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Careers Helping the Homeless

Working with the homeless not only helps individuals and families, but also can serve to strengthen an entire community. From social workers to healthcare providers to educators, you’ll have many career options to explore. Find out more about your future dedicated to helping others.

Author: STEPS Staff
Editor: STEPS Staff

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5 Alarming Facts About Homelessness in America


A total of 552,830 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2018.


The number one cause of homelessness is not being able to find affordable housing.


Homelessness increased by 0.3% (1,834 people) between 2017 and 2018.


Shelters only have enough temporary beds for 70% of the homeless population.


24% of the homeless population is chronically homeless, meaning they’ve been homeless for at least a year or repeatedly.


National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

National Alliance to End Homelessness

Career Paths Where You Can Help the Homeless

There are many ways you can help the homeless on a professional level. You can work directly with those experiencing homelessness by educating them, legally representing them, or treating their well-being. Counselors, social workers, teachers, nurses, and other professionals specialize in just that. Or you can work behind the scenes, working on policies that help the homeless or getting involved in urban planning that shelters them. Here are just some of the many career paths where you can help the homeless.

Social Work

If you’d like to help the homeless population in a very direct way, then you may want to consider a career in social work. In this field, you’ll be able to help those experiencing homelessness gain access to housing, food, education, jobs, and other resources they need to get off the streets. You can work with individuals or families, children or adults. There are even organizations like the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth and OutFront Minnesota that specialize in helping homeless teenagers get what they need to be safe and comfortable as they finish school and transition into adulthood. If this seems like a career path for you, consider getting a bachelor’s, master’s (MSW), or doctorate (DSW) degree in social work or start volunteering with your local homeless shelters or organizations.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career 2018 Median Salary
Job Growth
Degree Path
Child, Family and School Social Workers $46,270 7.3% Social Work
Healthcare Social Workers $56,200 17% Social Work
Community and Social Services Managers $65,320 13% Social Work

Public Policy

Another way to help the homeless is by entering a career in public policy. This could mean becoming a legislator or representative in your area or becoming a political scientist who analyzes and writes about policies to promote change.

If you choose to get involved in politics, you could push for affordable housing like councilman Mitch O’Farrell did in Los Angeles. You could also work for organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness that are involved in advocating for a number of policies to get passed by Congress to help prevent and eliminate homelessness. Policies like Housing First that provide permanent housing to the homeless have already been effectively enacted, proving this is a great way to help this population.

If you want to get involved in public policy, check with your local homeless organizations to see what they’re already doing and ways to get involved. You may also benefit from studying political science at the college level and getting involved in your area’s politics and community however you can.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career 2018 Median Salary
Job Growth
Degree Path
City Manager
$104,980 5.7% Public Administration
Legislator $24,670 5.2% Public Administration
Political Scientist / Policy Analyst $117,570 5.3% Master of Public Administration (MPA)

Teaching and Education

There are a lot of ways teachers can help students who are homeless, ranging from providing a list of community resources for the child or family to just being a good influence in their life. If you want to work in education but not in a teaching role, you can still help homeless youth succeed. There are many resources that schools and its administrators can offer homeless youth, including money for transportation, more leniency when the student’s grades are suffering, and providing adults for the kid to talk to about being homeless.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career 2018 Median Salary
Job Growth
Degree Path
Kindergarten /Elementary School Teachers $33,970 6.4% Elementary Education
High School Teachers $60,320 4% Secondary Education
Special Education Teachers $59,780 3% Special Education
Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Teachers $53,630 -10% Education / Teaching
Career and Technical Education Teachers $56,750 -1% Education / Teaching
Elementary, Middle School and High School Principals $95,310 4% Master’s Degree in Education Administration
Education Doctorate Degree (Ed.D.)
Education Administrators (Elementary and High School) $90,060 5.7% Master’s Degree in Education Administration
Education Doctoral Degree (Ed.D.)

Direct Patient Care

Regardless of the hospital or medical facility, healthcare professionals often find themselves treating patients who are homeless in their day-to-day work. Medical professionals who want to be even more involved can offer their services to homeless organizations and shelters or working at shelters or rescue missions that have on-site clinics. You don’t even need to become a doctor to do this. Many nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants help the homeless population get the care that they need. There are even doctors who treat the homeless on the streets. While you don’t have to go that far, there are always ways medical professionals can provide healthcare to the homeless.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career 2018 Median Salary
Job Growth
Degree Path
Registered Nurse
$71,730 12.1% Associate of Science in Nursing (ADN)

Bachelor of Science Nursing (BSN)

Master of Nursing in Science (MSN)
Physician Assistant
$108,610 31% Master’s in Physician Assistant Studies

