Addiction is NOT the Leading Cause of Homelessness

Lack of Affordable Housing not addiction

No matter what the search engine tells you, addiction is absolutely NOT the leading cause of homelessness.

Indeed, addiction is not even in the top four when it comes to the root causes of homelessness. This fact has been well-known amongst advocates and academics for years. But now, it is disputed by an unlikely source: the internet. Here’s what’s going on.

Identifying the Leading Causes of Homelessness

* Personal note to explain my expertise: I have been writing almost exclusively about homelessness for the past five years. Over that course of time, for the sole purpose of providing factual citations, I have Googled the search phrase “leading causes of homelessness” at least ten times each month, equating to approximately 600 searches of the exact phrase over a five-year timeframe. This search has been rather monotonous, a constant in a literary field that is otherwise constantly changing. What usually happens is the following:

I type in “leading causes of homelessness,” and the top Google search result takes me to a page from the National Homelessness Law Center. Founded in 1989 by a lawyer who made it her mission to represent houseless families free of charge, this esteemed organization has a decades-long track record of presenting research and creating lasting strategies to end homelessness.

The NHLC is most known for its role in establishing the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the first major legislation to address homelessness in America. Since then, the NHLC has published a vast collection of deeply researched reports on homelessness drafted by some of the most renowned researchers and subject matter experts of our time.

According to the NHLC’s fact sheet, the leading causes of family homelessness are listed below in order of severity:

  • A lack of affordable housing
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Low wages

Meanwhile, the leading causes of homelessness for individuals are similar:

  • A lack of affordable housing
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Mental illness

While these causes were initially taken from the U.S. Conference of Mayors 2014 report, it’s notable to mention that several subsequent reports have yielded the same results – namely, that the leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.

Until a few months ago, search engines agreed with academics and subject matter experts. However, recently, there’s been a subtle shift in the narrative, a change that, if not addressed immediately, could exacerbate the homeless crisis indefinitely.

A Few Months Ago, Google Replaced the Acclaimed Non-Profit NHLC with a Company Called the Arlington Life Shelter as the Top Search Result. The Arlington Life Shelter Incorrectly Cites Addiction as the Leading Cause of Homelessness.

Most recently, when I typed in the phrase “leading causes of homelessness,” I was taken aback to learn that Google had given the number one spot in the search results to a company that incorrectly cites addiction as the leading cause of homelessness.

It is unclear whether this faux pas results from poor research or malicious intent. Even if the article was crafted in good faith (I believe it was), this kind of misinformation can still have devastating results. Let’s start with the initial assertion.

According to the website in question, addiction is the leading cause of homelessness because 68% of U.S. cities report it as such. To “prove” this, the author cites a 2009 document published by the National Coalition for the Homeless which, upon further investigation, turned out to be a secondary source. That paper was based on information from a 2008 survey of just 25 cities.

It should be noted that, according to the United States Conference of Mayors, which published the survey, there are more than 1,400 cities across the United States. Applying the answers of just 25 of those 1,400 cities is already bringing forth a somewhat shaky statistic. But here’s where things get tricky.

In the document Arlington Life Shelter cited, which is entitled “Substance Abuse and Homelessness,” there lies the following quotation:

“In many situations, however, substance abuse is a result of homelessness rather than a cause.”

Even the Cited Source Material Disagrees with the Claim that Addiction is the Leading Cause of Homelessness

Even the author of the source paper where this statistic derives admits that substance abuse is often the result of homelessness as opposed to being the cause of it. And several newer, more thorough surveys confirm this.

Why, on earth, would one cite a statistic featuring responses from just 25 out of 1,400 cities published more than 14 years ago when there is much more current and accurate research available right now?

Even regarding the original citation, the United States Conference of Mayors published a 2023 report of 117 cities this time (way up from the 25 cities cited 14 years ago), asking open-ended questions about behavioral health and homelessness. As it turns out, 84 of those 117 cities identified “affordable housing” as their most prominent concern on homelessness.

For transparency, why not use this report with its relevant information in our post-pandemic, post-recession economy?

For an even more extensive look at the role a lack of affordable housing has over secondary causes of homelessness like addiction, reporters can also turn to the work of housing scholar Gregg Colburn Ph.D. and neuroscientist/ data analyst Clayton Page Aldern who collaboratively penned the book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

In it, these two experts study a diverse array of urban areas. Through a series of tests and statistical analysis, they conclude that housing is at the center of the homeless problem from every possible angle in which it appears.

Additionally, there is the “Pipedreams and Picket Fences” survey presented by Housekeys Action Network Denver. This study draws from the experiences of people who are currently unhoused. The survey contains the personal stories of more than 828 houseless people in Denver and combines them with 40 years of public housing and emergency shelter data.

What did this study, also published in 2023, conclude? It proved, yet again, that the leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.

The Lack of Affordable Housing is Not Mentioned on the Top Website Anywhere at All

Google’s new top pick for the search term “leading causes of homelessness” is a website that doesn’t even mention a lack of affordable housing.

It’s almost as if there’s an agenda afoot, an ominous mission to simply ignore the fact that rental prices have increased at quadruple the rate of the median American wage and housing prices have doubled in 69 metropolitan regions in this past decade alone.

This happens when we let engines determine the information hierarchy that skits across our internet screens. Now, imagine the madness that would occur if we left the entire journalism field in the robotic hands of artificial intelligence.

Talk to Your Representatives About the Role That Housing Plays in Homelessness

The leading cause of homelessness is, indisputably, the lack of affordable housing. When we refuse to acknowledge this reality, we do a grave disservice to our neighbors without walls.

If the general public is misinformed about why people fall into the unfortunate circumstance of being unhoused, they will vote for policies that shy away from tried-and-true approaches like Housing First.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

Related Topics

Get the Invisible People newsletter


Elderly homeless woman in Grants Pass, Oregon


Homeless woman on the sidewalk in Miami


Miami homeless man arrested for being homeless and lost his job


80 years old and homeless veteran in Los Angeles needs help



homeless youth

Model State Statutes for Homeless Youth: A Guide to Guarding Unhoused Children

Phoenix police violate homeless people rights

DOJ Finds Phoenix Police Violated Rights of Homeless Individuals

Social Workers and Homeless services

Systemic Failures and Poor Funding Undermine Vital Homeless Services

municipal IDs for Homeless People

Wichita’s Fight for Homeless Identification Solutions

Get the Invisible People newsletter