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Characteristics of the Homeless

Chapter 4
Characteristics of the Homeless


The Facts Are Hard to Determine

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 (1984) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Martha R. Burt and Barbara Cohen's America's Homeless: Numbers, Characteristics, and Programs that Serve Them (1989), and Martha R. Burt et al.'s Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, Findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (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 (May 2002, Burt et al. note:

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 wholeHUD'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-1990sfrom 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 different sources (Burt, Aron, and Lee, 2001; Culhane et al., 1994; Link et al., 1994, 1995) (there are no truly reliable national data). These estimates, using very 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 small samples. The data in Burt et al.'s Homelessness, the most recent and most widely used study, were based on interviews with 6,307 homeless program representatives and 4,207 users of homeless programs in 1996. The total number of people homeless at some point in 1996 was derived by projection from this sample. Even though such methods of estimating are common in statistical analysis, they also show that current knowledge about homelessness is, at best, partial.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness collects more recent information that can be used to measure changes in homelessness over time. In 2005 it compiled data from 463 local Continuum of Care point-in-time counts from across the nation and published an estimate of the national homeless population in Homelessness Counts (January 10, 2007, The alliance estimates that in January 2005, 744,313 people experienced homelessness. Of these, 56% were living in shelters or transitional housing and 44% were unsheltered. More than half (59%) were single adults and 41% were living in the 98,452 homeless families counted. Almost a quarter (23%) of homeless people were chronically homelessin other words, they had been homeless for a long period or repeatedly. The alliance cautions that point-in-time estimates only tell how many people are homeless at a given time and that, in reality, many more people experience homeless at some point in a given year.

How Numbers Are Used

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 labels such people the chronically homeless and estimates their number at around 150,000. According to the Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2000Census 2000 Special Reports (October 2001, by Annetta C. Smith and Denise I. Smith, this estimate is close to the number of people counted in the 2000 census as inhabiting emergency and transitional shelters (170,706 individuals). Homelessness Counts estimates that about 171,192 people were chronically homeless in January 2005. 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; although people who have moved in with family as well as people who are 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 to 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 million and 3.5 million individuals, as indicated by Burt et al. in Evaluation of Continuums of Care for Homeless People.

The manner in which the annual projections for 1996 were derived is shown in Table 4.1. 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, whereas 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. This number does not mean that there were 2.3 million homeless during the entire span of 1996.

Estimated number of people likely to be homeless at least once during the year, October 1996 and February 1996
New homeless spells begun in last week Average week estimate Annual projection
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.
Source: "Number Likely to Be Homeless at Least Once in a Given Year," in America's Homeless II: Populations and Services, Urban Institute, February 2000, (accessed January 11, 2007)
February 1996 52,000 842,000 3.5 million
October 1996 36,900 444,000 2.3 million

Counting Homeless Children

Sometimes stories in the media, such as Ralph da Costa Nunez and Laura M. Caruso's "Are Shelters the Answer to Family Homelessness" (USA Today, January 1, 2003), cite 600,000 homeless and one million homeless children. Such statements double count the homeless with two different sources of incompatible data. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, the U.S. Department of Education is required to file a report on homeless children served by the act. The Department of Education obtains the data from school districts; school districts use different methods of estimation. In its Report to the President and Congress on the Implementation of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (2006,, the Department of Education states that 602,568 children who experienced homelessness at some point during the year were enrolled during the 200304 school year. (See Table 4.2.) This number is almost certainly much lower than the number of children who actually experienced homelessness during that period, as the homeless status of children does not always come to the attention of school officials and many homeless children are not enrolled in school.


Gender and Race

Studies of homeless people and surveys of officials knowledgeable about homeless clients conducted since the 1990s show similar patterns of gender and racial data for the homeless, although the percentages vary from study to study.

Homeless children and youth enrolled in grades K-12 during the 200304 school year
Grades Number enrolled
Source: "Table 1. Homeless Children and Youth Enrolled in School during the 200304 School Year," in Report to the President and Congress on the Implementation of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, U.S. Department of Education, April 2006, (accessed October 2, 2006)
K-5 338,982
6-8 153,500
9-12 110,086
    Total all grades 602,568

Data collected for the 2006 U.S. Conference of Mayors survey show that in almost all cities surveyed, single males greatly outnumbered single females among the homeless. Single males represented a particularly high proportion of the homeless population in Nashville, Tennessee (74%), Miami, Florida (69%), and Salt Lake City, Utah (66.5%). (See Table 4.3.) The highest proportion of single females was in Santa Monica, California, where one-third (34%) of homeless people were single females. Detroit, Michigan, had a particularly high percentage of families among its homeless population (75%), followed by Des Moines, Iowa (61%), and Kansas City, Missouri (56%).

