by Ashwin Parulkar & Kathryn Cardone

Abstract

Scholars attribute the onset and rise of homelessness in the United States over the last four decades  to two economic forces: the increased precarity of the working poor since “deindustrialization” in the 1970s and the increasing shortage of affordable housing since the 1980s.  The largest cities with the priciest rental markets, like New York and Los Angeles, currently have the highest rates of homelessness. Yet, the problems of large homeless populations and high levels of rent, housing shortages, extreme poverty and, in some cases, population growth are concentrated in western cities.   

In this report, we aim to understand how these dynamics contribute to homelessness in Las Vegas, which counted 5,283 and 5,645 people in this population in 2020 and 2022, respectively. Worryingly,  two-thirds( 66%)  and half ( 51%) of persons experiencing homelessness were unsheltered in those years.  

We proceed in five stages. First, we discuss relationships between rising housing shortages, rents and extreme poverty with homelessness in the United States.

Second, we examine the concentration of these inequalities in western cities and the factors that contribute to homelessness in Las Vegas.  Homelessness increased last decade in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Seattle that had exceedingly high medium rent prices but lower extreme poverty rates than national averages.  Other cities such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Santa Ana, and Fresno maintained high levels of homelessness throughout last decade even as it declined.  These cities had high median rental prices and, excluding Fresno, population growth levels. Extreme poverty rates were also high in Las Vegas and San Diego. 

Third, we discuss how the crisis in housing unaffordability in Las Vegas is rooted in staggering shortages of rental housing and its concentration of precarious workers, who hold “low-skilled” jobs in the city’s dominant hospitality industry. Las Vegas has the largest deficit of affordable rentals for poor households of all major U.S. cities. It had the highest unemployment rate among all metros in 2022. 

Fourth, we discuss scholarship on the alarming trend of the concentration of unsheltered homelessness in western cities, including Las Vegas. We note three trends identified by researchers. Higher rates of total and unsheltered homelessness correlate with shortages of affordable housing. Higher rates of unsheltered homelessness are found in cities with lower numbers of affordable rental units for poor households. Lastly, cities like Las Vegas that have steeper shortages of shelter beds also have higher rates of unsheltered homelessness.

Finally, we discuss the mental & physical health and substance use burdens associated with homelessness.  These attributes are significantly pronounced in the homeless compared to the general population, but also in the unsheltered compared to the sheltered homeless population. In the context of homelessness, scholars have identified mental health and substance use burdens as bi-directional risk factors. That is such problems increase the risk to homelessness but the experience of homelessness itself can lead to these maladies.  For that reason, we discuss the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and homelessness. Scholars have identified ACEs in the single adults population with mental health and substance use problems as contributing factors to homelessness. Studies have shown that the lifetime prevalence of ACEs among persons experiencing homelessness is far greater than the general population.

  1. housing shortages,  extreme poverty and homelessness in the United States

Over 582,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States in 2022 (HUD, 2022).  The crisis of housing unaffordability among poor renters that began in the 1980s contributed to the onset but also rise of homelessness in the country (Aldridge et al., 2017; Borchard, 1997, 2005; Fargo et al., 2013; Filer et al., 1993; Hanratty, 2017; Hopper et al., 1985; HUD, 2017; Hwang, 2018; Lee, 2016; McChesney, 1990; 1995; O’Flaherty, 2004; Schuetz & Ring, 2021; Shlay & Rossi, 1992;Shinn & Khadduri, 2020). The deficit in available rental units for the poorest Americans grew from 2.863 million in the 1980s to 7 million by 2022 (McChesney, 1990; NLIHC, 2022; USICH, 2022).

This “deficit” is an outcome of two economic forces. One,  the systematic destruction of the affordable rental supply for poor households since the mid 20th century.  Another,  the increasingly precarious working conditions this population has endured since the 1970s.

The “deindustrialization” of the economy in the 1970s  eradicated manufacturing jobs in major American cities (Dunlap & Johnson 1992; Filer et al, 1993; Hopper et al, 1985; Jargowsky, 1997).

Such jobs – in the car and textile industries, for example – had provided enough wages, with employment benefits, for most urban working-class Americans to afford housing that cost less than 30% of their earnings (Dunlap & Johnson, 1992).  Federal welfare programs also helped many poor Americans secure their most basic needs. In the 1990s,  key reforms restricted access to such benefits. After lawmakers made “work requirements” and “time limits” contingent on aid, participation rates plummeted from 80% that decade to 48% by 2002 (Parrot & Sherman, 2007; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020:39-40). 

These critical events intensified the struggles of poor people.  The percentage of “extremely poor” households —  those with incomes below 50% of the official poverty line –  increased from 29% in 1968 to 47% in 2017 (Fontenot, 2018; Haveman et al, 2015; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020:40).

