Who Are the Homeless?

As I walked down Market Street in San Francisco early one morning I saw many people lying on the sidewalk. It got me wondering whether I was seeing a representative sample of people who are homeless. I thought it might be useful to look at some national data and to sort it in different ways that shed light on who the homeless are.

In case this post is too ponderous and detailed, let me summarize it up front.  Then you can wade through it if you want the details:

  1. People we see on the street generally have no shelter of any kind, have mental-health and substance-abuse problems, are chronically homeless, and have a particularly hard time climbing out of homelessness. The other homeless people tend to be families who have become homeless because of some kind of economic collapse, are homeless for a short period of time, and tend to be invisible to the public because they’re living in some kind of housing situation, however uncomfortable.
  2. The homeless population has decreased substantially over the past three or four years due to the improvement in economic conditions and federal housing initiatives. Homelessness is not an inherently intractable problem but reflects the lack of political will to do anything about it.

First let’s review the four broad categories of people listed in the federal definition of homelessness:

  1. “People who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or are exiting an institution where they temporarily resided if they were in shelter or a place not meant for human habitation before entering the institution.”
  2. “People who are losing their primary nighttime residence, which may include a motel or hotel or a doubled up situation, within 14 days and lack resources or support networks to remain in housing.”
  3. “Families with children or unaccompanied youth who are unstably housed and likely to continue in that state.”
  4. “People who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening situations related to violence; have no other residence; and lack the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.”

According to a 2013 federal HUD point-in-time report, about 610,000 people in the United States were homeless on any given night.  Of this number, 222,000 are people in families and 388,000 are individuals living alone.  A remarkable 23 percent of the total homeless population are children under the age of eighteen.  Most of these kids live with their homeless families but some live alone and have left their families due to a disruption, divorce, abuse, or neglect.

Homeless families tend to be invisible to the rest of us because they usually are living in some form of temporary shelter, car, motel, or other transitional arrangement such as temporarily living with other families or their extended family. This group of people usually becomes homeless through a serious financial reversal (loss of a job, eviction, medical condition that prevents the breadwinner from working), tend to be homeless for only a short period of time, and bounce back to stable housing with rent assistance, housing placement services, and employment support.

Of the 610,000 homeless people, 18 percent (or 109,000 persons) are chronically homeless: they have been homeless for one year or longer or experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and have a disability.   Chronically homeless people tend to have a high incidence of mental-health and substance-abuse problems, and are generally those we see sleeping on the street.

Looked at another way: of those people who fit into the federal definition of homelessness, approximately 60 percent (or 370,000 persons) have some degree of shelter even if this is primitive, uncomfortable, and temporary, and 40 percent (or 240,000 persons) have no shelter of any kind and sleep on the street.   It is likely that the majority of this latter group, the group we most closely identify with homelessness, are individuals who are chronically homeless, have a mental illness or drug-abuse problem, and have very little chance of escaping from this condition.

So I was right to be skeptical of the tendency to equate the people we see sleeping on the street with the entire homeless population.  The people sleeping on the street, though reflecting a great deal of human tragedy, actually represent a minority of the homeless population.  Of course, the other implication of this data is that the full extent of the problem is largely hidden from public view since most homeless people, those who have some form of shelter, tend to be invisible.

Some good news: largely because of government housing assistance and an improvement in the economy, the number of homeless people in the United States has declined in the last three years. Between 2010 and 2013:

  1. Total homelessness decreased by 6.1 percent.
  2. Chronic homelessness among individuals declined by 15.7 percent (or 17,219 persons).
  3. Homelessness among individuals declined nearly 4.9 percent (or 20,121 persons).
  4. Homelessness among persons in family households declined by 8.2 percent (or 19,754 persons). This decline is entirely composed of unsheltered people in families.
  5. Veteran homelessness fell by 24.2 percent (or 18,480 persons).

This data leads to the heartening conclusion that when there is enough political will and the funds to carry it out, the so-called “intractable” problem of homelessness, including chronic homelessness, can be solved.  It also leads to the conclusions that we need to do much more than we’ve done and that this is likely to bring results.

In another blog, I’ll describe the complex reasons for homelessness, because the solution to the overall problem will consist of many different initiatives that are tailored to specific subgroups within the homeless population.

Let me know what you think about what the government is doing: what seems to be working and what isn’t.  And what needs to be done.