Composition of the homeless population, November 2005October 2006
City Families Men Women Youth African-American White Hispanic Asian Native American Mentally ill Substance abusers Employed Veterans Single parent families Family members who are children
Source: "Composition of the Homeless Population," in Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's CitiesA 23-City Survey, U.S. Conference of Mayors and Sodexho, December 2006, (accessed Januay 21, 2007)
Boston 37 52 11 0 44 31 20 5  0 21 39 44  7 90 56
Charleston 19 62 10 9 42 52  2 0  4 37 75 20 32 92 20
Charlotte  0  0  0 0  0  0  0 0  0  0  0  0  0  0  0
Chicago 26.2 57.4 16.4 0 80 10  9 0.3  1  6 23 11  6.9 92.9 66.8
Cleveland 12 56 32 0 74 21  4 0  1 22 56  0 20 99 65
Denver 54 29 13 4 31 37 22 2  8 28 41 15  6 38 31
Des Moines 61 18 18 3 24 61 10 1  2 21  9 32 19 45 37
Detroit 75 15  6.3 3.7  0  0  0 0  0 40 57  0 24  0  0
Kansas City 56 27 16 1 53.3 37.8  6.7 1.2  0.2  0  0  0 13 94 69
Los Angeles 29 56 23 2 48 25 20 0  0 36 49  0 18 15 20
Louisville metro 14 61 21 4 39 36  2 0.2  0.3  8 11 28 25 90 59.6
Miami 14 69 17 0  0  0  0 0  0  0  0  0  0  0  0
Nashville 11 74 15 0 54 43  3 0  0 18 43  4 15 92 60
Norfolk 20 60 20 0 75 23  1.6 0  0.4  0  0  0  0 94 62
Philadelphia 36 44.3 17.23 0 77 11.59  5.4 1.43  0.22 21.33 34.28  0  0 29 66
Phoenix 32 53 13 0.8 13 45 25 0  3 25 26  0  4  0 66
Portland 41 35 22 2 18 56 20 2  4 18 24 10  8 50 51
Salt Lake City 19.7 66.5 13.8 0 10 63 18 2  7 13 21 16 14 56 60
San Francisco 20 63 17 0 37 30 17 4 12  0  0  0  0 56 54
Santa Monica  7 58 34 1 34 51 13 1  1 34 41 11.3  7.6 60 83
Seattle 38 45 16 0 28 35  9 2  4 23 24  9 11 80 23
St. Paul 21 62 12 4 44 39  9 2  2 47 34 30 26 90 61
Trenton  0  0  0 0  0  0  0 0  0 100 40 55 26 88 83

The racial composition of the homeless varied from city to city in the Conference of Mayors survey. (See Table 4.3.) Whites were the largest group in Charleston, South Carolina (52%), Denver, Colorado (37%), Des Moines (61%), Phoenix, Arizona (45%), Portland, Oregon (56%), and Salt Lake City (63%). In all other cities surveyed African-Americans were the largest group among the homeless. They were particularly overrepresented in Chicago, Illinois (80%), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (77%), Norfolk, Virginia (75%), and Cleveland, Ohio (74%).

The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM) regularly surveys the homeless population at more than one hundred missions serving inner cities. The AGRM surveys are based on large numbers of homeless served. In 2005, for example, 22,000 individuals were surveyed at rescue missions around the country. AGRM data show that men were 76% of the homeless in 2005. (See Table 1.11 in Chapter 1.) The racial/ethnic composition of the homeless population the AGRM served in 2005 was 45% white, 38% African-American, 10% Hispanic, 5% Native American, and 1% Asian.

In Homelessness, Burt et al. report that 68% of the homeless population was male and 32% was female. Forty-one percent of the homeless were white, 40% African-American, 11% Hispanic, 8% Native American, and 1% of other races. (See Table 1.12 in Chapter 1.)

These surveys exhibit similar patterns. More of the homeless were male than female, but these proportions have been gradually changing. Burt et al. report that while 40% of the homeless were African-American, only 11% of the total U.S. population was African-American. Thus, African-Americans were overrepresented among the ranks of the homeless. (See Table 1.12 in Chapter 1.) Hispanic representation among the homeless (11%) was near their share of total population (9%). Native Americans were homeless (8%) in greater proportion to their share of the total population (1%), and other ethnic groups were homeless (1%) in lower proportion to their share of the total population (3%).

