After seven years of steady decline, the US homeless population has increased to roughly 554,000 people who are sleeping in cars, tent cities, or shelters in 2017.
The population data, released by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is based on point-in-time surveys conducted by local governments and volunteers throughout the United States.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson blamed the homeless epidemic on rising rents and stagnant wages, especially in major cities.
"Where we're not making great progress are in places like Los Angeles and New York City,” Carson told NPR. “These happen to be places where the rents are going up much faster than the incomes.”
It’s an issue that thousands of Americans who struggled to pay their rent and stay in their homes have experienced firsthand.
“A lot of people in America don’t realize they might be two checks, three checks, four checks away from being homeless,” Thomas Butler Jr., who sleeps in a tent near a freeway in Los Angeles told the AP.
High rates of homelessness in Western states contributed to this year’s population increase, though the total homeless population is down from nearly 650,000 people in 2010. In California, Oregon and Washington, the number of people living in public spaces, cars or tent cities has increased by 23%.
Read More: This Strategy for Ending Homelessness Is Catching On Around the World
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Though disruptive and disheveled people sleeping on sidewalks or in public transportation tend to attract the most attention, they make up a small percentage of the homeless population in many US cities.
In New York City, for example, the annual point-in-time survey — known as the HOPE Count— identified 3,892 individuals as street homeless. Meanwhile, about 60,000 people stayed in the New York City shelter system each night throughout 2017. On Monday, 22,934 children used the shelter system.
Childhood homelessness has been linked to lower educational achievement and high incidence of mental health problems. The vast majority of families experiencing homelessness in New York City are headed by women who struggle to earn an adequate income and afford housing while also caring for their children.
“It comes up often just in casual conversation, with the kids saying they don’t want to be labeled as ‘shelter kids,” one homeless advocate told The Progressive. “There’s always that feeling of, you know, ‘I can’t bring my friends over.’ ”