The Demographics of Homelessness

views updated



Broad national assessments of homelessness were undertaken by several agencies and organizations during the 1980s and mid-1990s, including A Report to the Secretary on the Homeless and Emergency Shelters (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1984), America's Homeless: Numbers, Characteristics, and Programs that Serve Them (Martha Burt and Barbara Cohen, Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 1989), and Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, Findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, (Martha Burt et al., Washington, DC: Urban Institute Report to the Interagency Council on the Homeless, December 1999). In 2002 Burt and other researchers summarized the difficulty of addressing homelessness without a continuing census or other governmental program to track the homeless population in Evaluation of Continuums of Care for Homeless People (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, May 2002). The report notes that:

Basically, there are only three sources or original data on which to base estimates of incidence (the number of people homeless on a single day) for the nation as a whole—HUD's 1984 effort (HUD, 1984), the Urban Institute's 1987 study (Burt and Cohen, 1989), and the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Providers and Clients (Burt, Aron, and Lee, 2001). Any national estimates offered by anyone for any years other than 1984, 1987, and 1996 are projections or manipulations of one of these three data sources, and include assumptions of population change or growth that are not grounded in data. HUD's 1984 study was based on a survey of providers, who supplied their best guesses as to the size of the homeless population in their cities. Only the 1987 and 1996 studies are based on statistically reliable samples of homeless people using homeless assistance programs. Using these three data sources, the number of people homeless at any one time appears to have grown substantially from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s—from 250,000-350,000 in 1984 (HUD's "most reliable range") to 500,000-600,000 in 1987, to 640,000-840,000 in 1996. Best guesses or projections of the number of people homeless during the course of a year come from various sources.… These estimates, using different approaches, nevertheless converge on figures that between 2.5 and 3.5 million people (including children) experience at least one night of homelessness within a given year.

Even these data, considered by the government to be reliable, are based on very small samples. The 1996 data, the most recent and most widely used, were based on interviews with 6,300 homeless program representatives, held in February 1996, and interviews with 4,200 users of homeless programs conducted in October 1996. The total number of people homeless at some point in the year 1996 was derived by projection from this sample. While such methods of estimating are common in statistical analysis, they also show that current knowledge about homelessness is, at best, partial.


The ordinary citizen, hearing of the homeless, envisions people, including children, who live on the street permanently and sleep in cardboard boxes under bridges or in cars. There are, of course, people in this category, but they are the minority among the homeless. HUD has labeled such people the chronically homeless and estimates their number at around 150,000, close to the number of people counted by the Census Bureau as inhabiting emergency and transitional shelters in the 2000 census count (170,706 individuals). Most of the homeless are not chronically homeless but are temporarily without a residence. After some period of homelessness, they find permanent shelter or move in with relatives; people who have moved in with family as well as people who are

New homeless spells begun in last weekAverage week estimateAnnual projection
February 199652,000842,0003.5 million
October 199636,900444,0002.3 million
Note: The projection is developed by taking column A times 51 weeks and adding the result to column B. Column B represents the estimated constant population of homeless in any one week. The assumption is that a population of the size shown in column A is continuously passing into and also out of homeless status throughout the year. Data for February were based on the estimates of homeless program employees, data for October on interviews with the homeless.

"doubled up" are also counted as homeless by some programs and homeless advocates.

A more accurate definition of the homeless population is the group of people who are, on any day, without proper shelter. When agencies or the media cite numbers in the 600,000-800,000 range, they mean the size of the homeless population at any one point in time. Individuals are continuously joining this population while others are leaving it. If all people who are homeless at some point during a given year were counted, the number would reach between 2.5 and 3.5 million individuals, as indicated by HUD in Evaluation of Continuums of Care for Homeless People.

The manner in which the annual projections for 1996 were derived is shown in Table 2.1. The data for October, projected from counts of homeless services seekers, show that an estimated 36,900 individuals began spells of homelessness during the week surveyed, while the total number of people in the homeless population in any one week was estimated to be 444,000. The annual projection assumed that each week, 36,900 became homeless and an equal number passed out of the homeless status. Multiplying 36,900 by the fifty-one weeks remaining in the year, and then adding that total to the average homeless population in a week, produced the 2.3 million count of people who were homeless at least once in 1996. The number does not mean that there were 2.3 million homeless during the entire span of 1996.