Family Structure

According to Burt et al. in Homelessness, 62% of homeless men and 16% of homeless women were singlemeaning they were homeless without a spouse or children. (See Table 1.12 in Chapter 1.) The 2006 Conference of Mayors survey finds that 30% of homeless people were in families with children, 51% were single men, 17% were single women, and 2% were unaccompanied youth. (See Table 4.4.) According to the survey, since 1994 the proportion of families among the homeless has generally declined. Data from the Conference of Mayors survey show city-by-city estimates of children as a percent of homeless family members. (See Table 4.3.) Values range from 20% of homeless family members in Los Angeles, California, and Charleston, to 83% in Trenton, New Jersey, and Santa Monica.

Homelessness Counts did not break down its count of the 2005 homeless population by gender, but by individuals (59%) and people in families (41%). The AGRM survey presents data about the family structure of homeless families. According to the survey, 14% of homeless families in 2005 were couples without children, 61% were women with children, 6% were men with children, and 19% were intact familiescouples with children. (See Table 1.11 in Chapter 1.)


Burt et al. find in Homelessness that 38% of the homeless were between thirty-five and forty-four years of age, 25% were between ages twenty-five and thirty-four, and 17% were between ages forty-five and fifty-four. The AGRM survey for 2005 shows that 20% of the homeless were between ages twenty-six and thirty-five, 29% were between ages thirty-six and forty-five, and 27% were between ages forty-six and sixty-five. (See Table 1.11 in Chapter 1.) The largest group in both surveys was the thirty-five to forty-five groupthat is, adults in their middle years.


Homeless children and youths have always received special attention from the public and welfare agencies. In the terminology of the nineteenth century, children are considered "worthy" poor, because if they are homeless, it is because of events beyond their control.

Estimates provided by the Conference of Mayors give some indication of the proportion of children and runaway teens (unaccompanied youth) among the homeless population. In 2006, 30% of the homeless population in the twenty-three surveyed cities were in family groups and 24% were children. (See Table 4.4.)

The Conference of Mayors also surveyed the proportion of unaccompanied youth in the homeless population; in 2006 these teens not under adult supervision made up 2% of the homeless population in surveyed cities. (See Table 4.4.) The proportion of unaccompanied youth had steadily dropped from a high of 7% in 2000.

The Department of Education collects estimates of homeless children from selected school district records. The data exclude infants but include some children of preschool age. The department's tallies show a total of 602,568 children and youth of school age (see Table 4.2), and another 19,343 children of preschool age that had been served during the year. Of these children, about half (50.3%) lived doubled up with relatives or friends; a quarter (25.3%) lived in shelters, 10% lived in hotels or motels, and 2.6% were unshelteredin other words, sleeping outside, in vehicles, or in abandoned buildings. (See Figure 4.1.)

Even though the 2006 Department of Education report omits estimates of the total number of homeless children in the population, Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, Report to Congress, Fiscal Year 2000 (2001, includes this information. The department finds 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. However, Arun Venugopal, in "Advocates Say City Undercounts Homeless Kids" (September 14, 2006,, indicates that the Department of Education undercounts the number of homeless kids, which would place the number of homeless kids not enrolled in or attending school even higher. For example, in the 2005 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count (January 2006, Version6-4.pdf), a survey of homeless respondents in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority finds that 31.8% of homeless families with school-age children stated their children were not attending school. 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 the Homeless Census and

