Homelessness ‘undermining the very fabric of our society’

homeless tents under a bridge

April 18, 2024 – A sharp uptick in homelessness in the U.S.—driven by high rents, shrinking public assistance, a lack of affordable housing, and fallout from the COVID pandemic—represents “a hard and complicated public health issue,” according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Howard Koh.

Koh is the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health and faculty chair of the Initiative on Health and Homelessness (IHH), which serves as an “academic home” for research and discussion on the subject. He was one of several experts who talked about the nation’s homeless problem in a wide-ranging article in the May-June 2024 issue of Harvard Magazine.

As of January 2023, the U.S. homeless population surged to about 650,000—up more than 12% from the prior year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That has translated to growing encampments of unhoused people in a host of American cities and towns. “Those encampments that are roiling communities from coast to coast—they are a very visible sign of the many systems failures that have driven this crisis,” Koh told Harvard Magazine. “Homelessness is undermining the very fabric of our society.”

The article cited studies from Harvard Chan School researchers showing the devastating impacts of homelessness. For example, Ryan Keen, a research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, found that experiencing housing insecurity in childhood is linked with increased levels of anxiety and depression. And a 2018 study from Jill Roncarati, an instructor in the Office of Education, found that, over a 10-year period, the mortality rate among unsheltered homeless people in Boston was 10 times higher than that of the general Massachusetts population.

Koh was also quoted in an accompanying Harvard Magazine article focused on the IHH and the importance of increasing research and education on the topic of homelessness.

Read the Harvard Magazine articles:
The Homelessness Public Health Crisis
Academia’s Absence from Homelessness

Learn more

Addressing the U.S. homelessness crisis (Harvard Chan School news)

A new drive to end homelessness (Harvard Chan School news)