The Nature of Homelessness

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Homelessness is a complex social problem. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless in "How Many People Experience Homelessness?" (, September 2002), one-half to three-quarters of a million people lack a place to sleep on any given night in the United States, and 3.5 million will be homeless at some time during the year. Social researchers—educators, sociologists, economists, and political scientists—have studied homelessness in the past and present and have determined that homelessness is caused by a combination of poverty, misfortune, illness, and behavior.


Views of homelessness have changed over time. The condition is recognized by most people in the twenty-first century to be a result of poverty or structural flaws in society. In earlier times the homeless were typically blamed for their own predicament, with their condition assigned to laziness, drunkenness, or crime. That view persists somewhat to this day for those whose drug addiction is seen to contribute to their homelessness. Distinctions, however, have always been made. The English Poor Laws of 1601, for example, distinguished between the "worthy" and "unworthy" poor. The so-called worthy poor—widows, the elderly, the disabled, and children—were not held responsible for poverty and homelessness and sometimes received aid when aid was available. Others, however, were viewed as morally suspect—lazy, criminal, or promiscuous (Linda Gordon, "Welfare and Public Relief," Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

English colonists bound for North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought the English traditions with them. Some thought that the community should intervene to reduce homelessness but still believed that for most people homelessness was the consequence of weakness or flawed character. The colonists established community poorhouses (or workhouses), where the homeless and people unable to care for themselves could reside. Poorhouse residents were put to work doing hard or unpleasant tasks, the hope being that such labor would reform the shiftless, and they would be eager to find other employment that would sustain them.

Poorhouses, however, failed to reduce homelessness, and by the early 1900s, the horrors of large institutions like poorhouses and asylums had become so obvious that reformers pushed for "outdoor" relief programs—aid to people within their homes. By that time the United States was becoming more and more urban and industrial, but factory work paid low wages for long hours. When people lost their homes, they often ended up on the city streets.

Attitudes toward the homeless began to change early in the twentieth century. Social scientists began studying social problems—including homelessness—systematically for the first time. They discovered that most of the homeless either worked or wanted to work, but had problems finding employment that paid enough to cover housing.

Beliefs about homelessness changed further during the Great Depression (1929-41). After the stock market crash of 1929, Americans faced a decade of hard times worse than any they had known before. Millions of people lost their jobs, many lost their homes, and most of those who still had work struggled to make ends meet. A severe drought struck the central United States in the 1930s, destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers, and they streamed out of the so-called dust bowl of the Great Plains states. Widespread hardship experienced throughout the country produced sympathy for the homeless and led to demands that government come to their aid. President Herbert Hoover, who advocated minimal federal involvement in solving such problems, came under severe criticism, and most historians agree that his stance was at least in part a cause of his defeat in the 1932 presidential election.

The subsequent administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a number of laws intended to reduce homelessness and poverty as part of its New Deal program. The Social Security Act of 1935 established programs that channeled funds directly to the elderly and to children of single mothers—two groups that had previously suffered most from poverty and homelessness. The United States Housing Act of 1937 established housing and home loan programs for low-income people.

The New Deal laws marked a turning point in attitudes toward the homeless. More resources were added in the 1960s by further legislation, especially the formation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965. With new laws and bureaucracies in place, American society acknowledged that people could become poor and homeless because of circumstances beyond their control, and that the government should help such people.

This basic idea has continued to guide federal policy, although the shape and implementation of programs has continuously changed. Other political priorities drew attention away from the plight of the poor and homeless during the 1970s and early 1980s. Funding for many programs was cut or frozen. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw renewed interest in the problem, and new ideas surfaced on how best to help people in need.