Indicators of hunger and homelessness in large urban areas, 19912006
Indicator 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Source: "Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities: A Sixteen-Year Comparison," in Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's CitiesA 23-City Survey, U.S. Conference of Mayors and Sodexho, December 2006, (accessed January 21, 2007)
Increase in demand for emergency food 26% 18% 13% 12% 9% 11% 16% 14% 18% 17% 23% 19% 17% 14% 12% 7%
Cities in which demand for food increased 93% 96% 83% 83% 72% 83% 86% 78% 85% 83% 93% 100% 88% 96% 76% 74%
Increase in demand by families for food assistance 26% 14% 13% 14% 10% 10% 13% 14% 15% 16% 19% 17% 18% 13% 7% 5%
Portion of those requesting food assistance who are families with children 68% 68% 67% 64% 63% 62% 58% 61% 58% 62% 54% 48% 59% 56% 54% 70%
Demand for emergency food unmet 17% 21% 16% 15% 18% 18% 19% 21% 21% 13% 14% 16% 14% 20% 18% 23%
Cities in which food assistance facilities must turn people away 79% 68% 68% 73% 59% 50% 71% 47% 54% 46% 33% 32% 56% 48% 43% 26%
Cities which expect demand for emergency food to increase next year 100% 89% 100% 81% 96% 96% 92% 96% 84% 71% 100% 100% 87% 88% 90% 72%
Increase in demand for emergency shelter 13% 14% 10% 13% 11% 5% 3% 11% 12% 15% 13% 19% 13% 6% 6% 9%
Cities in which demand increased 89% 88% 81% 80% 63% 71% 59% 72% 69% 76% 81% 88% 80% 70% 71% 68%
Demand for emergency shelter unmet 15% 23% 25% 21% 19% 20% 27% 26% 25% 23% 37% 30% 30% 23% 14% 23%
Cities in which shelters must turn people away 74% 75% 77% 72% 82% 81% 88% 67% 73% 56% 44% 56% 84% 81% 79% 77%
Cities which expect demand for shelter to increase next year 100% 93% 88% 71% 100% 100% 100% 93% 92% 72% 100% 100% 88% 88% 93% 68%
Composition of homeless population
Single men 50% 55% 43% 48% 46% 45% 47% 45% 43% 44% 40% 41% 41% 41% 43% 51%
Families with children 35% 32% 34% 39% 36% 38% 36% 38% 36% 36% 40% 41% 40% 40% 33% 30%
Single women 12% 11% 11% 11% 14% 14% 14% 14% 13% 13% 14% 13% 14% 14% 17% 17%
Unaccompanied youth 3% 2% 4% 3% 4% 3% 4% 3% 4% 7% 4% 5% 5% 5% 3% 2%
Children 24% 22% 30% 26% 25% 27% 25% 25% NA NA NA NA NA NA NA 24%
Severely mentally ill 29% 28% 27% 26% 23% 24% 27% 24% 19% 22% 22% 23% 23% 23% 22% 16%
Substance abusers 40% 41% 48% 43% 46% 43% 43% 38% 31% 37% 34% 32% 30% 30% 30% 26%
Employed 18% 17% 18% 19% 20% 18% 17% 22% 21% 26% 20% 22% 17% 17% 15% 13%
Veterans 23% 18% 21% 23% 23% 19% 22% 22% 14% 15% 11% 10% 10% 10% 11% 9%

Homeless Youth/Foster Teen Study (2002,, a study of unaccompanied homeless youths conducted in Monterey County, California. According to the study's findings, 21% 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. Only 13% of the homeless youths in the study had a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma. The remaining 87% were performing below grade level.

The study shows that many homeless youth aged fourteen to twenty-one had been in the foster care system and had become homeless after emancipation (leaving foster care). Although this study is only a countywide survey, it confirms 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, whereas only 0.3% of the general population aged fourteen to twenty-one were ever in foster care.

Educational Achievement

The poor educational achievement of homeless youth puts them at an increased risk for homelessness in their adulthoods. After investigating the education of homeless people, Burt et al. find in Homelessness that 38% had less than a high school diploma, 34% had completed high school, and 28% had some education beyond high school. (See Table 1.12 in Chapter 1.) The homeless were less educated than the population as a whole. In 1996, 18% of the U.S. adult population had less than a high school education, 34% had a high school diploma, and 48% had some education beyond high school.

Military Background

Burt et al. also report in Homelessness that in 1996, 23% of the homeless were veterans, whereas 13% of people in the general population were veterans. Citing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sources, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) states in "Background and Statistics" (2005, that about two hundred thousand veterans are homeless on any given day, and up to four hundred thousand experience homelessness annually. Of homeless veterans, 96% are male and 4% are female. Almost half (47%) served during Vietnam; two-thirds (67%) served for three years or more and one-third (33%) were stationed in a war zone. Forty-five percent of homeless veterans have mental illness and half abuse drugs or alcohol.

In "Survey Confirms 'War on Terror' Veterans Are Seeking Homeless Assistance" (January 12, 2005, small survey of nineteen homeless veteran service providers to determine the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on homeless veteran numbersthe NCHV finds that those nineteen service providers had served sixty-seven veterans from these wars. Linda Boone, the executive director of the NCHV, states that these veterans were likely to request assistance sooner and in greater numbers than did veterans of other foreign wars.


Most homeless people will become homeless again. In Homelessness, Burt et al. note that 51% of all homeless people surveyed in that year had been homeless before. The AGRM finds in its 2005 survey that 66% of the homeless had been homeless before26% had been homeless once before, 18% had been homeless twice before, and 22% had been homeless three or more times before. (See Table 1.11 in Chapter 1.)