Counting Children

Sometimes stories in the media cite 600,000 homeless and one million homeless children (see for instance "Are Shelters the Answer to Family Homelessness," USA Today, January 1, 2003). Such statements double count the homeless by using two different sources of incompatible data. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) is required to file a report on homeless children served by the act. USDE obtains the data from school districts; school districts use different methods of estimation. In its 2000 report to Congress (Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, Washington, DC), USDE estimated that 930,032 children experienced homelessness at some point during the year. This number was much higher than the number of children who were homeless on a particular night during the year.


People living below the poverty threshold decreased between 1984 and 1989 from 33.7 to 31.5 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This population then increased to 39.3 million by 1993, declining after that year to 31.6 million people in 2000 during the boom of the 1990s, and rising again to 35.9 million in 2003. (See Table 2.2.)

Whether using a low or high estimate of the number of homeless people, the number of homeless increased sharply between 1984 and 1987, at the same time that the poverty rate was decreasing. The number of homeless people continued to increase gradually until 1996, even as the poverty rate declined again in the 1990s (see Martha Burt, et al., Evaluation of Continuums of Care for Homeless People).

No strong correlation between poverty and homelessness can be seen in this data; however, there is a definite relationship between homelessness and poverty. Most likely, the number of homeless people were underestimated in the early years.

Homeless counts have been based on surveys centered on facilities that provide services to the homeless (such as shelters and soup kitchens). These are permanent sites where some contact with the homeless is possible. The number of such facilities has increased substantially since the passage of the McKinney Act. Shelter and housing for the homeless increased from an estimated 275,000 beds in 1988 to 607,000 beds in 1996; big city food service programs increased from 97,000 meals to 380,100 meals between 1987 and 1996 (America's Homeless II: Populations and Services, Washington, DC: Urban Institute, February 2000). With an ever-larger base of support facilities, the ability of researchers to reach more and more precise estimates of populations served has improved.

Trend data on the growth or decline of homelessness, comparable in precision to data collected by the Census Bureau on poverty levels, are still not available. Other but more limited data support the relationship between poverty and homelessness. Data collected by the Census Bureau on the population in emergency and transitional shelters show

People in families
All peopleAll families
Below poverty levelBelow poverty level
All races

a decline in that population from 178,638 in the 1990 census to a total of 170,706 in the 2000 census. In that period the economy was exhibiting strong growth.

Table 2.3 shows these data together with regional breakdowns of the homeless population. In 2000, 30.7% of the sheltered population were found in the Northeast, a region with 19% of the total U.S. population. The West also had a disproportionate share of homeless people in shelters; 27.8% of the sheltered were found in the region, yet it had only 22.5% of the total population. The Midwest and the South had smaller shares of the sheltered than of their total populations, which might suggest that a greater proportion of people on the coasts were homeless than people in the middle of the country, or it may suggest that a greater proportion of homeless people on the coasts were sheltered.

According to the 2000 census, New York state had 31,856 persons in emergency and transitional shelters. Data for New York City alone, from the Coalition for the Homeless, showed a month-by-month pattern of increasing homelessness during a period of worsening economic conditions. In January 2002, 31,064 people were sheltered; a year later, the number had risen to 38,463. By January 2005 those numbers had dropped somewhat, to 36,599. Over 15,000 of these people were children. While the problem of homelessness had improved somewhat in the previous two years, the number of people housed in shelters for the homeless was still

Population in sheltersTotal 2000 U.S. population
United States178,638100.0170,706100.0100.0

extraordinarily high compared with the previous twenty years.

Needs Profiled by Mayors

In Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities, A 27-City Survey, December 2004, the U.S. Conference of Mayors presented sixteen years of survey data profiling needs in urban areas. (See Table 2.4.)

