becomes a problem. Similar risk factors affect both the homeless and those who are experiencing poverty. Because homelessness and poverty are linked, efforts to improve poverty will inevitably decrease homelessness.

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