Thirty-nine percent of the homeless studied by Burt et al. had been homeless less than six months, and 59% had been homeless for more than half a year. Fifty-nine percent of the homeless surveyed by the AGRM in 2005 had been homeless less than one year, and 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 basic 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. According to Rural Poverty at a Glance (July 2004,, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reports that rural communities have higher poverty rates than do urban areas. Rural communities have fewer official shelters and fewer public places (for example, heating grates, subways, or train stations), where the homeless can find temporary shelter. Therefore, they are more likely to live in a car or a camper, or with relatives in overcrowded or run-down housing. Finding the rural homeless is therefore more difficult for investigators of the problem.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) reports in the fact sheet "Rural Homelessness" (June 2006, that the rural homeless are more likely to be white, female, married, and currently working than are the urban homeless. They are also more likely to be homeless for the first time and generally experience homelessness for a shorter period than the urban homeless. Furthermore, the NCH notes that domestic violence is more likely to be a cause of homelessness in rural areas and that alcohol and substance abuse is less likely to be a cause.

Burt et al. determine in Homelessness that 21% of all homeless people in their study lived in suburban areas and 9% lived in rural communities. The rural homeless surveyed were more likely to be working, or to have worked recently, than the urban homeless65% 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 (January 2002,, argues 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, second moving into abandoned shacks, cars, or campgrounds, and finally 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. According to the National Rural Network in Why Rural Matters II: The Rural Impact of the Administration's FY07 Budget Proposal (March 2006), budget cuts under President George W. Bush exacerbate the problems of the rural poor and homeless because disproportionate cuts to rural areas result in a significant disadvantage.

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

  • Are primarily agriculturalresidents 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 growthnew or expanding industrial plants often attract more job seekers than can be absorbed
  • Have persistent poverty, such as Appalachia and the rural South, where the young and able-bodied may have to relocate before they can find work


Poverty Estimates

There is an undeniable connection between homelessness and poverty. People in poverty live from day to day with little or no safety net for times when unforeseen expenses arise. If a family's resources are small, expenditures on necessities such as food, shelter, or health care have to be carefully decided and sometimes sacrificed. Should one spend money on food, a visit to the doctor, buying necessary medicines, or paying the rent? In 2007 a full-time job paying minimum wage for forty hours per week provided an income of just $10,712 annually. (The federal poverty guideline for 2007 for one person was $9,800, and for two people it was $13,200; see Table 1.1 in Chapter 1.) Being poor often means that an illness, an accident, or a missed paycheck can be enough to cause homelessness.

Housing costs for such a family may be out of reach, costing from 50% to 75% of the family income. According to da Costa Nunez and Caruso, low-income and high-rent payments often result in substandard housing accommodation, doubled up living, or living on the street or in a public shelter. The necessity of basic sustenance and medical care usually leaves little money left to meet housing needs. People in poverty have further difficulties finding housing if they have previously defaulted on their rent or house payments, with the result of becoming homeless.

After large decreases in the poverty rate in the 1960s and 1970s, the poverty rate increased in the 1990s to a high of 15.1% in 1993. (See Table 1.2 in Chapter 1.) Steady gains in decreasing the proportion of people living below the poverty threshold were made between 1994 and 2001. However, between 2002 and 2005 the poverty rate once again rose, to a high of 12.7% in 2004. It had decreased slightly to 12.6% in 2005. In that year thirty-seven million people lived below the poverty level.

Burt et al. indicate in Evaluation of Continuums of Care for Homeless People that whether using a low or high estimate of the number of homeless people in the nation, 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.

No strong correlation between poverty and homelessness can be seen in these data; however, there is an obvious relationship between homelessness and poverty. There are no wealthy homeless people. Most likely, the lack of a correlation is due to the number of homeless being underestimated in the earlier years.

Numbers of Homeless People

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-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The Urban Institute reports in America's Homeless II: Populations and Services (February 1, 2000, that 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 in 1987 to 380,100 meals in 1996. 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 U.S. Bureau of the Census on poverty levels, are still not available. Other but more limited data support the relationship between poverty and homelessness. Data collected by Smith and Smith on the population in emergency and transitional shelters show a decline in that population from 178,638 in the 1990 census to a total of 170,706 in the 2000 census. (See Table 4.5.) During that period the economy exhibited strong growth.

Table 4.5 shows these data 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.

Population in emergency and transitional shelters by region, 1990 and 2000
Area Population in shelters Total 2000 U.S. population Percent
1990 2000
Number Percent Number Percent
Source: Adapted from Annetta C. Smith and Denise I. Smith, "Table 1. Population in Emergency and Transitional Shelters for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: 1990 and 2000," in Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2000Census 2000 Special Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, October 2001, (accessed January 11, 2007)
United States 178,638 100.0 170,706 100.0 100.0
Northeast 60,077 33.6 52,369 30.7 19.0
Midwest 27,245 15.3 28,438 16.7 22.9
South 42,407 23.7 42,471 24.9 35.6
West 48,909 27.4 47,428 27.8 22.5

Patrick Markee, in Fall Update: Rising Family Homelessness in New York City (September 28, 2006,, notes a month-by-month pattern of increasing homelessness during 2006. The number of homeless families and the number of homeless children had both increased by 11% between January and September of that year. According to Markee, the number of new homeless families that entered a New York City shelter increased by 4.4% between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2006. The number of people housed in shelters for the homeless in 2006 was at historically high levels.