Requests for emergency shelter increased in the cities surveyed in 2004 by an average of 6%, with 70% of the

Increase in demand for emergency food19%22%26%18%13%12%9%11%16%14%18%17%23%19%17%14%
Cities in which demand for food increased96%90%93%96%83%83%72%83%86%78%85%83%93%100%88%96%
Increase in demand by families for food assistance14%20%26%14%13%14%10%10%13%14%15%16%19%17%18%13%
Portion of those requesting food assistance who are families with children61%75%68%68%67%64%63%62%58%61%58%62%54%48%59%56%
Demand for emergency food unmet17%14%17%21%16%15%18%18%19%21%21%13%14%16%14%20%
Cities in which food assistance facilities must turn people away73%86%79%68%68%73%59%50%71%47%54%46%33%32%56%48%
Cities which expect demand for emergency food to increase next year89%100%100%89%100%81%96%96%92%96%84%71%100%100%87%88%
Increase in demand for emergency shelter25%24%13%14%10%13%11%5%3%11%12%15%13%19%13%6%
Cities in which demand increased89%80%89%88%81%80%63%71%59%72%69%76%81%88%80%70%
Demand for emergency shelter unmet22%19%15%23%25%21%19%20%27%26%25%23%37%30%30%23%
Cities in which shelters must turn people away59%70%74%75%77%72%82%81%88%67%73%56%44%56%84%81%
Cities which expect demand for shelter to increase next year93%97%100%93%88%71%100%100%100%93%92%72%100%100%88%88%
Composition of homeless population
Single men46%51%50%55%43%48%46%45%47%45%43%44%40%41%41%41%
Families with children36%34%35%32%34%39%36%38%36%38%36%36%40%41%40%40%
Single women14%12%12%11%11%11%14%14%14%14%13%13%14%13%14%14%
Unaccompanied youth4%3%3%2%4%3%4%3%4%3%4%7%4%5%5%5%
Severely mentally ill25%28%29%28%27%26%23%24%27%24%19%22%22%23%23%23%
Substance abusers44%38%40%41%48%43%46%43%43%38%31%37%34%32%30%30%
na = Not available

cities reporting an increase. The report also stated that the demand for shelter by homeless families grew by slightly more than the 7% expansion of the overall demand. Although demand for shelter continued to be on the rise, it increased at a slower rate than it had since 1997.

An average of 23% of the requests for emergency shelter by all homeless people went unmet in 2004, a decrease from the previous year. More than four out of five cities had to turn people away from shelters at some point during the year. People remained homeless an average of eight months in the survey cities. Almost half (46%) of the city mayors said that the length of time people stayed homeless increased during 2004. Officials in 88% of the cities surveyed expected that requests for emergency shelter by homeless individuals and families would increase in 2005.

Mayors view a lack of affordable housing as the leading cause of homelessness, as cited by twenty-four of twenty-seven cities in the Conference of Mayors survey. In general they see insufficient housing options for low-income people as a root cause of homelessness. In the surveyed cities, applicants waited, on average, twenty months for public housing, and 59% of the surveyed cities had stopped accepting applications for at least one assisted housing program. High housing costs also contribute to the homelessness problem. The city officials estimated that low-income households spent an average of 45% of their income on housing.

Philip Mangano, Executive Director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, in a keynote address on May 20, 2003, at the Policy Academy in Chicago, blamed the lack of affordable housing on what he called "affluenza." He suggested that the affluenza of the mid-1980s and 1990s caused the destruction of older, affordable housing units and their replacement with "artificial housing and neighborhoods implanted like pacemakers."

The National League of Cities

In 2004 the National League of Cities surveyed a random sample of the nation's municipal elected officials regarding issues and problems they faced in governing American cities. (See Table 2.5.) When asked to indicate whether various conditions had improved or worsened in their cities in the previous year, 20% of