The rental supply shortage can be traced to the implementation of urban renewal programs in the mid-20th century.  Major cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago demolished single-room occupancy (SRO) units and implemented zoning laws and ordinances that banned new SRO constructions but expedited the conversions of these spaces into market-rate rentals  (Avramov, 2001; Collin, 1992; Hoch & Slayton, 1989; Neale, 1997; Rukumana, 2020; Rossi, 1989; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020; Bahr 1967; Kasinitz 1984; Rudel and Neaigus 1984; Minkler & Ovrebo 1985; Mitchell 1997, 2020) The national SRO stock decreased by 20% from 1976 to 1980 as efficiency units increased by 25% (Haley, 1989:7) By the mid-1980s, New York had eliminated 100,000 SROs (Sullivan & Burke 2013:122).

“The number of affordable and available units” for “extremely low-income renters” declined from 52 to 42 per 100 persons during the 1990s  (Nelson et al., 2003; Shinn and Khadduri, 2020: 47).  From 2011 to 2019, “low-rent units” in the national housing stock decreased from nearly 14 to 10 million[1] (Harvard, 2022: 35)

Between 2009 and 2019, higher-income families and individuals (those with incomes above $75,000/year) increasingly entered the rental market because
“skyrocketing home prices and low inventories” after the Great Recession prevented many from owning their homes  (Colburn & Aldern, 2022; Hanratty, 2017; Harvard, 2017; Harvard, 2022:5). This shift increased (i) the size of the total renter market ( by 70 percent”) (ii) the total higher-income renter population (by 48 percent),  and (iii) the share of this class of renters to the total rental population (from 20 to 26 percent) (ibid).  Consequently, the “rent-burdened” population expanded.  In 2019, 46 percent of renters (20.4 million) spent over 30 percent of their income on rent (Harvard, 2022: 4).

Since the 1990s, researchers have confirmed a positive correlation between increasing market-rate rents and homelessness (Fargo et al., 2013; Filer et al., 1993; Hanratty, 2017; Lee, 206; Schuetz & Ring, 2021). An early national study showed that a slight rent hike (one standard deviation) among the poorest renting class (10th percentile)  resulted in a 0.078% increase in homelessness[2]  (78 per 100,000 individuals) (Filer et al., 1993).

  • the concentration of homelessness in Western cities

Homelessness is concentrated in large cities with very high median rents, such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (Tables 1-3, in Appendix).  Cities with lower median rents and even high poverty rates have lower rates of homelessness, such as St. Louis and Detroit[3] (Colburn & Aldern, 2022; Hanratty, 2017; Harvard, 2017; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020)

What local and regional factors drive the concentration of homelessness in large cities?

From 2010 to 2020, homelessness declined from 637, 077 persons in 2010 to 580,466 in 2020 (8.8%) (HUD,2022).  It declined each year from 2010 to 2016 (549, 928) and increased each year from 2017 (550,996) to 2020. Throughout that decade, homelessness increased in cities with high rents and significant shortfalls of rentals for low-income persons, such as in  New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Expensive rents, limited affordable rental options, and high rates of homelessness are problems in large cities but these inequalities are concentrated in Western cities (Watson et al., 2017; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020:48; Woetzl et al., 2016; Harvard, 2022; Seymour and Akers, 2021).

In 2015, only 30 affordable units were available for every 100 poor renters in the West (Watson et al., 2017; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020: 48). Other regions had 38 to 43 units for every 100 poor renters (ibid).  From 2009 to 2014, housing price increases in California outpaced income growth threefold (Woetzl et al, 2016).  The state did not build new units in proportion to population growth.  California ranked 49th in housing units per capita (ibid).  Half of the state’s households were shut out of the ownership market and entered the rental market.  As a result, rental market prices increased (ibid). Woetzl et al (2016) forecasted that  70% of low-income Californians would have to spend over half of their incomes on housing (ibid). 

The housing crisis in the West contributed to the increase in homelessness nationwide. In 2010, rates of homelessness were already high in major western cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. Homelessness only continued increasing in these locations throughout the decade. By the mid-2010s, homelessness also began increasing in other western cities, such as Oakland, Riverside, San Jose, and Santa Ana (Tables 1 &2, in Appendix).  In 2019, the West had the lowest rate of low rental to total housing stock (14 percent) and the highest rate of rental units exceeding $1,500 (48 percent) among all regions in the country   (Harvard, 2022).  By 2020, California had only 23 affordable units available for every 100 poor renters (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2020; Seymour and Akers, 2021).

It is possible to generalize four trends in homelessness across major cities from 2010 to 2020 from data on point-in-time counts of homelessness that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau makes available to the public  (Census Bureau, 2022, n.d.; HUD, 2022; n.d.) [4] (Table 3, in Appendix).