Trends Profiled by Mayors

The Conference of Mayors reports that requests for emergency shelter increased in the cities surveyed in 2006 by an average of 9%, up from 6% the previous year. (See Table 4.4.) An average of 23% of the requests for emergency shelter by all homeless people went unmet in 2006, an increase from the previous year's low of 14%. More than three out of four (77%) cities had to turn people away from shelters at some point during the year. Officials in 68% of the cities surveyed expected that requests for emergency shelter by homeless individuals and families would increase in 2007.

Past-year change in local city conditions and assessment of seriousness of problems, 2005
Code/condition Change in condition since last year Current status of condition
Improved Worsened No change Major problem Moderate problem Minor/no problem
Source: Christiana Brennan, Elizabeth Wheel, and Christopher Hoene, "Specific Local Conditions," in The State of America's Cities 2005: The Annual Opinion Survey of Municipal Elected Officials, National League of Cities, 2005, (accessed October 31, 2006)
 A. Violent crime 34% 13% 53% 7% 37% 56%
 B. Unemployment 24% 28% 48% 18% 42% 40%
 C. Impacts of unfunded mandates/preemption 3% 58% 39% 33% 47% 19%
 D. City fiscal condition 32% 29% 37% 18% 45% 37%
 E. Cable TV rates/broadband internet availability 24% 30% 47% 7% 34% 59%
 F. Family stability 9% 16% 75% 8% 38% 54%
 G. Race/ethnic relations 18% 8% 74% 5% 31% 64%
 H. Vitality of neighborhoods 39% 10% 51% 7% 36% 57%
 I. Police/community relations 45% 8% 47% 5% 25% 70%
 J. Overall economic conditions 37% 26% 37% 19% 44% 37%
 K. Poverty 7% 25% 68% 15% 41% 45%
 L. Volunteerism/community services 42% 9% 49% 5% 21% 74%
 M. Availability of quality affordable housing 26% 29% 45% 22% 42% 36%
 N. Quality of public education 27% 19% 54% 18% 32% 50%
 O. Homelessness 5% 22% 73% 8% 33% 59%
 P. City relationships w/community groups 46% 7% 47% 2% 19% 79%
 Q. Youth violence and crime 15% 20% 65% 9% 43% 48%
 R. Regional/area-wide problem solving 43% 13% 44% 12% 40% 48%
 S. Infrastructure 45% 22% 33% 18% 45% 37%
 T. Traffic congestion 11% 55% 35% 29% 44% 27%
 U. Local environmental quality 23% 11% 66% 6% 33% 61%
 V. Federal relations with your city 21% 14% 65% 6% 33% 61%
 W. State relations with your city 27% 25% 48% 14% 37% 49%
 X. Public school relations with your city 34% 14% 52% 6% 26% 68%
 Y. Drugs/alcohol abuse 7% 31% 62% 20% 50% 30%
 Z. Vitality of downtown/main street 52% 14% 34% 17% 45% 38%
AA. Availability of child care 15% 9% 76% 5% 34% 61%
BB. Recreation 48% 8% 44% 5% 27% 68%
CC. Civility in public life 21% 21% 58% 6% 26% 68%
DD. Family-friendliness of city 41% 5% 54% 2% 18% 80%
 EE. Overall sense of "community" 50% 7% 43% 4% 26% 70%
 FF. Efficiency of municipal service delivery 48% 4% 48% 5% 23% 72%
GG. Public transportation/transit service 23% 14% 63% 12% 40% 48%
HH. Cost and availability of health services 9% 55% 36% 35% 43% 22%
 II. Homeland security/emergency preparedness 46% 5% 49% 9% 37% 54%
 JJ. Availability/quality of after-school programs 22% 10% 68% 9% 39% 52%
KK. Population changes/migration 17% 21% 62% 11% 36% 52%
LL. Economic health/vitality 35% 20% 45% 17% 38% 45%

National League of Cities

In 2005 the National League of Cities surveyed a random sample of the nation's municipal elected officials regarding issues and problems they faced in governing U.S. cities. When asked to indicate whether various conditions had improved or worsened in their cities in the previous year, 22% of the officials reported that homelessness had worsened in their cities, whereas only 5% said homelessness had improved. (See Table 4.6.) Eight percent believed homelessness was a major problem in their cities and 33% believed it was a moderate problem.