a) Change in condition since last yearb) Current status of condition
ImprovedWorsenedNo changeMajor problemModerate problemMinor/no problem
A. Violent crime30%12%54%7%33%51%
B. Unemployment184631174429
C. Impacts of unfunded mandates/preemption16330324415
D. City fiscal condition214331213930
E. Cable TV rates/broadband availability203837103258
F. Family stability7196883547
G. Race/ethnic relations2096743255
H. Vitality of neighborhoods40104773549
I. Police/community relations4474442265
J. Overall economic conditions263931194328
K. Poverty62861133740
L. Volunteerism/community services36104832364
M. Availability of quality affordable housing242446193933
N. Quality of public education302244202743
O. Homelessness5207082556
P. City relationships w/community groups4874131970
Q. Youth violence and crime11216293745
R. Regional/area-wide problem solving361741124038
S. Infrastructure382532174428
T. Traffic congestion105035263926
U. Local environmental quality20106453451
V. Federal relations with your city19146172954
W. State relations with your city232646193141
X. Public school relations with your city33105262361
Y. Drugs/alcohol abuse52860184230
Z. Vitality of downtown/main street481630154134
AA. Availability of child care15106782753
BB. Recreation4494262262
CC. Civility in public life19155952263
DD. Family-friendliness of city3845331375
EE. Overall sense of "community"4274632662
FF. Efficiency of municipal service delivery4184732166
GG. Public transportation/transit service211855153243
HH. Cost and availability of health services85828383221
II. Homeland Security/Emergency Preparedness41944113643
JJ. Availability/Quality of After-school programs211358103346

the officials reported that homelessness had worsened in their cities, while only 5% said homelessness had improved. Eight percent believed homelessness was a major problem in their cities; a quarter believed it was a moderate problem.

A quarter of city officials surveyed stated that the availability of quality affordable housing had decreased in the past year; another quarter believed the availability of housing had increased. Almost one in five thought the lack of affordable housing was a major problem in their cities, and another 39% believed it was a moderate problem. Officials also believed other conditions affecting homelessness had worsened; 46% believed unemployment had worsened, 39% believed overall economic conditions had worsened, and 28% believed poverty had worsened during the previous year. When officials were asked to list the top three "most deteriorated" conditions in their cities (see Table 2.6), homelessness was not even in the top ten, as it had been in previous years, but "availability of quality affordable housing" ranked seventh at 13% percent.


Gender and Race

Studies of homeless people and surveys of officials knowledgeable about homeless clients conducted in the 1990s and 2000s have shown similar patterns of gender and racial data for the homeless, although the percentages varied from study to study.

Data collected for the 2004 U.S. Conference of Mayors survey showed that in almost all cities surveyed, single males greatly outnumbered single females among the homeless. (See Table 2.7.) Single males were most overrepresented in Nashville, Tennessee (79% of the homeless), followed closely by Santa Monica, California (72%), Miami, Florida (70%), and San Francisco, California (69%). Chicago, Illinois, had the highest proportion of single women among homeless individuals (43%). Women most likely headed the large percentage of single-parent families; for example, in Kansas City, Missouri, 100% of the homeless population belonged to families, and 88% of those families were headed by a

1. Traffic27%
2. Unemployment22%
3. Impacts of unfunded mandates/preemption22%
4. Overall economic conditions22%
5. City fiscal conditions21%
6. Cost and availability of health services20%
7. Availability of quality affordable housing13%
8. State relations with your city13%
9. Infrastructure11%
10. Drugs/alcohol abuse10%
11. Quality of public education8%
12. Youth violence and crime8%
13. Public transportation/transit service7%
14. Violent crime6%
15. Cable TV rates/broadband availability6%
16. Regional/area-wide problem solving6%
17. Vitality of downtown/main street4%
18. Civility in public life4%
19. Poverty4%
20. Vitality of neighborhoods4%
21. Family stability3%
22. Federal relations with your city3%
23. Public school relations with your city3%
24. Race/ethnic relations2%
25. Local environmental quality2%
26. Availability of child care2%
27. Homeland security/emergency preparedness2%
28. Volunteerism1%
29. Homelessness1%
30. Recreation1%
31. Overall sense of "community"1%
32. Efficiency of municipal service delivery1%
33. Police/community relations1%
34. City relations with community groups0%
35. Family-friendliness of city0%
36. Availability of quality after-school programs0%

single parent. Data from all twenty-seven cities surveyed suggest that homeless adult men are most often not part of family groups, and homeless adult women are most often responsible for one or more children.