  • The highest rates and largest increases of homelessness occurred in America’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles. These cities had the largest per capita rates of homelessness in 2010 and 2020 and the largest increases in those rates over that period, respectively. Both had higher levels of extreme poverty and median rent levels than national rates.
  • western cities with exceedingly high rent levels, high population growth rates, and lower poverty levels had high rates of homelessness in 2010, which increased by 2020.

Cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Seattle had exceedingly high medium rents, and high population growth rates, but lower extreme poverty rates than national averages. In San Francisco, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment in 2020 was 389 percent higher than the national median price. Its population increased by 6%  percent between 2010 and 2017 (the national rate was 3.8%), and 4.8% of its population lived in extreme poverty in 2021 (5.5% nationally).

  • Western cities with high rents, extreme poverty, and population growth rates had persistently high rates of homelessness from 2010 to 2020

San Diego, Santa Ana, Fresno, and Las Vegas maintained high rates of homelessness (relative to the national rate) throughout the decade. Rates were high in 2010 rates and declined by 2020 but remained higher than the national rate.  These cities had high median rental prices  population growth and extreme poverty rates. San Diego and Las Vegas’ median rental prices were180 and 60 percent higher than the national median rental rate. Las Vegas’ population growth rate (8%) was more than twice the national rate between 2010 and 2017 (HUD, n.d.) The city’s extreme poverty rates were also higher than the national rate.

  • midwestern cities with lower rents and population growth levels, and high poverty rates had low rates of homelessness from 2010 to 2020

Rates of homelessness remained low in midwestern cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago throughout the decade. Median rental prices and population growth rates in these cities were lower but extreme poverty rates were higher than national rates. 

  • homelessness in Las Vegas: the convergence of employment precarity, housing unaffordability, rental supply shortages, and homelessness

Homelessness remained high in Las Vegas throughout the last decade due partly to high rents, a low affordable rental stock, and a high level of extreme poverty. The city had one of the largest rates of “cost-burdened” households among all U.S. cities in 2020:  75% of Clark County renter households with incomes 80% or less than the area median income (AMI) paid more than 30% of their earnings on rent; 40% of this vulnerable group paid more than 50% (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2020; Seymore and Akers, 2021: 523). 

Nevada had the lowest number of affordable rental units for its extremely low-income (ELI) population among all U.S. states (18 per 100 households) (NLIHC, 2020; Seymore and Akers, 2021).  By comparison, California had 23 units per 100 such households and Los Angeles had 18 units per 100 households (ibid). This shortage is most dire in Las Vegas (14 units per 100 households) (ibid).  

Two other factors potentially contribute to homelessness in Las Vegas.  The first concerns a lack of policies that help poor families and individuals secure rental subsidies.  Only 4 percent of the city’s renters receive federal rental assistance subsidies (Harvard, 2022: 36). Las Vegas ranks 57th among all metros in the provision of this critical benefit (Seymore and Akers, 2021). 

The second factor is the heightened insecurity that working poor people endure.  A “heavy concentration” of workers in Las Vegas – 28% – are  “precarious[ly] employed” in “low-skilled” hospitality and leisure industry jobs (Seymore and Akers, 2021:517;  Seymore, 2022; The Conference Board, 2023). As of February 2023, this sector had shrunk by 2.4% from its pre-Covid level (The Conference Board, 2023). In 2022, the unemployment rate (9.6%) in Las Vegas was the highest of all large metros  (Seymore, 2022: 6). It had fallen to 6.0% by April 2023 but still outpaced the national rate (3.5%) (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d.). Such jobs, in casinos and bars for example, do not provide employment benefits.  Wages and job security are also affected by an oversupply of migrant workers    (Borchard, 1997, 2005; Seymore & Akers, 2021). 

The affordable rental crisis is also tied to the volatility of the city’s homeownership market (Schuetz, 2019; Schuetz & Ring, 2021; Seymore and Akers, 2022).  In the early 21st century, local banks provided sub-prime rate mortgages liberally, while developers rapidly produced housing units and speculators invested into the housing market at record levels (ibid).  Local home prices increased from 2000 to 2006 by 13 percent (compared to 8 percent, nationally), then plummeted during the Great Recession by nearly 60 percent from their peak (compared to 14 percent, nationally) (ibid).

Las Vegas had the highest foreclosure rate in the country (12 percent, five times the national average) (Schuetz, 2019; Seymore and Akers, 2022; Wargo, 2010).  Its  Black and Latinx homeowners experienced even higher rates (Bocian et al, 2010; Collins et al, 2013; Hoak, 2019; Schuetz, 2019; Seymore and Akers, 2022; Wargo, 2010). The interplay of two events tightened the supply of affordable rental options.