More than a quarter (29%) of city officials surveyed stated that the availability of quality affordable housing had decreased in the past year; slightly fewer (26%) believed the availability of housing had increased. More than one out of five (22%) thought the lack of affordable housing was a major problem in their cities, and another 42% believed it was a moderate problem. Officials also believed other conditions affecting homelessness had worsened; 28% believed unemployment had worsened, 26% believed overall economic conditions had worsened, and 25% believed poverty had worsened during the previous year. When officials were asked to list the top three most deteriorated conditions in their cities, homelessness was not in the top ten, as it had been in previous years, but "availability of quality affordable housing" ranked fifth at 18% percent. (See Table 4.7.)


It is extremely difficult for the homeless to escape their condition without a job. Yet it is equally difficult for the homeless to find and keep good jobs. In the fact sheet "Employment and Homelessness" (June 2006, pdf), the NCH lists the following barriers to employment for homeless people:

  • Lack of education
  • Lack of competitive work skills
  • Lack of transportation
  • Lack of day care
  • Disabling conditions
Most deteriorated city conditions over past five years, 2005
Note: Percent of city officials listing item as one of the three most deteriorated conditions in their community during the past five years.
Source: Christiana Brennan, Elizabeth Wheel, and Christopher Hoene, "Table 2. Most Deteriorated Conditions," in The State of America's Cities 2005: The Annual Opinion Survey of Municipal Elected Officials, National League of Cities, 2005, (accessed October 31, 2006)
Traffic congestion 34%
Impacts of unfunded mandates/preemption 29%
Cost and availability of health services 21%
City fiscal condition 20%
Availability of quality affordable housing 18%
Unemployment 15%
Drugs/alcohol abuse 14%
Overall economic conditions 13%
Infrastructure 13%
State relations with your city 12%

In addition, the homeless, like other workers, are subject to the state of the labor market. The availability of jobs and the wages and benefits paid for the available jobs often determine whether or not people can remove themselves from homelessness.

Burt et al. indicate in Homelessness that 44% of homeless respondents reported working in the previous month. Two percent earned income as self-employed entrepreneursby peddling or selling belongings. Forty-two percent of the homeless respondents worked for, and were paid by, an employer. The 2006 Conference of Mayors report finds that 13% of the homeless in the survey cities were employed in full- or part-time jobs at the time of the survey.

The NCH states in "Employment and Homelessness" that advocates for the homeless are concerned that this dependency on wages, combined with the unfavorable labor market conditions, actually supports continued homelessness. Because most homeless people do not have more than a high school education and because a majority of the low paying jobs go to those with at least a high school education, advocates worry that the available job opportunities for homeless people provide an insufficient base for exiting homelessness.

It costs money to live. Even homeless people have needs that can only be met with money. From needing something as simple as a toothbrush or a meal, to money for a newspaper or a phone call to a job prospect, homeless people need money to begin to improve their lives. Out of the need to survive, homeless people have come up with a number of ways to earn money.

Day Labor

Regular work, characterized by a permanent and ongoing relationship between employer and employee, does not figure significantly in the lives and routines of most homeless, as it is usually unavailable or inaccessible. Homelessness makes getting and keeping regular work difficult because of the lack of a fixed address, communication, and, in many cases, the inability to get a good night's sleep, clean up, and dress appropriately. Studies find that the longer a person is homeless, the less likely he or she is to pursue wage labor and the more likely that person is to engage in some other form of work. For those who do participate in regular jobs, in most cases, the wages received are not sufficient to escape from living on the street.

Day laborwage labor secured on a day-to-day basis, typically at lower wages and changing locationsis somewhat easier for the homeless to secure. Day labor may involve unloading trucks, cleaning up warehouses, cutting grass, or washing windows. Day labor often fits the abilities of the homeless because transportation may be provided to the work site, and appearance, work history, and references are less important than in regular employment. Equally attractive to a homeless person, day labor usually pays cash at quitting time, thus providing immediate pocket money. Day labor jobs are, however, by definition, without a future. They can provide for daily survival on the street but are not generally sufficient to get a person off the street. Consequently, many homeless turn to shadow work.

Shadow Work

Shadow work refers to methods of getting money that are outside the normal economy, some of them illegal. These methods include panhandling, scavenging, selling possessions, picking up cans and selling them, selling one's blood or plasma, theft, or peddling illegal goods, drugs, or services. A homeless person seldom engages in all these activities consistently but may turn to some of them as needed. Researchers estimate that 60% of homeless people engage in some shadow work. Shadow work is more common for homeless men than for homeless women. Theft is more common for younger homeless people.