The racial composition of the homeless varied from city to city in the Conference of Mayors survey. (See Table 2.7.) Whites were the largest group in Burlington, Vermont (77%), Salt Lake City, Utah (63%), Portland, Oregon (62%), Cedar Rapids, Iowa (61%), Santa Monica (52%), Louisville, Kentucky (44%), Denver, Colorado (39%), and Seattle, Washington (34%). Hispanics were the largest group in San Antonio, Texas (45%). In all other cities surveyed, African-Americans were the largest group among the homeless, with the highest percentages in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (77%), Chicago (75%), Norfolk, Virginia (73%), and Trenton, New Jersey (72%).

The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM), formerly International Union of Gospel Missions (IUGM), has surveyed the homeless population at more than 100 missions serving inner cities. The AGRM surveys are based on large numbers of homeless served. In 2004, for example, 20,500 homeless were surveyed at 154 rescue missions. AGRM data showed that men were 82% of the homeless in 1994 but 77% in 2004. (See Table 1.3 in Chapter 1.) Homeless women have been rising as a proportion of the homeless population at a steady rate for more than a decade.

According to an AGRM survey in 1994, the racial/ethnic composition of the homeless population they served was 42% white, 44% African-American, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 4% Native American. By 2004 the proportion of white homeless people had risen to 44%; the African-American proportion and Hispanic proportion had dropped to 40% and 10% respectively, and the Asian and Native American proportion had stayed essentially the same. (See Table 1.3 in Chapter 1.)

In the Urban Institute's 1996 survey, 68% of the homeless population were male, and 32% were female. Forty-one percent of the homeless were white, 40% black, 11% Hispanic, 8% Native American, and 1% of other races. (See Table 1.4 in Chapter 1.)

The surveys thus exhibit similar patterns. More of the homeless were male than female, but these proportions have been gradually changing. While in the 1996 homeless survey, 40% of the homeless were African-American, according to the Census Bureau's population estimate for July 2003, only 12.7% of the total population was African-American (National Population Estimates, "Annual Estimates of the Population by Sex, Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2003," NC-EST2003-03, U.S. Census Bureau). African-Americans were thus overrepresented among the ranks of the homeless. Hispanic representation among the homeless was near their share of total population (13.7%). Native Americans were homeless in greater proportion to their share of total population (1.2%), and Asians were homeless in lower proportion to their population (4.5%).

Family Structure

According to the 1996 Urban Institute study, 62% of homeless men and 16% of homeless women were single—meaning they were homeless without a spouse or children. (See Table 1.4 in Chapter 1). The 2004 Conference of Mayors survey found that 40% of homeless people were in families with children, 41% were single men, 14% were single women, and 5% were unaccompanied youth. (See Table 2.4.) Since 1989 the proportion of men on their own among the homeless population had declined, while the proportion of families with children had risen. Data from the Conference of Mayors survey show city-by-city estimates of children as a percent of homeless family members. (See Table 2.7.) Values range

CityFamiliesMenWomenYouthAfrican-AmericanWhiteHispanicAsianNative AmericanMentally illSubstance abusersEmployedVeteransSingle parent familiesFamily members who are children
Cedar Rapids62171562761212433250138365
Kansas City100000000002644010861
Los Angeles413716550143320.1163416156139
Louisville Metro16561810434441714112219389.6
New Orleans3544165672920.51254222256555
Salt Lake City5136130.027632113815087862
San Antonio38461241935450.50.5191326134743
San Francisco4692615321230.50.500006055
Santa Monica07228024521923000000
St. Paul2060140473691500007861

from 8.2% of family members in Charlotte, North Carolina, to 75% in Trenton, New Jersey.

The AGRM survey presents data about the family structure of homeless families. (See Table 1.3 in Chapter 1.) According to the survey, 16% of homeless families in 2004 were couples without children; 60% were women with children; 7% were men with children; and 16% were "intact" families—couples with children.


The Urban Institute, in its comprehensive 1996 study (see Table 1.4 in Chapter 1), found that 38% of the homeless were between thirty-five and forty-four years of age, 25% were between twenty-five and thirty-four, and 17% were between forty-five and fifty-four. The AGRM survey for 2004 showed that 18% of the homeless were between twenty-six and thirty-five, 30% were between thirty-six and forty-five, and 29% were between forty-six and sixty-five. (See Table 1.3 in Chapter 1.) The largest group in both surveys was the thirty-five–forty-five group, adults in their middle years.