First, many former homeowners – those who suffered foreclosures — entered the rental market, which drove up rental prices[5] (Mallach, 2014; Schuetz, 2019). By 2020, the homeownership rate in Las Vegas had declined to 54% (it was 64%, nationally) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2020; Seymore, 2022). Foreclosures were concentrated in Latinx and Black communities. White and Asian homeownership rates were 20 and 30 percent higher than Latinx and Black rates (Schuetz, 2019). By 2020, middle-income, upper-middle income and wealthy groups all paid less than 30% of their income on rent[6] while the poorest households dished out more than 60 percent of their earnings on rent (Schuetz, 2019).

Secondly, in 2009, private investors started buying up foreclosed properties[7] and converting them into market-rate rentals – a process that scholars call the “financialization” of the rental market (Andrews & Sisson, 2018; Semuels, 2019; Seymore & Akers, 2021). By 2012,  real estate investment trusts (REIT)  spent $25 billion on conversions of foreclosed single-family homes in Las Vegas (Seymore & Akers, 2021: 522). Investor “activity”  “doubled” by 2020 “as inventory continued to shrink” (ibid).  By 2018, 11 corporate entities owned nearly 8,000 homes (ibid). REITs issue single-family rental (SFR) securities that tie the properties they own and tenant obligations to “layers of financial capital’ (ibid).  Eviction rates are higher in these investor-owned properties than in medium and small landlord-owned units  (ibid).  From 2012 to 2020, Las Vegas issued 20,000 evictions each year (ibid)[8].    Investors also own most “extended stay motels”, which the city uses as “bridge housing” for “homeless residents” (Seymour & Akers, 2021). Tenants of this “last resort” housing option “usually end up homeless” upon eviction (ibid).

Long-term rates of homelessness in Las Vegas[9] tracked closest with regional economic trends associated with the Great Recession and its recovery (Schuetz & Ring, 2021).    Homelessness increased from 2008 to 2010 in Las Vegas, during the foreclosure crisis, then declined from 2010 to 2020 but remained higher than both the national average and other western cities[10] excluding Los Angeles (ibid).  Unsheltered homelessness increased in western cities but   Las Vegas had one of the highest the rates of single adult homelessness (90%) and, alongside Riverside, unsheltered homelessness among these cities (ibid). In Last Vegas, the share of unsheltered to total number of persons experiencing homelessness increased from 30% in 2010 to 66% in 2020 (HUD, 2022)

  • the unsheltered homeless

We must now understand the dynamics of unsheltered and single adult homelessness in Las Vegas.  

In this section, we summarize findings from an Urban Institute study on unsheltered homelessness from 2009 to 2019 (Batko, Oneto & Shroyer, 2020). 

Unsheltered homelessness increased nationally from 2016 to 2019 and was concentrated in twelve West Coast cities —  including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco  — and among Black and Latinx individuals.  Nationally,  93% of unsheltered persons were individuals.  In New York and seven western cities — Las Vegas, Fresno, Oakland, Phoenix, Portland, Riverside, and San Francisco – 99% of unsheltered persons were individuals.

The Urban Institute study identified three major correlations between unsheltered homelessness and the shortage of unaffordable housing in these cities.  

First, higher rates of total homelessness and unsheltered homelessness in cities correlated with shortages of affordable housing in those locations (Glynn & Fox, 2019; National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2017). Cities with high rents and low vacancy rates had the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness . These cities included:  New York (4.5% vacancy rates), Las Vegas (8.9%), Phoenix (6.4%), San Jose (5.5%), Riverside (5.3%), Honolulu (5.2%), Fresno City (4.1%), Sacramento (4.1%), Portland (3.7%), Los Angeles (3.2%) and Santa Ana (3.2%).

Secondly, higher rates of unsheltered homelessness occurred in cities with lower numbers of affordable rental units per 100 poor households (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2017). As discussed, Las Vegas had the lowest rate of this metric among major cities. In Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Riverside, this rate was half the national rate[11]. Las Vegas was also one of five cities – including Los Angeles, New York, Portland and Riverside – in which a high share of its population had very low incomes (below 50 percent of area median income) and were severely “cost burdened” (they spent more than half of their incomes on housing).

Lastly, cities with low numbers of beds in their shelter systems also had higher rates of unsheltered homelessness (Glynn and Fox, 2019; National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2017). From 2009 to 2019 the number of shelter beds in Las Vegas declined by 71% (4080 beds) while the number of unsheltered individuals increased by 12.3% during that period (2932 to 3292).  Las Vegas and the study’s other western cities had more unsheltered persons than available beds. California’s bed stock covered 22% of single adults and 91% of families (HUD, 2020; National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2023).  Nevada’s bed stock covered 39% of the single adults but all (127%) of the family homeless population (ibid).

