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Where is America’s homelessness worse?

Homelessness remains a persistent issue across the United States, with over 580,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night according to the latest data from 2020. However, the scale and scope of homelessness varies greatly between different states and cities. Using the most recently available data, this article will examine where homelessness is most acute in America and look at some of the potential factors driving these localized differences.

Total homelessness numbers

First looking at the overall homelessness numbers for each state, California had the highest homeless population in 2020 at over 161,000 people. This represents over a quarter of the total homeless population in the US. After California, the states with the most people experiencing homelessness were New York (92,091), Florida (28,328), Texas (25,848) and Washington (21,577).

On the opposite end, the states with the lowest overall homeless numbers were Mississippi (1,043), Iowa (2,736), Maine (2,380), Vermont (1,097) and North Dakota (742). However, it’s important to adjust for population size when making cross-state comparisons. Factoring in total state populations, the District of Columbia actually had the highest homelessness rate in 2020 at 94 homeless people per 10,000 residents. New York (46 per 10,000) and Hawaii (45 per 10,000) were next highest.

The states with the lowest rates of homelessness per capita were Mississippi (3 per 10,000), Louisiana (6 per 10,000), Alabama (7 per 10,000), Illinois (8 per 10,000) and Pennsylvania (8 per 10,000).

Unsheltered homelessness

Looking specifically at unsheltered homelessness (those staying in places not meant for human habitation such as streets, parks or abandoned buildings), California again tops the list with over 48% of the total unsheltered homeless population in the US. Hawaii has the second largest share at nearly 10%, followed by Oregon (7.7%), New York (5.5%) and Washington (5.3%).

On a per capita basis, California and Hawaii switch positions for the highest rate of unsheltered homeless per 10,000 residents at 33 and 29 people respectively. Oregon (20 per 10,000), Nevada (18 per 10,000) and Alaska (18 per 10,000) round out the top five states.

The states with the lowest unsheltered homeless rates are Mississippi (1 per 10,000), Louisiana (1 per 10,000), Alabama (1 per 10,000), Arkansas (1 per 10,000) and Pennsylvania (1 per 10,000).

State Total homeless population Rate per 10,000 residents Share of total US homeless
California 161,548 33 27.8%
New York 92,091 46 15.8%
Florida 28,328 13 4.9%
Texas 25,848 9 4.4%
Washington 21,577 28 3.7%

The above table summarizes the 5 states with the largest homeless populations, including their total numbers, per capita rates and share of the total US homeless population as of 2020.

Homelessness in major city areas

Looking at the level of cities and metropolitan areas, homelessness continues to be most severe in several West Coast cities. The Los Angeles area had the largest overall homeless population at over 66,000 people, comprising nearly 12% of total homelessness nationwide. New York City was next highest at 47,000 followed by Seattle/King County at over 25,000.

Other major cities with large homeless populations included San Francisco, San Diego, Washington DC, Boston, Las Vegas and Philadelphia. When adjusting for the size of metro area populations, several smaller areas also rose to the top – Urban Honolulu (767 per 100,000 residents), San Francisco (642 per 100,000), and Santa Rosa, CA (608 per 100,000).

Cities with highest total homeless populations

Metro area Total homeless
Los Angeles City & County 66,436
New York City 47,979
Seattle/King County, WA 25,922
San Diego city and County, CA 22,259
San Francisco 17,595

Cities with highest homelessness rates

Metro area Homeless per 100,000 residents
Urban Honolulu, HI 767
San Francisco 642
Santa Rosa, CA 608
Seattle/King County, WA 544
San Jose/Santa Clara City & County, CA 530

The above tables highlight the 5 metro areas with the largest total homeless populations and highest per capita rates in 2020.

Factors driving homelessness

There are a number of interrelated factors that help explain the localized differences in homelessness across the United States:

Housing costs

Many of the states and cities with the highest homelessness struggle with a lack of affordable housing. Rent and housing prices in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Honolulu are well above nationwide averages and continue to climb faster than incomes for many residents. High housing costs leave more people vulnerable to homelessness if they experience job loss, income disruption, or other crises.

Temperate climate

Areas with warmer climates such as California, Hawaii and parts of the South tend to have higher rates of unsheltered homelessness. Mild winters mean it is more feasible for people to live outdoors year-round rather than needing emergency shelters.

West Coast migration

Some researchers point to higher migration rates to the West Coast pulling in more people who end up homeless, particularly in California cities. Areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco act as “magnets” given their reputations for services, jobs, and culturaltolerance of homeless individuals.

Income inequality

Many of the homelessness hotspots like California and New York have high levels of income inequality. The gap between wealthy and lower-income earners is larger, making housing and living costs less affordable for many serviceindustry and blue-collar workers.

Policy approaches

Differing policy approaches to homelessness may also contribute to variances between states and cities. Some areas prioritize subsidized housing and permanent supportive housing models while others emphasize emergency shelters and encampment sweeps.

Recent trends

Between 2019-2020, total homelessness in the US rose by 2%, reversing what had been declines in the three prior years. About 30 states actually saw drops in homelessness over that latest period but increases in populous states like California (7% increase), New York (8% increase) and Texas (9% increase) offset those gains at the national level.

The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised further concerns about newly homeless households, however conclusive data is not yet available. One early study of unemployment and homelessness projected that a 1 percentage point increase in a state’s unemployment rate could increase homelessness by 2.5% in the short term.


Homelessness in America continues to be concentrated most acutely in major cities along the West Coast such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle due to a mix of factors like high housing and living costs, temperate weather patterns, and potentially more tolerant attitudes. New York City remains a persistent hotspot as well. Recent upticks in homelessness in large California and Texas cities have offset declines in much of the rest of the country. Ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic may exacerbate homelessness further in the near future if recovery remains uneven.

More investment in affordable housing programs and permanent supportive housing appears needed in those cities with the largest homeless populations. However, homelessness remains an issue across the country, not just in those prominent urban centers on the coasts. A mix of prevention and crisis response services are required to continue driving numbers down in Middle America as well.

Some potential next steps for policymakers and community organizations include:

  • Increase affordable housing stock – subsidize more low-income units, allow accessory dwelling units
  • Expand rapid re-housing programs to move sheltered persons into stable housing
  • Grow permanent supportive housing options with wraparound services
  • Increase supports for at-risk families to prevent new homelessness
  • Sustain shelter funding but move towards Housing First models
  • Improve homeless data gathering and sharing between regions

While homelessness is down significantly overall compared to historical highs, its persistence underscores how those facing housing instability remain vulnerable to broader economic and social currents. Ongoing work across all levels of government, non-profits, faith groups, and impact-driven businesses will be required to create the systemic changes necessary to prevent and end homelessness for good.