• Structural

  • Institutional

  • Individual

  • Relationship

What Causes Homelessness?

Despite common perception, homelessness doesn’t just happen because of substance abuse or mental illness; those are just the visible causes that we can see when we encounter people living on the street. Instead, homelessness happens when factors at multiple levels of society - the structural, institutional, relationship, and individual levels - combine to create a difficult set of circumstances in someone’s life. Unfortunately, major contributors to homelessness such as poverty and childhood trauma tend to repeat themselves in families from generation to generation, making the cycle of homelessness extremely difficult to break.

Structural Factors 

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Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, drawing huge numbers of educated and affluent new residents each year. Unfortunately, this inflow of people drives up rents across the city - but especially in East Austin - squeezing out low-income residents who can’t pay the increasing cost of living. Because of Austin’s historically racist housing policy, these residents are disproportionately Black and uneducated. As a result, we have a shortage of affordable housing that disproportionately affects low-income minority residents.

Rental Units Under $1000 Per Month




Institutional Factors 



After leaving prison, ex-inmates face barriers to accessing services and regaining stability when they leave prison. Unlike services for veterans or people with disabilities, no system prioritizes services for ex-inmates. Regaining housing and employment is also difficult, because landlords and employers discriminate against people with criminal records. Black Americans are especially at risk for becoming homeless after leaving prison, partly because they are at higher risk of being incarcerated. Communities of color experience several unique risk factors that contribute to higher levels of crime and poorer educational outcomes, both of which increase people’s risk of becoming homeless later on.

Risks Due to Incarceration

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Foster Care

Kids “age out” of foster care at age 18, but many kids aren’t ready to support themselves at that age. Studies suggest that growing up in foster care does not prepare kids for the transition to living on their own, so it is not surprising that a large proportion of people experiencing homelessness grew up in foster care.

Homeless Parents With Children in Foster Care



The period after psychiatric hospitalization can be unstable for people with mental illness. They are at high risk of suicide, rehospitalization, and violence against others. There is little continuity of care between the institution and follow-up outpatient care. Especially for people with substance use disorders and persistent psychiatric symptoms, the ultimate result is often homelessness.

Yearly Individual Cost


Healthcare Access


Military Service

Vets have often been separated from their family and friends for a long time by the time they get discharged. When they get back to civilian life, they often lack the social support they need. Adjusting back to civilian life is difficult when the military comes with its own set of specific occupational demands. Skills useful for the military and skills useful for civilian jobs don’t overlap very much. Being in the military changes people. It affects their mental health, their personality, and they may even start abusing drugs and alcohol to deal with the stress and trauma. Many vets leave the service with PTSD and other disabilities.

Following discharge, veterans can face these issues:


Relationship and Individual Factors

Relationship Factors

People need positive relationships with others to be healthy. Relationship breakdown, such as a breakup or the death of a caregiver, often pushes people over the edge when they’re already struggling to make ends meet. The end of such a relationship can mean losing housing, a source of money, and a source of social support all in one.

While we need positive relationships, traumatic relationships have the opposite effect on our health. Among people experiencing homelessness, childhood trauma is an all-too-common experience. Research shows that childhood trauma has profound long-term effects, and it touches all aspects of people’s lives. Some of the worst implications of childhood trauma are the increased risk of being exposed to abuse in adulthood (especially true for women), developing a mental health disability such as PTSD, developing chronic health issues, and having poor mental functioning.

People experiencing homelessness tend to have experienced many more childhood adversities than the average person. The more childhood adversities someone experienced, the more likely it is that they’ll have severe substance use issues, become homeless earlier in life, and have severe health problems in adulthood.

"My mother would never check in. She'd drop me off at foster care or my Aunt's." 

"I was at the bottom after leaving a violent relationship."

"In the past, my husband [helped me]. My mom, she died last year."

"My family's all scattered - what's left of them." 

Individual Factors

People may struggle with their own vulnerabilities. Substance abuse and mental health issues make it difficult to function normally, and people often lose their jobs as a result. Disability is such a big contributor to homelessness that some definitions of homelessness depend on the person having a disability. Financial instability and the inability to pay rent, although related to the job market and other factors at the structural level, is another major cause contributing to homelessness.

Cycles of Risk

People who grew up in precarious home environments are more likely to raise children in similar contexts, although that’s not necessarily their intention. The risk factors associated with homelessness are especially dangerous in this way; they get passed down generationally. Studies have found a strong relationship between the amount of childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction that homeless parents experienced and the amount that their children were experiencing. Poverty has also been also associated with child maltreatment, indicating that young people are growing up exposed to the same risks their homeless parents did.

For example, women who were abused as children are more likely to become targets for violence as adults through no fault of their own. If they have children with abusive partners, then their children are at risk for poverty, abuse, residential instability, foster care placement, and many other predictors of future homelessness, creating a cycle of risk that’s extremely difficult to break out of.


How can I be a good mom if I didn't have a good mom?