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Homelessness in the United States: A Manifestation of internal displacement

By Priscilla Otero Guerra | Issue 23

Boston, man holding sign seeking human kindness. Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash.

Homelessness in the United States of America is usually not considered as an issue of migration. Migration in public discourse is focused on inward undocumented migration from across international borders. Homelessness is addressed as a domestic social failing derived from differing understandings of liberty protected by the U.S. Constitution. Yet, there are strong arguments to be made that homelessness in the U.S. is a migration concern, an issue of internal displacement and one which requires international attention. International attention is needed to be able to resolve the violence which is allowed, if not ignored, by the U.S.’ institutionalised domestic structures, and which in turn permit, if not stimulate, homelessness.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement detailed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights are explicit: ‘Whether they cluster in camps, escape into the countryside to hide from potential sources of persecution and violence or submerge into the community of the equally poor and dispossessed, the internally displaced are among the most vulnerable populations, desperately in need of protection and assistance.’ The United Nations defines internal displacement as ‘persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border.’ We must consider, and publicly proclaim, these two definitions of internally displaced people when urging the U.S. government to be held accountable for permitting the homelessness of its citizens.

Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967–2022, U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Nevertheless, the national government misuses spending that could assist its displaced populations. Income inequality and geographic inequality in the U.S. are on the rise. The racial disparities in income inequality are increasing, as shown in the graph from the U.S. Census Bureau (above). As well, homelessness has been on the rise by 6% each year since 2017; of those counted, about 8% of the U.S. population have experienced homelessness. In a country where the total population of people of colour is less than 20%, high rates of homelessness are a cause for concern, as the percentage of unhoused people of colour increases each year. Black people, 13.6% of the US population, are disproportionately represented in the homeless population, around 48 out of every 10,000 people, four times more likely than the White population. This is without counting the thousands of individuals who shelter with families or friends, go unreported, as hidden homeless.

The main drivers of homelessness are shortages of affordable housing, unemployment, and ill health. Income inequality is a cause of homelessness, and without doubt, historical racial inequalities are a contributing factor. Present racial capitalist structures, such as income inequality sustained by the exploitation and oppression of people of colour who overwhelmingly represent the working classes, reinforce a form of violence in its economic strings. The working poor, individuals who are fully employed but whose income falls below poverty levels, are overrepresented in these populations. A total of around 8% of the 11.4% working poor in the U.S. are people of colour. People of colour earn significantly less than their white counterparts and experience higher rates of job loss, ill health, and discrimination.

Homeless people in the U.S meet the definition of internally displaced migrants for a multitude of reasons. The vast majority of homeless people do not cross international borders. Without proper housing, they are forced to leave places of habitual residence as a human rights violation. Further, homelessness is typically associated with various forms of violence both prior and after the loss of habitual residence. Homeless people migrate internally for opportunities, moving away from but also towards further violations of human rights, increasingly establishing encampments.

Human rights standards are clear and have been ratified by the U.S. in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to the security of the person (Article 3), the right to remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity with other social means of protection (Article 23), and the right to a standard of living adequate for the wellbeing of himself including housing (Article 25). Therefore, U.S. domestic policies must ensure these rights.

Domestic legal frameworks supporting these rights include the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, which declares the state to be held accountable in the promotion of ‘general Welfare’, and for ‘the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’. Upon closer inspection, the Fifth Amendment articulates that no person ‘be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’. But what would the state of U.S. civil rights and the welfare of its citizens be without civil disobedience and the right to protest, when the domestic law is in violation of the basic understandings of human dignity? Should the U.S., which fashions itself as a global leader of human rights protections abroad, not fulfil adherence to international obligations as a liberal democracy, when its domestic laws support actions that violate human rights?

The words of former President Franklin D Roosevelt ring true, ‘We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.’

Despite these domestic and international legal frameworks, present U.S. policies do not guarantee housing protections, leading to high rates of homelessness. Rent control is not nationalised, with states such as Florida drafting bills that block local governments from implementing rent control. Increasing costs of living do not come with increased real wages. A national program of rent control and rental assistance to prevent displacement would aid the 19% of mayors who have reported that they lack the influence needed to address homelessness, with more than 60% of mayors stating lack of resources as a contributing factor. The nationalisation of policies that reduce or eliminate the seizure of housing should also be promoted.

Nationalised rent control, eliminating credit score checks for renters, job guarantee economic policy, adequate inexpensive national healthcare, and a robust consensus on standards of quality of life are just a few mechanisms that would help protect human rights and reduce homelessness. A consensus that all human beings deserve a dignified high standard of life regardless of where they reside, as advocated by the European Commission, should be implemented in the U.S. People of colour are disproportionately affected by socio-economic failings and increasingly becoming internally displaced. Job guarantee economic policy would support these Americans who have invested in the U.S. economy and have been educated by the U.S education system. Cemented by their investments in the U.S., job security for U.S citizens is a right.

Recognising the unhoused of the U.S. as internally displaced would confront the violence permitted by present racial capitalist structures. To date, federal agencies have failed to end homelessness in the U.S. for reasons stated above. International recognition, with possible humanitarian assistance, would help to tackle poverty rates, violence, and ensure government accountability. These potential solutions align with U.S. constitutional values and fundamental human rights.

Priscilla Otero Guerra (Priscilla Otero) is a postgraduate at the University of Oxford where she researches ideologies, regimes, and political violence. Her work has led her to assist in resolving educational disparities, undocumented immigration, and environmental sustainability in the U.S states of Florida, New York, and Minnesota. She earned her bachelor’s degree with high honours in political science and philosophy from Gustavus Adolphus College. As a daughter of an immigrant family from the Dominican Republic in the U.S who has experienced marginalisation, Priscilla hopes to raise awareness of the socio-economic violence that occurs in the United States. Whether that be in her academic research, her work in civil organisations, or in her fiction as a literary author, she desires that the average voter become aware of epistemic manipulations and that a fair just society, with respect to individualism, is possible within a robust welfare state.


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