A Legislative Definition

During a period of growing concern about homelessness in the mid-1980s, the first major piece of federal legislation aimed specifically at helping the homeless was adopted: the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 (PL 100-77), today known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Part of the act officially defined a homeless person as:

  1. An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
  2. An individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is:
    1. A supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
    2. An institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
    3. A public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

A Broader Definition

The government's definition of a homeless person focuses on whether a person is housed. Broader definitions of homelessness take into account whether a person has a home. Martha Burt and her colleagues at the Urban Institute reported in Helping America's Homeless: Emergency Shelter or Affordable Housing? (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2001) that as late as 1980, the Census Bureau identified people who lived alone and did not have a "usual home elsewhere"—in other words, a larger family—as homeless. Home in this sense describes living within a family, rather than having a roof over one's head.

The Urban Institute researchers also stated that homeless people themselves, when interviewed in the 1980s and 1990s, drew a distinction between having a "house" and having a "home." Even when homeless people had spent significant periods of time in a traditional shelter, like an apartment or rented room, if they felt those houses were transitional or insecure, they identified themselves as having been homeless while living there. These answers, according to the authors of Helping America's Homeless, "reflect how long they have been without significant attachments to people."

Burt and other homeless advocates have disagreed with the narrow government definition of a homeless person, which focuses on a person's sleeping arrangements. They assert that the definition should be broadened to include groups of people who, while they may have somewhere to live, do not really have a home in the conventional sense. Considerable debate has resulted over expanding the classification to include people in situations such as the following:

  • People engaging in prostitution who spend each night in a different hotel room, paid for by clients
  • Children in foster or relative care
  • People living in stable but inadequate housing (having no plumbing or heating, for example)
  • People doubled up in conventional dwellings for the short term
  • People in hotels paid for by vouchers to the needy
  • Elderly people living with family members because they cannot afford to live elsewhere

Official definitions are important because total counts of the homeless influence levels of funding authorized by Congress for homeless programs. With the availability of federal funds since the passage of the McKinney Act, institutional constituencies have formed that advocate for additional funding, an effort in which more expansive definitions are helpful.

Number of positive survey responsesCauses of homelessnessCities replying in the affirmative that the listed cause of homelessness was one of the main or primary causes in their city
24Lack of affordable housingBoston, Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Charleston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Louisville Metro, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Seattle, and Trenton
21Mental illness or the lack of needed servicesBoston, Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City (MO), Louisville Metro, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Phoenix, Portland, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Seattle, and Trenton
20Substance abuse and the lack of needed servicesBurlington, Charleston, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City (MO), Louisville Metro, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Phoenix, Portland, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Seattle, and Trenton
16Low-paying jobsBoston, Burlington, Charleston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, Louisville Metro, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Providence, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Seattle
13UnemploymentBoston, Cedar Rapids, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Kansas City (MO), Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Portland, Providence, San Antonio, Trenton
12Domestic violenceBoston, Burlington, Denver, Detroit, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Seattle, and Trenton
7PovertyKansas City (MO), Nashville, New Orleans, Providence, St. Paul, San Antonio, Seattle
5Prisoner reentryBoston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Norfolk, Phoenix
Cities whose mayors participated in the survey:
Boston, MADenver, CONew Orleans, LASan Antonio, TX
Burlington, VTDetroit, MINorfolk, VASan Francisco, CA
Cedar Rapids, IAKansas City, MOPhiladelphia, PASanta Monica, CA
Charleston, NCLouisville Metro, KYPhoenix, AZSeattle, WA
Charlotte, SCLos Angeles, CAPortland, ORSt. Paul, MN
Chicago, ILMiami, FLProvidence, RITrenton, NJ
Cleveland, OHNashville, TNSalt Lake City, UT


In 2004 the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization of cities with populations higher than 30,000, surveyed the mayors of major cities on the extent and causes of urban homelessness, and most of the mayors named the lack of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness. (See Table 1.1.) The next three causes identified by mayors, in rank order, were mental illness or the lack of needed services (twenty-one of twenty-seven), substance abuse and lack of needed services (twenty), and low-paying jobs (sixteen). The lowest ranking cause, cited by five mayors, was prisoner reentry (release from incarceration). Other causes cited were unemployment (thirteen of twenty-seven), domestic violence (twelve), and poverty (seven).

As evident in the findings of the Conference of Mayors survey, homelessness is a complex social problem arising from three fundamental and interacting causes: lack of means, medical conditions, and behavioral problems.