Doctor of Science in Physician Assistant Studies
Nurse Practitioner $107,030 28.2% Master of Science in Nursing

Doctor of Nursing Practice

Public Health

There are many ways you can help the homeless through a career in public health. You could teach the general population about the health risks and issues those experiencing homelessness face, which could inspire them to get involved with local homeless shelters and organizations. You could work with organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Psychological Association (APA) to educate the general public about the physical and mental health issues the homeless face. You could even help journalistically investigate the merits of homelessness being a public health issue. Each path has its own set of education and experience requirements, as well as earnings potential. Learn more about possible careers below.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career 2018 Median Salary
Job Growth
Degree Path
$69,660 5% Master of Public Health (MPH)
Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)
Community Health Worker
$39,540 12.5% College degree not typically required
Medical and Health Services Manager $99,730 17.6% Master of Health Administration (MHA)
Health Educator $54,220 10.3% Bachelor’s Degree in Health Education

Criminal Justice

Every year, roughly 48,000 people entering homeless shelters are coming from jail or prison—almost directly going from being locked up to being homeless. In fact, as many as 15 percent of those in jail report having been homeless at some point in their lives. Pursuing a career in criminal justice is one way to address issues such as this. There are a many ways you can help the homeless through a career in criminal justice. For example, as a police sergeant, you could help enact new protocols that improve police interactions with the homeless population. Or you could become a public defender and protect the rights of the homeless. This could involve joining an organization like the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty to help them combat the criminalization of the homeless population.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career 2018 Median Salary
Job Growth
Degree Path
Police Officer
$63,380 5% Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice
Police Supervisors $89,030 4.8% Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice
$120,910 6% Juris Doctor Degree
Probation and Parole Officer $53,020 3.3% Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice
Correctional Treatment Specialist $53,020 3.3% Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Urban Planning and Development

A great way to help the homeless on a professional level is to become an urban and regional planner. In this career field, you’ll get to develop land use plans and programs. While the job in and of itself may not work directly with the homeless population, you can aim to make that your focus by helping plan for and create affordable housing for the homeless or revitalize properties into facilities the homeless can afford to live in. Since there’s already a shortage of shelters and housing for the homeless population, more urban and regional planners are needed to create affordable housing options for the homeless, especially in expensive cities like San Francisco and New York. If you’re interested in this career, it generally requires a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, of which there are 75 accredited programs.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career2018 Median Salary Job Growth
Degree Path
Urban and Regional Planners$73,05011%Master’s in Urban Planning/Development

Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Counseling

According to the Coalition of the Homeless, around one-third of homeless single adults living in shelters and two-thirds sleeping on the streets or in other public spaces suffer from mental illness or addiction disorders. Given the nature of these disorders, these individuals need the help of behavioral health and substance abuse counselors. If you’re interested in helping the homeless population who suffer from mental illness or addiction, you can pursue several career paths, including a mental health and substance abuse counselor, a mental health and substance abuse social worker, or a counseling psychologist. Depending on which role interests you, you’ll either need to study social work or psychology and may need to attend graduate school. In any of these roles, you’ll help these individuals balance or improve symptoms of mental illness, become sober, and/or process the trauma of being homeless.

Popular Careers Where You Can Make a Difference

Career2018 Median Salary Job Growth
Degree Path
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counselor$44,63022%Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker$44,84017.8%Master of Social Work (MSW)
Clinical/ Counseling Psychologist$76,99014.7%Master’s Degree in Psychology

Expert Interview: Working with the Homeless


Alyssa Kennedy

View Bio

Alyssa Kennedy received her bachelor’s degree in Health & Societies: Health Policy from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Health from the same school. She works full-time at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Infectious Disease department as the HIV Ambulatory Outpatient & Ryan White Program Manager. She also works at Prevention Point Philadelphia as a case manager at their weekly Ladies’ Night event, in addition to being a harm reduction specialist in the mobile syringe exchange program. In both positions, Alyssa has served the homeless population facing either HIV/AIDS and/or substance abuse issues. In the near future, Alyssa is preparing to go to law school to pursue a career as a public health and interest lawyer.

Alyssa Kennedy has a passion for helping the homeless. She does this every day at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Prevention Point Philadelphia. In her roles, she provides harm reduction supplies and case management support for people who are struggling with addiction or who have HIV—most of whom are homeless. We reached out to ask her some questions about her career helping the homeless.

What led you to want to help people who are facing homelessness?

I knew that I wanted to go into the field of public health ever since the passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. By the time I started my undergraduate experience at the University of Pennsylvania, I was determined to complete studies in health policy and economics. I knew that if I wanted to serve those most vulnerable that I would need additional tools to be able to support those efforts and so I completed a master’s in public health. With the knowledge from my undergraduate and graduate studies, I hope to be able to complete a law school education, so I have all of the skills and knowledge accessible to be able to help vulnerable populations, including the homeless, achieve justice and equity.

