Understanding the Homelessness Crisis

Homelessness is one of Tucson’s most visible challenges. Yet service needs, outcomes, and access to housing resources vary across different populations, calling for unique and targeted approaches.

Rising Homelessness

After recording small decreases in the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night from 2017 to 2019, data from Point in Time (PIT) Counts demonstrated a sharp increase from 2019 to 2020 (pre-COVID-19 pandemic). Between 2019 and 2020, unsheltered homelessness increased 60.3%. When considering data reported through the unsheltered Point in Time count, sheltered Point in Time count, and shelter beds not included in the 2020 sheltered Point in Time count, the overall number of people experiencing homelessness on a single given night in Pima County rose by 20.9%, from 1,372 in 2019 to 1,660 in 2020.


Vulnerable Populations

Factors related to one’s age, race, or any number of lived experiences such as behavioral health or domestic violence history put populations at increased risk of experiencing homelessness as well as the most dangerous harms related to homelessness, up to and including death.

History in the Criminal Justice System

Populations with a history of involvement in the criminal justice system and mental illnesses or substance abuse are particularly at-risk to experience homelessness. Between 10% and 25% of people exiting correctional institutions experience homelessness, and many experienced homelessness prior to incarceration. Research shows that formerly-incarcerated individuals reentering the community who suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse disorder face significant barriers in securing stable housing and necessary treatment, resulting in higher rates of recidivism, homelessness, and poor health outcomes. Also, formerly-incarcerated sex-offenders experience several barriers to stable housing. There are currently 122 registered sex-offenders in Tucson that are experiencing homelessness.

Individuals with Mental Illness

The rate of unsheltered homelessness among adults with serious mental illness has increased faster than the rate of any other population. The Point in Time count revealed the percentage of adults with serious mental illness who are unsheltered has risen dramatically from 28.2% in 2017 to 53.2% in 2020.

Domestic Violence Survivors

Survivors of domestic violence and people living with HIV/AIDS experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to be sheltered than unsheltered. Adult survivors of domestic violence experiencing homelessness were 2.5 times more likely to be sheltered than unsheltered in the 2020 Point in Time count. Adults living with HIV/AIDS experiencing homelessness were 7.8 times more likely to be sheltered than unsheltered in the 2020 Point in Time count.


Veterans experiencing homelessness comprised 8% of the emergency shelter beds in the 2020 Point in Time count. About a third (61 individuals) of the homeless veteran population (185 individuals) were reported unsheltered. Moreover, of those unsheltered veterans experiencing homelessness, 23 individuals were reported to be chronically homeless.

Race and Ethnicity

Black/African American and Native American/American Indian communities are dramatically over-represented in the homeless population relative to their representation in the broader community.


In Pima County in 2020, there are an estimated 1,515 total unaccompanied youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness, 352 parenting/pregnant youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness, 669 youth at risk of experiencing homelessness, and 1,198 youth experiencing homelessness. There is a significant shortage of short-term crisis housing designated for unaccompanied youth, presenting obstacles to reducing youth homelessness. Several specific youth populations experiencing homelessness encounter unique challenges, including LGBTQ+, youth of color, unaccompanied minors and youth involved in justice or child welfare, and pregnant and parenting minors.

Evidence demonstrates it is critical to implement intervention as urgently as possible. Fifty percent (50%) of chronically homeless adults reported being homeless between 18 and 24 years old. Moreover, every additional day of waiting between assessment and housing placement is associated with a 2% increase in a youth’s likelihood of returning to homelessness after entering a housing program.


Chronic Homelessness

The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness has steadily increased since 2017. On the night of the 2020 Point in Time count, a total of 383 persons experiencing chronic homelessness were identified, up from 225 in 2017. People experiencing chronic homelessness are especially vulnerable to death on the streets.

Point in Time count data point to a growing population of unsheltered persons experiencing chronic homelessness and a relatively small proportion of persons experiencing chronic homelessness residing in longer-term supportive housing. This data indicates a critical need to improve the region’s Coordinated Entry system through which persons are prioritized for housing based on vulnerability.


Homeless Response System

The goal of an effective homeless response system is to quickly identify persons experiencing or at risk of homelessness and provide housing and services through which they can achieve housing stability. The Mayor and Tucson City Council have emphasized the need for a Housing First approach as this model is proven to be a best practice in reducing homelessness. However, there is a need for shared definitions, community wide planning, and clear expectations among funding providers with respect to the Housing First model and “low-barrier/low-demand” shelters. Without a clearly articulated definition or consistent expectations, projects operate along a continuum of approaches with limited oversight or monitoring.

An August 2020 HCD staff review of ongoing challenges and targeted solutions related to the effectiveness and efficiency of Tucson’s homeless response system revealed the following takeaways:

  • A shortage of and lack of formal coordination among outreach and housing navigator services contributes to long periods of time spent homeless before making contact with the homeless response system. On average, persons served through local homeless assistance programs spent 13.8 months in unsheltered or temporarily sheltered environments before moving into permanent housing.
  • Underutilization of existing temporary shelter and supportive housing beds illustrates the need to maximize existing resources. On the night of the 2020 Point in Time count, the 581 unused temporary shelter and supportive housing beds in Tucson/Pima County outnumbered those experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
  • Lack of real-time bed availability, direct referral pathways, and dynamic prioritization through the Coordinated Entry system leaves persons seeking shelter often unable to find an available opening.
  • Unsheltered persons and those in temporary shelters on the night of the 2020 Point in Time count (1,324) outnumbered unoccupied longer-term supportive housing beds (240) by more than 5 to 1.
  • A lack of affordable housing for extremely low-income renters in Tucson and rising housing costs as described below also contributes to homelessness in Tucson. A high rate of return to homelessness after receiving services indicates a need for more intensive supportive service interventions.


Next: Addressing the Crisis