An accurate count of the U.S. homeless population has proved to be a problem for statisticians. The most formidable obstacle is the nature of homelessness itself. Typically, researchers contact people in their homes using in-person or telephone surveys to obtain information regarding income, education levels, household size, ethnicity, and other demographic data. Since homeless people cannot be counted "at home," researchers have been forced to develop new methods for collecting data on these transient groups. Martha Burt explored this issue for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and published a table of the most common methods of data collection for homeless people. (See Table 1.2.)

If each and every person without a home could be counted it would be the most accurate way to establish the number of homeless people. Such a count is almost impossible. One way to estimate the number of homeless people is to search records at homeless service provider locations. Alternatively, sampling of those records combined with projections, called "probability-based methods," can be used to count the number of homeless. Another way to count the homeless is to count the number of homeless at one particular time in one particular place. This "snapshot" method estimates the number of homeless at any one time. Longitudinal studies are a way to estimate the proportion of people in a population who may become homeless at some point in their lives. These studies follow individuals over a period of time to determine if they become homeless (Anita Drever, "Homeless Count Methodologies: An Annotated Bibliography," Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty, February 1999).

MethodUsual places to find people for studyUsual period of data collection and of estimateProbable complexity of data collected
Full counts and other non-probability methods
Analysis of agency recordsSpecific agencyVaries; usually not done to develop a population estimateWhatever the agency routinely records in its case documents
Simple count, involving significant amounts of data by observation or from minimal agency recordsShelters, streets1 night; point-in-time estimateEnumeration, + very simple population characteristics (gender, adult/child, race)
Simple count with brief interviewShelters, meal programs, streets1 night; point-in-time estimateEnumeration + basic information as reported by respondent
Screener, counts and brief interviews for anyone screened in, plus unduplication using unique identifiersService agencies of all typesSeveral weeks or months; point-in-time and period prevalence estimateEnumeration + basic information as reported by respondent
Complete enumeration through multiple agency search and referral followed by extensive interview (also unduplication)Service agencies and key informantsSeveral weeks or months; point-in-time and period prevalence estimateUsually extensive
Probability-based methods
Block probability with substantial interviewStreetsSeveral weeks or months; point-in-time estimateUsually extensive
Other probability approachesA bandoned buildings, conventional housing in poor neighborhoodsSeveral days or weeks; point-in-time estimateEnumeration + basic information as reported by respondent
Service-based random samplingUsually homeless assistance programsSeveral weeks, months, or years; point-in-time estimateUsually extensive
Shelter and other service tracking systems that allow unduplication across all services in a jurisdiction overtimeService agenciesOn going; point-in-time or period prevalence for periods of any lengthWhatever the system collects, but usually simple data for administrative purposes
Other interesting methods
Surveys of the housed populationAt homeMulti-year; produces period prevalence for periods asked aboutBasic information as reported by respondent
Longitudinal studiesShelters, soup kitchens, streetsMulti-year; does not produce a population estimateExtensive information, collected from the same person at several points in time


As Table 1.2 reveals, methods vary in scope and design. Different designs will produce different results even if the intention is the same—namely to enumerate the homeless population. Table 1.3 shows results of surveys conducted by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM) in 1994, 2003, and 2004. The data presented in Table 1.3 are based on the "snapshot" method—counts of a population at a point in time. AGRM counted all people receiving homeless services during one specific night in each year. Table 1.4 shows results from an Urban Institute study conducted in 1996. Data in Table 1.4 are based on a sample of seventy-six geographical areas selected by the Urban Institute as being representative of all service providers in the United States. The Urban Institute then compared its results by demographic characteristics to the total population as enumerated by the U.S. Census.

The male/female ratios in the AGRM study are quite different from the Urban Institute's study, with AGRM finding that males were more than three-quarters of the homeless (77% in 2004), whereas the Urban Institute's study showed that males were just over two-thirds of the homeless population (68% in 1996). (See Figure 1.1.) Both studies showed that males outnumbered females among the homeless, but the proportions were different. The Census Bureau estimated that in July 2003, women outnumbered men in the U.S. population by a small margin—50.8% of the population were female and 49.2% male.

