How Many People are Homeless?
Many people call the National Coalition for the Homeless to find out how many people are homeless 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 therefore how many people experience homelessness, not how many people "are" homeless.
Studies of homelessness are complicated by problems of definitions and methodology. This fact sheet describes definitions of homelessness, methodologies for counting homeless people, and recent estimates of homelessness. Additional resources for further study are also provided.
As a result of methodological and financial constraints, most studies are limited to counting people who are literally homeless -- that is, 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 of 29 U.S. cities found that in 1996, 20% of all requests for emergency shelter went unmet due to lack of resources (Waxman and Hinderliter, 1996). In addition, a review 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, 1996). Moreover, there are few or no shelters in rural areas of the United States, despite significant levels of homelessness (Aron and Fitchen, 1996). As a result of these and other factors, many people who lack permanent housing are forced to live with relatives and friends in crowded, temporary arrangements. People living in unstable housing arrangements who lack a permanent place to stay are experiencing a kind of homelessness, but because they are not "literally homeless," they will not be counted.
Researchers use different methods to measure homelessness. One method attempts to count all the people who are literally homeless on a given day or during a given week (point-in-time counts). A second method of counting homeless people examines the number of people who are homeless over a given period of time (period prevalence counts).
Choosing between point-in-time counts and period-prevalence counts has significant implications for understanding the magnitude and dynamics of homelessness. The high turnover in the homeless population documented by recent studies (see below) suggests that many more people experience homelessness than previously thought, and that most of these people do not remain homeless. Because...