Talk of homelessness in America tends to center on the most visible crises: open-air drug markets in San Francisco, crowded encampments in Los Angeles, cardboard shelters in New York, and tent cities in Seattle.
But even these harrowing conditions don’t capture the full scope of homelessness in the US.
Although homelessness is declining by around 14% nationwide, 16 states have seen their homeless populations increase since 2007. In that time, states with a relatively small number of homeless residents like Wyoming and South Dakota have seen an increase of more than 62%. North Dakota, meanwhile, has seen a troubling 71% rise in its homeless population.
One way to evaluate the extent of homelessness in America is to look at the share of homeless residents relative to a state’s population size. This controls for the fact that states with more residents tend to have higher homeless populations. It also gives an indication of some of the nation’s worst crises, where restrictive policies or a lack of affordable housing may contribute to the large number of people living on the streets.
We crunched the data for the share of homeless residents across all 50 states in America. Here’s what homelessness looks like in the seven states with the worst crises (which also have some of the highest housing costs in the US).
District of Columbia
When it comes to the overall share of homeless residents, no state can compare to Washington, DC. Of the district’s 694,000 residents, around 7,500 are homeless – a share that amounts to more than 1%. While this may not seem like a lot, it’s more than three times the share in California, a state with nearly 57 times the population size.
An analysis from a local homeless services organisation, Thrive DC, finds that three-quarters of their clients in DC have been homeless for more than a year. Though many of the people they serve are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, the organisation points to a lack of affordable housing and rising rental prices as the two biggest obstacles to ending homelessness in the district.
In 2015, Hawaii’s rising homelessness crisis prompted Governor David Ige to proclaim a state of emergency. As part of the proclamation, Ige made it illegal to sit or lie down on footpaths and commissioned social workers to move homeless residents off the streets and into shelters.
The policy hasn’t done much to curb homelessness in Hawaii, which has the second highest share of homeless residents relative to its population size. From 2007 to 2017, Hawaii saw a 19% increase in its number of homeless citizens – one of the biggest upticks in the country.
With around 89,500 homeless residents, New York’s overall share is the third highest in the country. The majority of the state’s homeless – around 77,000 residents – hail from New York City, where a lack of affordable housing has left many citizens without a permanent place to live.
Though the city has seen a 43% increase in homelessness in the last decade, not all of its homeless residents are living on the streets or in makeshift dwellings like cars and tents. An official city count found that only one in 20 New York City homeless residents sleep without a roof over their heads. The rest are housed in the city’s numerous shelters, which contain more homeless residents than shelters in California, Oregon, and Washington combined.
Less than 1% of California residents are homeless, but the state represents nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. That’s because California is home to four of the top ten cities for homelessness in the country: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose.
The crisis in San Francisco is by far the most acute, with United Nations Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha calling it a “human rights violation” and “a cruelty that is unsurpassed.”
The situation in Los Angeles is close behind: On any given night, around 1,800 people congregate in Skid Row, a dilapidated homeless encampment that’s riddled with drugs, crime, and disease.
Oregon has seen a nearly 21% decline in its homeless population in the last decade, but it still ranks fifth in the nation in terms of its share of homeless residents.
Earlier this year, the Portland Police Association criticised Mayor Ted Wheeler for placing the responsibility to curb homelessness on the shoulders of police officers.
“Our City has become a cesspool,” the association wrote on Facebook. “The Portland Police Bureau has not been given nearly enough resources to fulfil its small piece in addressing the homelessness crisis.”
The city later estimated that it would require as much as $US640 million to build just 2,000 units of supportive housing in the next ten years.
Washington has about as many homeless residents as Oregon and DC combined – around 21,000 – but its share of homeless residents is smaller when compared to its population size.
Much of the state’s homeless population is concentrated in Seattle, where homelessness has risen by 9% each year since 2014. Though the surrounding King County set aside a ten-year plan to combat homelessness, the deadline has come and gone, and the crisis shows no sign of slowing down.
In recent years, Seattle has become known for its tent cities, or large homeless encampments that are sanctioned by the government. These communities provide critical shelter for residents, who might otherwise face violence on the streets.
Nevada has a greater share of homeless residents than Texas, a state more than nine times its size. The vast majority of Nevada’s 7,800 homeless residents hail from Las Vegas, where homelessness appears to be on the rise, despite a 9.4% statewide decline over the last decade.
Much of the issue seems to stem from the city’s rental crisis, which has caused 86% per cent of extremely low income households to become cost-burdened. Rather than cracking down on homeless encampments, the city has opted to buy up some of this land and build legal courtyards and facilities for the homeless.
In the future, it will have to contend with the real root of the problem: a lack of affordable housing.
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