The Official Count: The U.S. Census Survey

The official U.S. census, which takes place at ten-year intervals, is intended to count everyone in the United States. The results of the census are critical for determining how much federal money goes into different programs and to various regions of the country. Representation of the population in Congress is also based on the census. Since the U.S. Census Bureau counts people in their homes, counting the homeless presents special challenges.


In 1990 census officials, on what was known as Shelter and Street Night, or

Age groups
Under 189%10%8%
65 +4%4%4%
Race/ethnic groups
Native American5%5%4%
Women with children60%57%60%
Men with children7%5%5%
Intact families16%26%15%
Other information
Served in Korea5%6%N/A
Served in Vietnam41%41%N/A
Served in Persian Gulf12%11%N/A
Homeless less than 1 year62%65%56%
Never before homeless35%37%N/A
Homeless once before26%26%N/A
Homeless twice before18%17%N/A
Homeless 3 + times before21%20%N/A
More than 6 month resident72%71%67%
Harder to find work today than 6 months ago58%61%N/A
Lost government benefits in last 12 months20%22%N/A
Prefer spiritual emphasis in services80%79%N/A
Comes to the mission daily for assistance78%N/AN/A
In long-term rehab—male35%31%30%
In long-term rehab—female25%21%28%

S-Night, counted homeless persons found in shelters, emergency shelters, shelters for abused women, shelters for runaway and neglected youth, low-cost motels, Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCAs) and Young Women's Christian Associations (YWCAs), and in subsidized units at motels. Additionally, they counted people found in the early morning hours sleeping in abandoned buildings, bus and train stations, all-night restaurants, parks, and vacant lots (Diane F. Barrett et al., "The 1990 Census Shelter and Street Night Enumeration," U.S. Census Bureau, 1992). The results of this count were released the following year in the Census Bureau publication, "Count of Persons in Selected Locations Where Homeless Persons Are Found." Homeless advocates criticized the methods and results as inadequate and charged that they provided a low estimate of

CharacteristicsCurrently homeless clients
Formerly homeless clients
U.S. adult population
White non-Hispanic414676
Black non-Hispanic404111
Native American821
65 and older2617
Education/highest level of completed schooling
Less than high school384218
High school graduate/G.E.D.343434
More than high school282448
Marital status
Never married484523
Living situation
Client ages 17 to 24
    Clients in families
    Single clients
Client ages 25 and older
    Clients in families
    Single clients
Veteran status232213
Note: Numbers do not sum to 100 percent due to rounding.
NA = Not available.
*Denotes values that are less than 0.5 but greater than 0 percent.
aIncluded in "married."
NSHAPC stands for National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients.

homeless people in the United States. In response, according to Annetta and Denise Smith in Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau, October 2001), the Census Bureau emphasized that S-Night "should not be used as a count of people experiencing homelessness." S-Night results were not a reflection of the prevalence of homelessness over a given year, but rather a count of homeless persons identified during a single night, a "snapshot," like the census itself.


The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty alleged that the methodology of the S-Night count was unconstitutional. In 1992 the Law Center, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the cities of Baltimore and San Francisco, fifteen local homeless organizations, and seven homeless people (the plaintiffs) filed suit in the federal district court in Washington, D.C. They charged the Census Bureau with excluding segments of the homeless population in the 1990 population count by not counting those in hidden areas and by not allocating adequate funds for S-Night.

In its suit, the Law Center cited an internal Census Bureau memorandum that stated, in part, "We know we will miss people by counting the 'open' rather than 'concealed' (two studies showed that about two-thirds of the street population sleep concealed)." Studies funded by the Census Bureau indicated that up to 70% of the homeless street population in Los Angeles were missed, as were 32% in New Orleans, 47% in New York City, and 69% in Phoenix. Advocates were greatly concerned that this underrepresentation would negatively affect the funding of homeless initiatives.