  • mental &physical health burdens, substance use problems, adverse experiences and homelessness

As discussed, most people experiencing homelessness in Las Vegas are unsheltered.   We now examine the mental & physical health burdens and substance use problems that afflict this population.  

Four critical findings on the relationship between health burdens & substance problems and unsheltered homelessness frame our discussion in this section. First, rates of mental health and substance disorders, infectious & chronic diseases, and unintentional injuries are significantly higher among people experiencing homeless compared to the general population (Liu & Hwang, 2021; Liu et al, 2021).  Second, substance use problems, mental illnesses, incarceration and foster care involvement also increase risks to homelessness, particularly among single adults (Aldridge et al., 2017; Borchard, 1997; Filer et al., 1993; Hudson & Nandy, 2012; Shlay & Rossi, 1992; Tsai and Rosenheck, 2015; Thompson et al., 2014; Yamamoto et al, 2019).  Third, unsheltered persons have higher incidences of these burdens than sheltered persons (Montgomery et al., 2016; Batko et al, 2020). Lastly, unsheltered persons in Las Vegas with mental health and substance use disorders have more difficulties accessing the city’s homeless service system than even other persons experiencing homelessness (Cohen et al, 2019).

Mental health burdens and substance use problems among persons experiencing homelessness in the West are disproportionately high (Streeter, 2022).  As discussed, unsheltered homelessness is also concentrated and has increased over the last decade in this region. In California, for example, 70% of the homeless population is unsheltered (Streeter, 2022). In Los Angeles, 25% of the homeless have a severe mental illness, such as a psychotic disorder or schizophrenia, and 27%  have a long-term substance use disorder (ibid). Drug overdoses accounted for nearly 25% of deaths of people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles (Nicholas et al, 2021). In Las Vegas, 49% of persons experiencing homeless had a substance use disorder and 44% had a mental health burden (Help Hope Home, 2020).

Scholars are divided on the impact that the “deinstitutionalization” of mental health facilities in the mid-20th century has had on homelessness in the United States.  The 1963 Mental Health Act intended to promote “community-based mental health care systems” (Streeter, 2022:7). The federal government, therefore, withdrew funds from public mental health institutions but the new “community” healthcare model never emerged  (ibid). The number of mentally ill patients served by public psychiatric facilities declined from 558,239 in 1955 to 37,209 in 2016 (ibid). Some scholars argue that “deinstitutionalization” led to the “new” homelessness of the 1980s (Dear & Wolch, 2014; Rukmana, 2010, 2011; Wolch et al., 1988). Other scholars note that homelessness, particularly among families, only emerged two decades after “deinstitutionalization” but coincided, as discussed, with the affordable housing crisis (Borchard, 1997; Cohen & Sokolovsky, 1989, Hopper et al., 1985). Scholars in this camp showed that major psychiatric disabilities and criminal justice involvement were not correlated with family homelessness (Burt & Cohen, 1989; McChesney, 1995). 

More accurately,  mental health and substance problems among single adults increase the risk of such people entering homelessness while “homelessness itself plays a role in drug use and overdose risk” (Doran et al, 2022: 1). Mental health & substance use problems and homelessness are, therefore, bidirectional risk factors (Doran et al, 2022; Liu and Hwang,2021; Lieu et al, 2021)  However, researchers also acknowledge the need to identify the traumas that such people have experienced before they became homeless.

That is because homelessness among single adults is partly an outcome of multiple childhood traumas.  Researchers call these traumas adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  ACEs include direct traumas, such as abuse and neglect, and indirect traumas, such as witnessing domestic violence and experiencing the deaths of parents (Liu et al, 2021; Padgett et al, 2012; Koh & Montgomery, 2021). Amid a childhood of poverty, these traumas and “constant exposure” to drugs and alcohol can influence early drug use, “substance abuse…symptoms”, and   “exacerbate…mental illness” (ibid).(Padgett & Henwood, 2011:189; Padgett et al, 2012; Henwood, Padgett, Smith & Tiderington, 2012: 238). 

One review of 29 studies[12] found that the lifetime prevalence of one or more ACEs among the homeless was 89.8% and the lifetime prevalence of four or more ACEs was 53.9% compared to 38-39% and 3-5% in the global general population, respectively (Liu et al, 2021).

