Mapping America’s Homelessness Problem Visualizes The Extent Of An Often Invisible Problem

See which cities have the most people living on their streets.

Homelessness is often an issue in the shadows. So finding new ways to visualize and contextualize the problem is important.


A recent Hack to End Homelessness event in Seattle brought together nonprofits, designers, and technologists to do that through a range of data-driven projects, including several involving maps. “A lot of the nonprofits wanted outreach, advocacy, and education work. Mapping is a great way to do that,” says Ethan Phelps-Goodman, the technical lead for the weekend.

The Committee to End Homelessness King County worked on the maps you can see here. They compare rates of homelessness (per 1,000 people) for 25 cities, and show whether the homeless are fully unsheltered, in nightly shelters, or in transitional or permanent accommodation. The maps are based on “one night count” data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a night every year when volunteers go out and survey the street population.

“It shows how much homelessness differs from city to city, and this tells us there is something that can be done,” says Phelps-Goodman. “There is homelessness in every city. But the magnitude varies greatly. This shows that some cities are doing something right and some cities are not doing things right.”

The cities with the biggest numbers of unsheltered are Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu, and Orlando–all warmer places where sleeping outside is more feasible.

Cities have different levels of support, too. For example, San Francisco places 70% of homeless individuals in permanent supported housing, while New York places 70% in nightly shelters that “are not places to build a life and better your situation,” Phelps-Goodman says.

Two other mapping projects also showed a lot of promise. We Count, developed with Union Gospel Mission, is an app that lets volunteers geotag and timestamp the homeless as they encounter them. They can input their needs (say, a new pair of boots), then find a way of helping the person. “The We Count platform will allow multiple service agencies to document their work and empower new volunteers to become immediate assets,” says the project project page.


Meanwhile, other nonprofits worked on mapping homelessness by legislative district, school district, and county. All the projects helped bring hidden data to light, and potentially help advocates for the homeless do their work.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.