In 1994 the district court dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs' case was without merit. The court ruled that failure to count all the homeless was not a failure to perform a constitutional duty; the Constitution does not give individuals a right to be counted or a right to a perfectly accurate census. The court stated that the "methods used by the Bureau on S-Night were reasonably designed to count as nearly as practicable all those persons residing in the United States and, therefore, easily pass constitutional muster." In 1996 the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the district court's finding (United States Court of Appeals, for the District of Columbia Circuit, Argued October 6, 1995, Decided August 9, 1996, No. 94-5312, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, et al., Appellants v. Michael Kantor, et al., Appellees, Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 92cv2257).


The Bureau of the Census undertook a special operation, called Service-Based Enumeration (SBE), for the 2000 census. From March 27 through March 29, 2000, census workers focused solely on counting the homeless population at the locations where they were most likely to be found. For the SBE, the Census Bureau released the following schedule:

  • Monday, March 27, 2000—Emergency and transitional shelters, hotels, motels, or other facilities. Enumerators will leave blank questionnaires for residents who usually stay at the shelter, but who are away at the time of the enumeration.
  • Tuesday, March 28, 2000—Soup kitchens, regularly scheduled mobile food vans.
  • Wednesday, March 29, 2000, from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. only—Outdoor locations. Census workers will complete the census forms for each person at an outdoor location.

The SBE methods were considered an improvement over the methods used in the 1990 census survey. Homeless citizens and advocates alike expected to see an increase in the number of homeless persons reported by the Census Bureau in the 2000 census as compared with the count reported for the 1990 census. Expectations that the higher population counts would translate into higher funding levels for services to the homeless were also raised.

An Associated Press story dated June 27, 2001, reported that the U.S. Census Bureau would not be

CityPercent increase in requests for emergency shelterPercent increase in requests by families for emergency shelterShelter bedsTransitional housing unitsFamily break–up for shelter?Family leave during day?Percentage need unmetTurn away families?Turn others away?
Burlington− 100.6samesamenono32yesyes
Cedar Rapids15− 2samesameyesyes3yesyes
Charleston12− 17sameincreasednono0nono
Chicago− 2.310samesamenono0nono
Kansas City9naincreasedincreasednono49yesyes
Los Angeles1613increasedsameyesyes54yesyes
Louisville Metro− 25− 21sameincreasedyesno100yesyes
New Orleansna22samesameyesyes10yesyes
Norfolk− 215samedecreasedyesyes29yesyes
Philadelphia8.5− 1.4increasedincreasednono0nono
Salt Lake City1723samesamenono29yesyes
San Antonio1217increasedincreasedyesno8yesyes
San Franciscona− 20decreasedincreasednono0yesno
Santa Monica− 350samesameyesyes0yesyes
St. Paul204samesamenoyes1noyes
na = Not available

releasing a specific homeless count because of the liability issues raised after the 1990 census. The Census Bureau stated that it would have only one category showing the number of persons tabulated at "emergency and transitional shelters." The people who, in 2000, were counted at domestic-violence shelters, family crisis centers, soup kitchens, mobile food vans, and targeted non-sheltered outdoor locations (i.e. street people, car dwellers, etc.) during the March 2000 SBE night were to be included in the category of "other non-institutional group quarters population." This category was overly inclusive; it included, for instance, students living in college dormitories. The homeless portion of the category could not be extracted.

Rather than release counts of all homeless people, the Census Bureau published Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2000, a special report on people sleeping in shelters. Census Bureau officials said the homeless people they did find during the exhaustive, three-day SBE count were included in total population figures for states, counties, and municipalities. Researchers voiced concern that the numbers teased from these data sets would be flawed.

People involved in the receipt or delivery of services to the homeless were worried that their programs would suffer from the lack of SBE night information. A detailed homeless count was thought to be essential for city officials and advocacy groups to plan budgets for shelters and other homeless outreach programs. Results from the U.S. Conference of Mayors 2004 study illustrated the negative impact that inadequate information and funding can have on the delivery of human services. (See Table 1.5.) For example, the needs of 54% of homeless people for shelter could not be met in Los Angeles due to lack of resources. Homeless program funding for most cities was already strained. Two-thirds of cities surveyed in 2004 showed increased requests for emergency shelter services.