What are some of the biggest rewards of helping the homeless?

The biggest reward helping the homeless would be knowing that you were able to make a significant change in that person’s life by doing even some of the smallest tasks. Additionally, being able to concretely guide someone through their life toward success and be able to celebrate with them and for them on this achievement is one of the most proud and cherished aspects of being able to work with the homeless.

What are some challenges that you face when helping the homeless?

The biggest challenge helping the homeless is working with established public policy, from all levels of government and for all different topics (e.g., housing, substance abuse, mental health, discrimination, etc.), which often makes it difficult to be able to adequately address their biggest concerns and problems. This is one of the main reasons why I’m pursuing a JD. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to work on policies that actually adequately address homeless people’s issues and concerns, rather than placing legal barriers in their way.

Why should people care about ending homelessness in America?

Homelessness is a serious public health issue. It is closely connected to diminished physical and mental health. Additionally, homelessness contributes to increasing health costs, including more visits to the emergency department by individuals who may or may not be insured (and if they are insured may reimburse minimally) and have higher rates of infectious diseases and chronic illness.

What would you tell someone considering a career in helping the homeless?

Be patient, be kind, be understanding, be mindful, be present, be an advocate, be informed on politics and policy issues, be resourceful, be quick to act, and think on your feet.

Dispelling the Most Popular Myths About Homelessness

There are a lot of myths about homelessness in America that have been circulating for years. It’s time to bust them. Here are five of the most popular myths about homelessness and the actual reality behind them.

Myth #1

People are homeless by choice.


There are many reasons people are homeless: eviction, lack of affordable housing, struggling with addiction, and so forth. But being homeless by choice is not one of them. No one would choose to sleep out in the cold. There’s always something deeper going on.

Myth #2

We’ll never solve homelessness.


There are many effective solutions for ending homelessness in America. Cities like New York City are reducing homelessness through housing programs, food vouchers, and other targeted campaigns. It is not impossible and even just making a dent in homelessness is worth the effort.

Myth #3

Everyone who’s homeless is mentally ill or an addict.


The number one cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing—not mental illness or addiction. Only a portion of homeless people suffers from mental illness or addiction. A lot of those experiencing homelessness are families.

Myth #4

Homeless people are dangerous.


Very few crimes are committed by those experiencing homelessness toward people who are trying to help them. The attitude typically given by the homeless when someone is giving them money is gratitude.

Myth #5

Homeless people are lazy.


Surviving on the streets takes more work than you may realize. Trying to get off the streets and into housing and employment when you’re physically and mentally exhausted is not a life of ease. It takes work, day-in and day-out.

5 Impactful Ways You Can Volunteer to Help the Homeless

Do you know you want to help the homeless but aren’t ready to dedicate an entire career to it? Volunteering is a great way to start small while still making a big impact. Here are just a few ways you can dedicate your time.

Volunteer at your local food bank or soup kitchen.

Food banks and soup kitchens across the country are always looking for volunteers. This entails stocking pantries, delivering food, and serving food to the homeless in your area. This is a great way to directly help this population in a setting that gets them all together inside. You’ll see the impact you’re having right away. If you’d like to get involved, contact your local food bank or soup kitchen and ask how you can help.

Help build affordable housing.

There are opportunities across America to help build affordable housing. Don’t worry: You don’t need to know how to build a house or become a full-time construction worker to do this. You don’t even need experience usually. The organizations that create these building projects help guide you every step of the way. You can even bring your family or help build as a group with your friends. See if there are any opportunities near you.

Tutor homeless youth.

If you’d like to help a homeless kid or teenager excel in school so they can get into college, becoming a tutor is a great way to do so. You can do this by applying for tutoring jobs in your area or looking for volunteer opportunities where you’ll go into local schools and help the kids where they’re at, perhaps in an afterschool program or during lunch. This may be in one subject or many.

Donate to a homeless shelter.

If you don’t have enough time right now to spend an afternoon or day serving the homeless, you can still help by donating food or clothing to a homeless shelter or The Salvation Army. These organizations can help make sure your supplies get to the homeless. It’s a quick, easy way to get involved. It can even often be used as a tax write-off (though that’s never the reason for doing it, just an added bonus).

Hand out food to the homeless.

You don’t need to work with an organization to help the homeless. You can always do it yourself. Many people will get together a group of friends or family members and hand out food to the homeless all across town. You could do this through an organization like Mobile Loaves & Fishes or just get a group into your own car and hand out sandwiches and water to every homeless person you see around town.