When the Urban Institute investigated the education of homeless people, it found that 38% had less than a high school diploma, 34% had completed high school, and 28% had some education beyond high school. (See Table 1.4 in Chapter 1.) The homeless were less educated than the population as a whole. In 1996, 18% of the population had less than a high school education, 34% had a high school diploma, and 48% had some education beyond high school.

Military Background

The Urban Institute study also reported that 23% of the homeless were veterans (See Table 1.4 in Chapter 1.) Among homeless men, 33% were veterans; only 13% of the general population were veterans. According to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), in 1990 veterans were present in shelters at a rate of 149 per 100,000 compared with 126 per 100,000 of other males (Data on the Socioeconomic Status of Veterans and on VA Program Usage, Washington, DC, May 2001).

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, citing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sources, stated on its Web site in 2005 that of homeless veterans, 98% were male and 2% were female. Forty-five percent of homeless veterans had mental illness and half had abused drugs or alcohol. An estimated 299,321 were homeless on any given night; over the course of a year; more than 500,000 were homeless at least one night over the course of a year. The majority were single. Almost half (47%) of homeless veterans served in Vietnam.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conducted a small survey of nineteen homeless veteran service providers to determine the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on homeless veteran numbers ("Survey Confirms 'War on Terror' Veterans Are Seeking Homeless Assistance," National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, January 12, 2005). The survey found that those nineteen service providers had served sixty-seven veterans from these wars. Linda Boone, executive director of the organization, stated that these veterans were likely to request assistance sooner and in greater numbers than did veterans of other foreign wars.


Homeless children and youths have always received special attention from the public and from welfare agencies. In the terminology of the nineteenth century, children are considered "worthy" poor, because if they were homeless, they did nothing to deserve that status.

Estimates provided by the U.S. Conference of Mayors provide some indication of the proportion of children and runaway teens (unaccompanied youth) among the homeless population. (See Table 2.4.) In 2004, 40% of the homeless population in the twenty-seven surveyed cities were in family groups. The Conference of Mayors survey did not provide an estimate of the percentage of the homeless who were children in 2004, but in 1998 one-quarter of all homeless people in surveyed cities were children. Between 1989 and 1998, the percentage of children in the homeless population never dropped below 22% and rose to a high of 30% in 1993.

The Conference of Mayors also surveyed the proportion of "unaccompanied youth" in the homeless population; in 2004 these teens made up 5% of the homeless population in surveyed cities. The proportion of unaccompanied youth stayed relatively steady between 3% and 5% between 1989 and 2004, with a low of 2% in 1992 and a high of 7% in 2000. Children and unaccompanied youths made up about 29% of the homeless population throughout the period.

The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) collects estimates of homeless children from selected school district records. The data exclude infants but include some children of preschool age. USDE's tallies showed a total of 930,232 homeless children and youth, 866,899 of whom reported residence status in 2000. (See Table 2.8.) The number of children who lived in shelters (temporary or otherwise), were unsheltered, or had unknown residency was 364,391. All data were for the entire year. These data come close to 1996 estimates on the total population that was homeless during some part of the year. If children represent 29% of the homeless population based on U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates, the range of total

Enrollment and attendanceShelter status reported
Estimated numberEnrolledAttendingTotal% of total
Not specified9,999Sheltered306,40435.3
Junior high155,964135,785119,596Other*201,31323.2
High school163,867138,794128,340Unknown19,2552.2
*Includes other temporary shelter such as motels.

homeless of all ages was somewhere between 1.2 and 3.2 million people in 2000, depending on whether 364,391 or 930,200 children are counted as homeless.

Table 2.8 also shows that of total children estimated by school districts to be homeless in 2000, only a portion were enrolled and even a smaller number attended school regularly. Among the estimated 343,340 homeless elementary students, 305,920 (89.1%) were enrolled and 271,906 (79.2%) attended regularly. Unfortunately, even when homeless children do attend school, they have less than optimal conditions for educational achievement.

