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Abstract Why do rates of homelessness differ across metropolitan contexts? Only tentative answers to this question are provided by previous investigations due to their reliance on a limited range of settings and independent variables. In an effort to be more comprehensive, we use 1990 Census S-Night data for 335 metropolitan areas to test explanations that stress the local housing market, economic conditions, demographic composition, the safety net, climate, and community transience as potential determinants of homelessness. Our analysis uncovers support for each explanation. However, median rent level has the dominant effect (+) on metro homelessness rates, followed by the percentage of single-person households (+). The robustness of these findings is demonstrated and their theoretical, methodological, and policy implications are considered.