  • conclusion

This literature review examined causes of homelessness in Las Vegas in context of national and regional trends. Nationally, an increasing deficit of affordable housing units  for low-income renters since the 1980s has contributed to homelessness in the United States  (Shinn & Khadduri, 2020).  Mid 20th century urban renewal programs in major cities like New York and Los Angeles destroyed cheap housing stocks, such as single-room occupancy units (SROs) (Rukumana, 2020; Rossie, 1989).  Cities did not replenish stocks of affordable housing for low-income households. Since the end of the Great Recession (2008-2010), housing prices have surged well beyond the growth in incomes (Harvard, 2022).  Increasingly, higher income groups cannot afford to own their homes. Many entered the rental market in the 2010s (ibid). Rental prices have, therefore, also risen dramatically.  Very poor urban households  – those who earn 80% or less than area median income (AMI) –  are excluded from even lower end market rate rental units. In this context, poor renters face risks to homelessness as rental prices continue to increase (National Low Income Coalition, 2020).

The urban poor have also experienced greater job insecurity since the 1980s.  We identified two factors. One was the decline of manufacturing jobs, beginning in the 1970s. The second was limited access to federal benefits, since the 1990s, and rental assistance programs (Dunlap & Johnson 1992; Jargowsky, 1997)Harvard, JCHS, 2022; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020). 

Higher rates of homelessness occur in large cities with the most expensive rental markets. But these problems are concentrated in the West, particularly in California (Colburn & Aldern, 2022; Hanratty, 2017; Harvard, 2017; Shinn & Khadduri, 2020). The West has the lowest share of affordable units for extremely low-income households (30 units per 100 households) (Watson et al., 2017). 

In the first half of the 2010s, homelessness increased in several western cities and declined nationally.   Homelessness then increased nationally in the second part of the 2010s. During this period homelessness continued increasing in major western cities, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. Homelessness began increasing in several Californian cities that underwent significant population growth, such as Oakland, Riverside, San Jose, and Santa Ana). In a few other western cities, like Las Vegas, homelessness declined but remained consistently above national averages. Unsheltered homelessness increased in Las Vegas and other major western cities and was correlated with housing supply shortages Batko et al, 2020).

The shortage of affordable housing in western cities forced  more higher-income families and individuals into the rental market,  which increased rental prices beyond capacities of low-income renters to comfortably secure housing (Harvard, 2022).  In this context, homelessness increased in cities like San Francisco, where rents were exceedingly higher and extreme poverty levels were lower than national averages. Homelessness remained high in rapidly growing cities, like Las Vegas, where both extreme poverty levels and rents were higher than national averages. 

The rate of homelessness in  Las Vegas remains high due to the vast shortage of affordable rental units for poor households. The city had the largest concentration of “cost-burdened” households among all others in U.S in 2020: 75% of extremely low-income households paid more than 30% of their income on rent (Seymore and Akers, 2021).  The city had only 14 affordable units for every 100 such households (ibid). Only 4% of renters received HUD rental assistance (Harvard JCHS, 2022: 36).   Many poor people in the city work or compete for low-skilled hospitality and leisure industry jobs that do not provide benefits but are highly sought by migrant workers (Borchard, 1997; Seymore & Akers, 2021).

Las Vegas’ affordable rental problem is an outcome of local housing market volatility. Local home prices soared above national averages in the early 2000s, then dropped far below national averages during the Great Recession.  Many homeowners who suffered foreclosures entered the rental market. Simultaneously, real estate investment trusts (REITs) converted foreclosed properties into rental accommodations – a trend called “rental market financialization” (Seymore & Akers, 2021).  These events spiked rental prices (further reducing access to housing) and increased evictions (and housing insecurity too).  In this context, the long run trend in homelessness in Las Vegas conformed to the macroeconomic conditions induced by the Great Recession and its recovery. Homelessness increased from 2008 to 2010, then declined but remained higher than the national average from 2010 to 2020 (Schuetz & Ring, 2021).

However, unsheltered homelessness increased in Las Vegas, in numerous western cities, and nationally. The rise of unsheltered homelessness was correlated with three supply constraints: higher rents and lower rental unit vacancy rates; lower numbers of affordable rental units per 100 extremely low-income households; and lower bed capacities in shelter systems (Batko et al, 2020).

Unsheltered persons have higher incidences of substance use problems, mental illnesses, chronic and infectious diseases, unintentional injuries, incarceration and foster care involvement than sheltered persons and people that do not experience homelessness (Montgomery et al., 2016; Batko et al, 2020; Liu & Hwang, 2021; Liu et al, 2021). Mental health burdens, substance use problems and overdose deaths are especially high among persons experiencing homelessness in western cities with high unsheltered populations, limited shelter bed capacity, and few psychiatric facilities (Batko et al, 2020; Nicholas et al, 2022; Streeter, 2022) The shortage of shelter beds in Las Vegas excludes many single homeless population from the shelter system but  those with mental illness and substance use disorders face more difficulties connecting to that system (Cohen et al, 2019). Mental health and substance use problems are risks to homelessness while homelessness itself can also increase risks to mental health burdens, substance use problems and overdose (Doran et al, 2022; Shelton et al; Liu and Hwang,2021; Lieu et al, 2021). In this context, traumatic events in early life — adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – are more prevalent among persons experiencing homelessness and potentially associated with their higher levels of substance use and mental health burdens.  