Only Estimates Are Available

The actual number of homeless people is unknown. The Urban Institute estimated that 3.5 million people were homeless at some point of time during the year 1996 (America's Homeless II—Populations and Services, Urban Institute, February 1, 2000). The 2000 Census counted 170,706 individuals in emergency and transitional

    United States178,638100.0170,706100.0
District of Columbia4,6822.61,7621.0
New Hampshire3770.25230.3
New Jersey7,4704.25,5003.2
New Mexico6670.49340.5
New York32,47218.231,85618.7
North Carolina2,6371.53,5792.1
North Dakota2790.21780.1
Rhode Island4690.36340.4
South Carolina9730.51,5280.9
South Dakota3960.24140.2
West Virginia4510.35250.3
Puerto Rico445*586*
*Not applicable.

shelters, down from 178,638 individuals in 1990. (See Table 1.6). The Census Bureau expressly stated that this number was not a total count of the homeless. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 2005 that 150,000 people were chronically homeless—homeless for a year or more—and stated that this population was only about 10% of all homeless individuals, putting the homeless population at 1.5 million people (News Release, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD No. 05-007, January 25, 2005).


Interest in and attitudes towards homelessness in America have changed over time. The mid- to late 1980s was a period of relatively high concern about homelessness. In 1986 the American public demonstrated concern over the plight of the homeless by initiating the Hands Across America fundraising effort. Some six million people locked hands across 4,152 miles to form a human chain across the country, bringing an outpouring of national attention and concern to the issue. In 1986 popular comedians Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal hosted the Home Box Office (HBO) comedy special Comic Relief to help raise money for the homeless. The show was a success and became an annual event. Magazines, art shows, books, and songs turned the nation's attention toward homelessness. Well-funded research studies came out by the dozens. The country was awash in statistical information regarding the homeless. All of these activities pointed to the widely held belief that people became homeless because of circumstances outside of their control.

By 2005, however, national concern about homelessness had faded somewhat. One could only see Comic Relief in reruns. The annual fundraiser ran out of steam in 1996 with the exception of a revival show two years later. No resurgence of public interest in the homeless problem appeared in the twenty-first century, although the problem remained, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported in 2004 that the demand for services continued to increase. "The Real Face of Homelessness," in the January 20, 2003, issue of Time, explored a change in the national mood about homelessness. In New Orleans, for instance, park benches in certain areas had been removed in order to prevent street people from sleeping on them. A campaign was launched in Philadelphia to discourage giving money to panhandlers. In Orlando, Florida, people could be jailed for sleeping on the sidewalk. In San Francisco, Proposition N ("Care Not Cash") reduced county housing support payments from $395 to $59 a month. According to a Time /Cable News Network (CNN) poll, also cited in the article, 36% of the 1,006 adults polled favored making panhandling illegal, and 47% thought it should be illegal to sleep in public places.

When asked, Americans still stated that they were troubled by the existence of homelessness. A February 2005 survey of 1,001 adults by the Associated Press/Ipsos-Public Affairs found that nine out of ten adults considered homelessness a very serious or somewhat serious problem. However, only half of adults surveyed believed that chronic homelessness was caused by external circumstances (56%), and more than a third (38%) believed that homeless people were responsible for their homelessness.

Research studies, once so plentiful, were outdated by 2005, but some well-funded research centers and organizations continued to study the homeless population. A look at leading organizations follows.

The Urban Institute

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit policy research organization located in Washington, D.C. The Institute conducts research projects, publishes newsletters and books regarding social issues, and evaluates government programs. It is dedicated to examining society's problems and developing methods to solve them. The Institute's work is designed to help improve government decisions and increase citizens' awareness of important social issues. Funding comes from a variety of government, corporate, and private organizations and people.