In "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?: Homelessness, Panhandling, and the Public" (Urban Affairs Review, January 2003), Barrett A. Lee and Chad R. Farrell note that a mixture of institutionalized assistance, wage labor, and shadow work is typical of those who live on the streets. Studies find that many homeless people are resourceful in surviving the rigors of street life and recommend that this resourcefulness be somehow channeled into training that can lead to jobs paying a living wage. However, the NCH reports in "Employment and Homelessness" that some observers suggest that homeless people who have adapted to street life may likely need transitional socialization programs as much as programs that teach them a marketable skill.

Institutionalized Assistance

According to David Snow et al., in "Material Survival Strategies on the Street: Homeless People as Bricoleurs, Homelessness in America" (Jim Baumohl, ed., Homelessness in America, 1996), institutionalized assistance refers to "established or routine monetary assistance patterned in accordance with tradition, legislation, or organizations." This would include institutionalized labor, such as that provided by soup kitchens, shelters, and rehabilitation programs that sometimes pay the homeless for work related to facility operation. The number of people employed by these agencies is a small percentage of the homeless population. In addition, the payroom, board, and a small stipendtends to tie the homeless to the organization rather than providing the means to get off the street.

Institutionalized assistance also includes income supplements provided by the government, family, and friends. According to Snow et al., even though a considerable number of the homeless may receive some financial help from family or friends, it is usually small. Women seem to receive more help from family and friends and to remain on the streets for shorter periods than men. Cash from family and friends seems to decline with the amount of time spent on the street and with age.

Street Newspapers: Bootstrap Initiatives

In the United States, as well as overseas, homeless people are writing, publishing, and selling their own newspapers. Many street newspaper publishers belong to the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), which was organized in Chicago in 1996. The NASNA holds an annual conference, offers business advice and services, and supports street newspaper publishers in the same way that any professional organization supports its membership. It also lobbies the government on homeless issues. The NASNA (May 15, 2006, reports that more than forty cities in North America had street newspapers that provided opportunities for the homeless in 2006.

Generally, the street newspapers are loaned on credit to homeless vendors who then sell them for $1 or $2 each. At the end of the workday the vendor pays the publisher the agreed-on price and pockets the remainder as profit. For example, Boston's Spare Change newspaper publishes nine thousand copies every two weeks. Vendors purchase newspapers for $0.25 each and resell them for $1, pocketing $0.75 for each paper sold. Some street newspapers charge vendors nothing at all. California's Street Spirit and Street Sheet both make their papers free to vendors.

This cooperative arrangement among publishers, vendors, and consumers has many benefits:

  • Creation of jobs
  • Supports the work ethic
  • Accommodates the mobility of homeless people
  • Provides reliable employment despite crisis living conditions
  • Informs the public about homelessness
  • Erases stereotypes of the drunken, illiterate, "unworthy" homeless person
  • Gives the writers and vendors a sense of accomplishment
  • Provides immediate cash to people who desperately need it

Most of the homeless newspaper vendors have not been able to earn enough just from selling newspapers to move themselves from homelessness, but as the quality and availability of these publications grow, homeless people envision the street newspaper industry becoming a means of moving tens of thousands from homelessness.


Burt et al. note in Homelessness that homeless people say that the primary reason they cannot exit homelessness is insufficient income. Of those surveyed by Burt et al., 30% cited insufficient income and 24% cited lack of a job.

Burt et al. report that 81% of the "currently" homeless had incomes of less than $700 in the thirty days before the study; the average monthly income was $367. Most of the homeless in the study were receiving their income from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Of the formerly homeless people surveyed, the median monthly income of $470 would amount to an annual income of $5,640, an amount well below the poverty level for a single person ($7,740 in 1996).

In the 2005 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reports that homeless people cited a variety of reasons having to do with money and income for not resecuring permanent housing. Over half (53%) said they could not afford monthly rent payments. Almost half (48%) said that they were unemployed or had no income and therefore could not secure permanent housing. One out of five (19%) said they had no money for moving expenses, and 16% said their bad credit would prevent them from getting permanent housing.

These findings clearly demonstrate the financial difficulty a homeless person encounters in trying to permanently exit homelessness or poverty. However, exiting homelessnessespecially by the chronically homelessrequires more than income. Persistent medical assistance, sometimes for an entire lifetime, has to be available for the mentally ill or for people with addiction and substance abuse problems. Furthermore, without programs such as job training, assistance with general education, help with socialization skills, and, in many instances, counseling, the maintenance of a degree of independent life for the long term can be difficult for the chronically homeless.

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