Our future work will  investigate the causes of homelessness of the predominantly single adult and unsheltered population in Las Vegas across three parameters,:  (1) structural causes (extreme poverty and housing insecurity) (2) bi-directional risk factors (health burdens and substance use problems and (3) traumatic events that induce or create risks to homelessness (ACEs).  

Appendix – Tables 1-3

Cities in each table include the largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and cities identified as “hotspots” for unsheltered homelessness (Batko, Oneto and Shroyer, 2020; Harvard 2017). Cities in bold are large MSAs and unsheltered hotspots. Cities in italics are only hotspots. Other cities are only large MSAs.  Data sources for each table are listed below.

Table 1: Total and unsheltered homelessness (2010, 2015, and 2020)

 2010   2015   2020   
Citytotal homelesssheltered%sheltered%unshelteredtotalshelt%shelt%unshelttotalshelt%shelt%unshelt
Baltimore3,4192,1910.640.362,7962,4590.880.122,1931,8950.860.14
Boston5,1394,8840.950.056,4926,3530.980.026,1345,9990.980.02
Chicago6,2405,3560.860.146,7864,7310.700.305,3903,8610.720.28
Dallas3,7103,5090.950.053,1412,7780.880.124,4712,8520.640.36
Detroit2,8122,5500.910.092,5972,4460.940.061,5891,5030.950.05
Fresno City4,2881,8310.430.571,7225390.310.693,6419600.260.74
Honolulu4,1712,7970.670.334,9032,9640.600.404,4482,1020.470.53
Houston6,3684,2490.670.334,6092,6590.580.423,9742,3180.580.42
Las Vegas9,9497,0040.700.307,5093,5930.480.525,2831,8220.340.66
Los Angeles33,24314,0500.420.5841,17412,2260.300.7063,70617,6160.280.72
Miami3,8793,1200.800.204,1523,1450.760.243,5602,5400.710.29
Minneapolis3,0562,8080.920.083,2153,0920.960.043,0492,4070.790.21
New York53,18750,0760.940.0675,32372,1400.960.0477,94374,0390.950.05
Oakland4,3412,3780.550.454,0401,6430.410.598,1371,8250.220.78
Orlando4,0412,0650.510.492,1121,8200.860.142,0071,5480.770.23
Phoenix6,9994,2700.610.395,6314,3420.770.237,4193,6520.490.51
Portland4,2352,6440.620.383,8011,9140.500.504,1732,1360.510.49
Riverside3,1261,0830.350.652,3728840.370.632,8847290.250.75
San Antonio3,2911,6740.510.492,8911,7330.600.402,9321,6580.570.43
San Diego8,3833,9180.470.538,7424,5860.520.487,6383,6670.480.52
San Francisco5,8232,8810.490.516,7752,4170.360.648,1242,9440.360.64
San Jose7,0862,1030.300.706,5561,9290.290.719,6051,6830.180.82
Santa Ana, CA8,3332,6090.310.694,4522,2510.510.496,9783,0170.430.57
Seattle9,0226,2220.690.3110,1226,3190.620.3811,7516,1730.530.47
St Louis1,3051,1680.900.101,3121,2000.910.091,2601,0620.840.16
Tampa7,4737260.100.901,9311,1750.610.391,4528400.580.42
Washington DC6,5396,1090.930.077,2986,7540.930.076,3805,7270.900.10

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (2022). 2021 AHAR: Part 1 – PIT Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S. Retrieved: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/ahar/2021-ahar-part-1-pit-estimates-of-homelessness-in-the-us.html  (Analyzed by authors)

Table 2: Trends in total and unsheltered homeless (2010-2020)

 2010-2015 (% changes) 2015-2020 (%changes)
Citytotal homelessunshelteredtotalunshelt
Baltimore-18%-24%-22%2%
Boston26%-3%-6%0%
Chicago9%16%-21%-2%
Dallas-15%6%42%25%
Detroit-8%-4%-39%0%
Fresno City-60%11%111%5%
Honolulu18%7%-9%13%
Houston-28%9%-14%-1%
Las Vegas-25%23%-30%13%
Los Angeles24%13%55%2%
Miami7%5%-14%4%
Minneapolis5%-4%-5%17%
New York42%-2%3%1%
Oakland-7%14%101%18%
Orlando-48%-35%-5%9%
Phoenix-20%-16%32%28%
Portland-10%12%10%-1%
Riverside-24%-3%22%12%
San Antonio-12%-9%1%3%
San Diego4%-6%-13%4%
San Francisco16%14%20%-1%
San Jose-7%0%47%12%
Santa Ana, CA-47%-19%57%7%
Seattle12%7%16%10%
St Louis1%-2%-4%7%
Tampa-74%-51%-25%3%
Washington DC12%1%-13%3%