An example of the poor educational achievement of homeless youths is shown in a 2002 study of unaccompanied homeless youths conducted in Monterey County, California. Twenty-one percent of sixteen-year-olds, 22% of seventeen-year-olds, 33% of eighteen-year-olds, 51% of nineteen-year-olds, 59% of twenty-year-olds, and 70% of twenty-one-year-olds were below grade level, according to its findings. Only 13% of the homeless youths in the study had a high school diploma or GED. The remaining 87% were performing below grade level.

The study showed that many homeless youth aged fourteen to twenty-one had been in the foster care system and had become homeless after emancipation. Although this study was only a countywide survey, it confirmed that children formerly in foster care are represented in higher numbers among the homeless than in the population at large. Ten percent of the unaccompanied homeless youths in the Monterey County study were at one time in the foster care system, while only 3% of the general population aged fourteen to twenty-one were ever in foster care.


Most homeless people will become homeless again. The Urban Institute's 1996 study showed that 51% of all homeless persons surveyed in that year had been homeless before. The AGRM found in their 2004 survey that 65% of the homeless had been homeless before, 26% had been homeless once before, 18% had been homeless twice before, and 21% had been homeless three or more times before. (See Table 1.3 in Chapter 1).

Thirty-nine percent of homeless studied by the Urban Institute in 1996 had been homeless less than six months; six out of ten had been homeless for more than half a year. Sixty-two percent of the homeless surveyed by the AGRM in 2004 had been homeless less than one year; more than one-third had been homeless for more than a year.

These studies confirm that homelessness is usually a recurring experience and lasts for months at a time, suggesting that programs that help the homeless do not uniformly help clients solve the fundamental problems that can lead to life on the streets.


Most studies on the homeless have been focused on urban areas, leaving the impression that this problem exists only on city sidewalks. Homelessness is more common in the cities, where the bulk of the population resides, but many areas of rural America also experience the phenomenon. Rural communities have fewer official shelters and fewer public places (heating grates, subways, or train stations, for example) where the homeless can find temporary shelter. Finding the rural homeless is therefore more difficult for investigators of the problem.

In 1996 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in Rural Homelessness: Focusing on the Needs of the Rural Homeless (Washington, DC, 1996), reported that homeless people in rural areas were more likely to be white, female, married, and currently working than were the urban homeless. They were also more likely to be homeless for the first time and generally had experienced homelessness for a shorter period of time than the urban homeless. Findings also included higher rates of domestic violence and lower rates of alcohol and substance abuse.

The 1996 Urban Institute study determined that 21% of all homeless people in their study lived in suburban areas, and 9% lived in rural communities. This study agreed with the USDA's study on many points. The rural homeless surveyed were more likely to be working, or to have worked recently, than the urban homeless—65% of the rural homeless had worked for pay in the last month. Homeless people living in rural areas were also more likely to be experiencing their first spell of homelessness (60%). In 55% of the cases, the homeless period lasted three months or less.

Patricia A. Post, in Hard to Reach: Rural Homelessness and Health Care (Nashville, TN: National Health Care for the Homeless Council, January 2002), argued that rural residents typically deal with a lack of permanent housing not by sleeping on the streets, like their urban counterparts, but by first moving in with a series of friends, secondly moving into abandoned shacks, cars, or campgrounds, and lastly moving to cities in search of employment. They also differ from urban homeless people in many ways: they have less education, typically hold temporary jobs with no benefits, are less likely to receive government assistance or have health insurance, and are more likely to have been incarcerated for a period of time.

Several types of rural areas generate higher-than-average levels of homelessness, including regions that:

  • Are primarily agricultural—residents often lose their livelihood because of reduced demand for farm labor or because of a shrinking service sector
  • Depend on declining extractive industries, such as mining or timber
  • Are experiencing economic growth—new or expanding industrial plants often attract more job seekers than can be absorbed
  • Have persistent poverty, such as Appalachia, where the young and able-bodied may have to relocate before they can find work

About this article

The Demographics of Homelessness

Updated About content Print Article