The #1 cause of homelessness

Dear Ryan,

My adult son has bipolar disorder. 

He is unable to work.  My husband and I support him as best as we can.  Without us, I’m pretty sure he would be homeless.

Is mental illness the #1 cause of homelessness? 

Thank you, 


Dear Jane,

Thank you for sharing. 

Your story is not uncommon.  Up to 65% of individuals with bipolar disorder are unable to maintain employment.

The short answer to your question is “No.”

The full answer is MUCH more complicated.

At first glance, mental illness is the most obvious “cause” of homelessness.  Nearly 100% of individuals who experience long-term homelessness have a mental health condition:

  • Traumatic brain injury is common (54% in one study).

  • Personality disorders are very common (92% in one study).

  • Trauma is almost universal (100% of women and 90% of men in one study)

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because:

  • Most people with a traumatic brain injury are not homeless.

  • Most people with a personality disorder are not homeless.

  • Most people with PTSD are not homeless.

  • In fact, most people who suffer from schizophrenia are not homeless.

So, if mental illness isn’t the #1 cause of homelessness, what is?

The answer is actually hidden in your question, specifically this line: “Without us, I’m pretty sure he would be homeless.

The most common reason someone becomes homeless is a lack of adequate support systems.

  • Sometimes the person has no family (e.g. aging out of the foster system).

  • Sometimes the family lacks the financial or other resources to help.

  • Sometimes the person’s issues completely overwhelm the family’s capacity to help.

By the way, I’m not blaming families. 

Caring for someone with severe mental illness (or addiction, etc.) can be all-consuming.  I’m in no position to judge what they’ve been through.

What’s my point?

We can end homelessness.

With proper support systems, everyone can stay housed.

When families are unable to provide the support and assistance, the rest of society will have to step in.  It is already happening (nonprofits, churches, government programs, etc.), but not at the scale necessary.

Homelessness seems like an unsolvable problem. 

It’s not.


Stay in touch

Receive weekly tips from Ryan about how to work with homeless, addicted and mentally ill patrons.