Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new data project aims to help people understand one of the country’s most complex and enduring challenges.
America has an enduring homelessness problem, with incredible human and economic costs. When they’re acknowledged, homeless people are routinely shunned and criminalized, and often considered less than human. But even folks who want to help often find it hard to wrap their heads around the complex issue.
That’s where Gretchen Keillor’s new data project comes in. Keillor, an urban planner at the design firm Sasaki, wants to break the issue of homelessness down into simple, digestible parts through snazzy data visualizations. “As a planner, I think we should be taking a stronger responsibility in responding to this problem and integrating [homeless people] into the fabric of the city,” she says.
The first section of Keillor’s project presents the fundamentals of the issue. It gives a brief historical snapshot of homelessness in America, and contains answers to basic questions (who qualifies as a homeless person?) as well as more complex ones (what causes someone to become homeless?). By laying out this information in short lists and catchy infographics, Keillor hopes that concerned citizens, planners, and policymakers can dispel some common myths. “Homeless people aren’t this other demographic—they’re just people,” Keillor says. Contrary to what some may think, for example, it’s not laziness and lack of motivation that puts these people on the street, but usually a combination of systemic issues and bad luck. In fact, one of the biggest factors behind the phenomenon is the lack of affordable housing.
If the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts were to become a reality, homelessness in the U.S. would likely rise to levels not seen in nearly 30 years. That’s concerning, given how stubbornly persistent this problem already is in many parts of the country, a fact that the second part of Keillor’s project supports. Among other visualizations, it includes an interactive dot-map of the U.S. homeless population by region, state, and county based on government data. One dot represents five people:
Places with more people also have more homeless people, which is one reason some of those coastal cities have such dense pockets in the map above. But the project also lets viewers add in other layers economic, sociological, geographic, and demographic data. So, we can see the distribution of the homeless, color-coded by density (number of homeless per 100,000 people), for example. The bright red area around Las Vegas isn’t surprising—the city has the largest affordable housing deficit in the country.
To make that correlation between lack of affordable housing and homelessness even more stark, here’s the dot-map overlaid with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Check out the glaring hotspot in San Francisco:
Keillor’s map makes it amply clear that even in booming cities with large safety nets, the continued lack of cheap and decent housing makes homelessness unresolvable. That’s not to say safety nets haven’t helped—some Obama administration programs have significantly reduced homelessness rates nationwide—but they haven’t helped enough. The onus also lies with city governments, many of which have taken cruel and counterproductive approaches.
That’s where the third and final part of Keillor’s project comes in. The “strategies” section lays out successful solutions for designers, policymakers, and service providers. “Homelessness is a really weighty, overwhelming issue,” Keillor says. “Someone can go to this website… and find something they could start with.”