The Urban Institute study Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, published in December 1999, was a landmark in homelessness research. The program was designed specifically to update a 1987 Institute study. The survey was based on a statistical sample of seventy-six metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, including small cities and rural areas. It provided relevant information about homeless service providers and examined the characteristics of people who use the services. The analysis presented information about homelessness in national, urban, suburban, and rural areas. It was still one of the most comprehensive research studies available on the subject of homelessness in America in 2005.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors

The U.S. Conference of Mayors organization includes more than 1,000 cities with populations of at least 30,000. Since 1982 the U.S. Conference of Mayors has conducted and published an annual survey that assesses emergency services—food, shelter, medical care, and income assistance—in the nation's largest cities. The survey tracks the increases or reductions in the demand for emergency services from year to year, including services for the homeless. This study has become one of the leading sources of homelessness research today.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH)

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) is an advocacy group of homeless persons, activists, service providers, and people dedicated to ending homelessness. NCH serves as a national clearinghouse for information and works as a referral resource to enhance the public's understanding of homelessness. NCH believes that homelessness can be eliminated through public education, legislative advocacy, and grassroots movements.

Other Organizations

Homes for the Homeless (HFH) is a New York City–based program designed to find long-term solutions for homeless people in New York. HFH created an innovative and successful program—a network of residential, educational, and employment training centers called the American Family Inns—which has been used as a model for permanent solutions to homelessness. HFH is affiliated with the Institute for Children and Poverty, and together they conduct research studies to uncover strategies for fighting poverty and homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) is a nationwide federation of public, private, and nonprofit organizations operating on the assumption that homelessness can be ended. Alliance members work to advance the implementation of practical, community-based solutions to homelessness.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that its mission is "to alleviate, ameliorate and end homelessness by serving as the legal arm of the nationwide movement to end homelessness," and works to protect the rights of homeless people and to end homelessness in America. It uses three main strategies to achieve this goal: impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education. The Law Center conducts research studies and distributes the results by publishing fact sheets and a monthly newsletter.


A substantial number of organizations provide services to homeless people across the country. Faith-based organizations have been providing assistance to the needy throughout history, including programs for the homeless. Many secular nonprofits (organizations with no religious affiliation) also provide such assistance. Since 1987, with the passage of the McKinney Act, federal funding targeted for homelessness has been available. It reached a peak of $1.5 billion in 1995, up

Percentage by sponsor type
Areas and program typesTotal number of programsFaith-based non-profitSecular non-profitGovernmentFor-profit
All program types39,66431.847.313.40.6
Central cities
Rural areas
NA = Not available.
Rows may not added to 100 percent because programs that did not identify their source of sponsorship in the survey are not listed.

from $350 million in 1987. In January 2005 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that President George W. Bush's proposed Fiscal Year 2006 budget contained a record level of funding for homeless programs, $1.4 billion, an increase of 8.5% over the previous year (News Release, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD No. 05-007, January 25, 2005).

The most recent comprehensive study of assistance programs dates to 1996. In that year, according to the Urban Institute, about half of all assistance programs (19,388) were located in central cities, about one-fifth (7,694) in suburban fringe communities, the rest in rural areas. (See Table 1.7.) All told, 39,664 programs operated nationwide, with the largest number in the South and Midwest and the lowest in the Northeast. (See Table 1.8.) Some of these programs were aimed directly at homeless people, such as homeless shelters. Others were programs open to a wider group of needy people but intended also to serve the homeless (for example, free health clinics for the poor).

Homeless services provide assistance in three major areas: housing, food, and health. In 1996, 40% of the programs offered housing assistance through

Percentage by sponsor type
Regions and program typesNumber of programsFaith-based non-profitSecular non-profitGovernmentFor-profit
All programs39,66431.847.313.40.6
All programs7,09728.653.610.10.6
All programs11,10139.040.713.60.5
All programs11,85331.643.716.20.5
All programs9,33325.854.612.41.0
NA = Not available.
Rows may not added to 100 percent because programs that did not identify their source of sponsorship in the survey are not listed.

shelters, permanent housing, or housing vouchers. Provision of food through such outlets as soup kitchens, food pantries, and mobile food distribution accounted for 33% of services. Seven percent of the assistance programs were related to health care, which included not only physical and mental health care but also assistance to people with drug and alcohol addictions as well as care for sufferers of human immunodeficiency virus / acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS). Nationwide there were 15,878 housing programs, 13,003 food programs, and 2,739 health programs. An additional 8,043 programs provided assistance on an outreach basis, through drop-in centers and programs offering financial help for housing.