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (2022). 2021 AHAR: Part 1 – PIT Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S. Retrieved: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/ahar/2021-ahar-part-1-pit-estimates-of-homelessness-in-the-us.html

Table 3 Homelessness, deep poverty, median rent, and population growth levels

cityhomelessness rate(%) (2010)homelessness rate (%) (2020)deep poverty (%)  (2021)median rent^($)(2021)% over median rentpopulation growth (%)
Detroit0.070.046.3881410
St Louis0.050.055.278325.71
Tampa0.270.056.7112580.67
Chicago0.080.065.8122496.51
Houston0.110.066.8109275.312
Riverside0.070.065.9119992.56
Baltimore0.130.085.3121394.73
Orlando0.190.086.312279712
Dallas0.090.095123598.211
Minneapolis0.090.093.7113682.35
Washington DC0.120.114.716821708
Miami0.160.1361336114.48
San Antonio0.160.136.598157.511
Phoenix0.170.165.8111178.39
Boston0.150.184.92034226.55
Portland0.190.184.71404125.47
Santa Ana, CA0.280.22NA20312269
San Diego0.270.235.61743179.86
Las Vegas0.510.257.8997608
Oakland0.170.34.821432448
Fresno City0.460.37NA90745.64
Seattle0.340.414.61741179.59
San Francisco0.330.434.83044388.66
Honolulu0.440.45NA17381794
San Jose0.40.5NA2702333.77
Los Angeles0.340.636.61746180.33
New York0.620.876.31985218.65
U.S.A.0.210.18%5.5623 4

*rates of homelessness in each city were calculated by dividing the point-in-time count of persons experiencing homelessness by the official population estimate of the metropolitan statistical area

^ median rent levels for one bedroom unit

Sources: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (2022). 2021 AHAR: Part 1 – PIT Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S. Retrieved: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/ahar/2021-ahar-part-1-pit-estimates-of-homelessness-in-the-us.html; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (n.d.). 50th percentile rent estimates. Retrieved: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/50per.html#2021l; U.S. Census Bureau (2022). Poverty: 2019 and 2021 – American Community Survey Briefs. Report Number ACSBR-014: https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2022/acs/acsbr-014.html; U.S. Census Bureau (n.d.). American Community Survey (2017-2021).  Retrieved: https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs

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[1] ~34% to ~24% of the total rental stock (Harvard JCHS, 2022: 35)

[2] Cities with higher shares of rental housing and single person-homes have higher rates of family, compared to single adult, homelessness (Fargo et al., 2013; Filer et al., 1993; Hanratty, 2017; Lee, 206; Schuetz & Ring, 2021).

[3] A 2017 study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies showed that rates of homelessness in cities with median rents above $1300 were significantly greater than the national rate of homelessness (0.17). These cities included New York (0.42), Los Angeles (0.39), San Francisco (0.33), Boston (0.29).  Cities with median rents below $1,300 had lower rates of homelessness, including those with high poverty rates. These cities included St. Louis (0.10) and Detroit (0.08-0.09) (Harvard, 2017)

[4] The sample of cities analyzed in Tables 1-3 in the Appendix includes  large metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) (Harvard JCHS, 2017) and cities with the largest unsheltered populations during that period (Batko, Oneto and Shroyer, 2020). Please refer to the tables for more details.

[5] They did not reenter the housing market even after housing prices stabilized in 2017 (Mallach, 2014; Schuetz, 2019)

[6] Each of these groups paid lower shares  of their income over the decade on housing (Schuetz, 2019)

[7] This trend of the “financialization” of the rental market occurred throughout Nevada, California, Texas, and New York (Andrews & Sisson, 2018; Semuels, 2019; Seymore & Akers, 2021)

[8] In Nevada, tenants can be removed from housing less than 10 days after an eviction notice (Davidson, 2019; Seymore & Akers, 2021). Because the state lacks eviction mediation policies, tenants  must also assume all responsibilities in this process, which includes arranging a court hearing, filing their own case and bearing costs (ibid).

[9] In comparison to Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Riverside (Schuetz & Ring, 2021)

[10]Phoenix and Riverside (Schuetz & Ring, 2021)

[11] The number of affordable rental units per 100 extremely low-income households in all fourteen cities in the study were lower than the national rate (Batko, Oneto & Shroyer, 2020)

[12] The studies comprised 16,942 individuals from the US, Canada and the UK (Liu et al, 2021)

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