How Many Experience Homelessness

Many people call or write the National Coalition for the Homeless to ask about the number of homeless people in the United States. There is no easy answer to this question and, in fact, the question itself is misleading. In most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance — not a permanent condition. A more appropriate measure of the magnitude of homelessness is the number of people who experience homelessness over time, not the number of “homeless people.”

Studies of homelessness are complicated by problems of definitions and methodology. This fact sheet describes definitions of homelessness, methodologies for counting homeless people, recent estimates of homelessness, and estimates of the increase in homelessness over the past two decades.

As a result of methodological and financial constraints, most studies are limited to counting people who are in shelters or on the streets. While this approach may yield useful information about the number of people who use services such as shelters and soup kitchens, or who are easy to locate on the street, it can result in underestimates of homelessness. Many people who lack a stable, permanent residence have few shelter options because shelters are filled to capacity or are unavailable. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found 23% of all requests for emergency shelter went unmet due to lack of resources. For families, the numbers are even worse: 29% of emergency shelter requests from families were denied (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006). During the past year, requests for emergency shelter increased in the survey cities by an average of 9 percent. Requests for shelter by homeless families alone increased by 5 percent in the past year.

People remain homeless an average of eight months in the survey cities. Officials estimate that, on average, single men comprise 51 percent of the homeless population, families with children 30 percent, single women 17 percent and unaccompanied youth 2 percent. The homeless population is estimated to be 42 percent African-American, 39 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Native American and 2 percent Asian. An average of 16 percent of homeless people is considered mentally ill; 26 percent are substance abusers. Thirteen percent are employed. Requests for assisted housing by low-income families and individuals increased in 86 percent of the cities during the last year.

In addition, a study of homelessness in 50 cities found that in virtually every city, the city’s official estimated number of homeless people greatly exceeded the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing spaces (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004). Moreover, there are few or no shelters in rural areas of the United States, despite significant levels of homelessness (Brown, 2002). As a result of these and other factors, many people in homeless situations are forced to live with relatives and friends in crowded, temporary arrangements. People in these situations are experiencing homelessness, but are less likely to be counted. For instance, of the children and youth identified as homeless by the Department of Education in FY2000, only 35% lived in shelters; 34% lived doubled-up with family or friends, and 23% lived in motels and other locations. Yet, these children and youth may not immediately be recognized as homeless and are sometimes denied access to shelter or the protections and services of the McKinney-Vento Act (U.S. Department of Education).

Extracted from fact sheets prepared by the National Coalition for the Homeless. For more information visit www.nationalhomeless.org.