The Urban Institute also studied the utilization rates of homeless services. A section of its landmark December 1999 study, Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, illustrates the scope of food programs; 26% of the surveyed providers expected between 101 and 299 requests daily, and 11% expected more than 300 contacts a day. For walk-in services and health programs, about half this percentage expected the same volume of clients; 5% of walk-in programs and 4% of health programs expected more than 300 people a day. Housing programs served the lowest number of people per day: on average, only 2% of the programs expected 300 contacts a day. Food, health, and walk-in services (such as job counseling) are, by nature, geared toward multiple returns and have high traffic. Housing programs, by contrast, provide single-client service delivery over a longer period of time. Housing programs are also geared specifically toward helping the homeless while many food, health, and walk-in programs are open to a wider group of people.

Secular nonprofit organizations provided nearly half (47.3%) of all homeless services in 1996. (See Figure 1.2.) Secular organizations also ran the majority of housing programs (54.6%) and "other" services (52.2%), including outreach, drop-in centers, and financial/housing assistance. Faith-based organizations were most active in providing food services (53.1% of all such programs), including food pantries, soup kitchens, and mobile food distribution. Government agencies led in the provision of health services (45.3% of all such services).

Special Population Services

Many homeless assistance programs are open to anyone who wants to use them, but other programs are designed to serve only specific groups of people. The population served may be defined in several different ways: men by themselves, women by themselves, households with children, youth by themselves, battered women, or veterans, for example. The Urban Institute study revealed that 42.1% of all homeless service programs named a specific population group as a focus. After meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, and health care, these homeless programs provided for other special needs. When an emergency shelter had a specific focus, it was most likely to offer shelter to victims of domestic violence (30.3% of emergency shelters), followed by a focus on chemical dependency (8.6%), on youth (8.3%), or families (5.6%). (See Table 1.9.) The transitional shelters that report specialized assistance programs divide their focus between domestic violence (14%) and chemical dependence (14.4%). Permanent housing programs that target specific population groups focus heavily on those in need of mental health services (15.7% of programs).

Programs by all sponsorsFaith-based non-profitSecular non-profitGovernment
Program type and focusNumberPercentNumberPercentNumberPercentNumberPercent
Emergency shelter with5,320100%1,520100%3,480100%320100%
    No specialization40.663.230.444.6
    Mental health (MH) focus3.
    Chemical dependency (CD) focus8.615.55.312.6
    MH/CD focus1.
    HIV/AIDS focus1.
    Domestic violence focus30.
    Youth focus8.31.711.36.8
    Family focus5.
Transitional shelter with4,149100%1,181100%2,535100%433100%
    No specialization43.454.835.657.6
    Mental health focus8.33.59.614.2
    Chemical dependency focus14.416.615.24.2
    MH/CD focus5.
    HIV/AIDS focus3.
    Domestic violence focus14.07.718.26.6
    Youth focus4.
    Family focus7.17.66.310.2
Permanent housing with1,719100%205100%980100%534100%
    No specialization63.661.652.884.2
    Mental health focus15.78.822.16.6
    Chemical dependency focus5.
    MH/CD focus5.
    HIV/AIDS focus9.813.012.14.2
Soup kitchen with3,284100%2,131100%1,057100%NA
    No specialization83.284.979.4NA
    Mental health focus6.14.49.8NA
    Chemical dependency focus6.77.65.2NA
    Family focus2.42.91.6NA
    HIV/AIDS focus1.50.24.0NA
NA = Not available

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The Nature of Homelessness

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