How Many People are Homeless?

Powerful Essays
How Many People are Homeless?

Many people call the National Coalition for the Homeless to find out how many people are homeless in the United States. There is no easy answer to this question, and in fact, the question itself is misleading. In most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance -- not a permanent condition. A more appropriate measure of the magnitude of homelessness is therefore how many people experience homelessness, not how many people "are" homeless.

Studies of homelessness are complicated by problems of definitions and methodology. This fact sheet describes definitions of homelessness, methodologies for counting homeless people, and recent estimates of homelessness. Additional resources for further study are also provided.


As a result of methodological and financial constraints, most studies are limited to counting people who are literally homeless -- that is, in shelters or on the streets. While this approach may yield useful information about the number of people who use services such as shelters and soup kitchens, or who are easy to locate on the street, it can result in underestimates of homelessness. Many people who lack a stable, permanent residence have few shelter options because shelters are filled to capacity or are unavailable. A recent study of 29 U.S. cities found that in 1996, 20% of all requests for emergency shelter went unmet due to lack of resources (Waxman and Hinderliter, 1996). In addition, a review of homelessness in 50 cities found that in virtually every city, the city's official estimated number of homeless people greatly exceeded the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing spaces (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 1996). Moreover,...

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... an Old Debate," in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65 (July 1995) 3: 347-354. Dr. Bruce Link, Columbia University, 100 Haven Ave., Apt. 31-D, New York, NY 10032-2626; 212/0631.

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Mean Sweeps: A Report on Anti-Homeless Laws, Litigation and Alternatives in 50 United States Cities, 1996. Available for $23 from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 918 F Street, NW, Suite 412, Washington, DC 20004-1406; 202/638-2535.

Waxman and Hinderliter. A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities: 1996. 1996. Available for $15.00 from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1620 Eye Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20006-4005; 202/293-7330.

Wright, James D. Evaluation Review (v.16, n.2), 1992. Available for $17.00 from Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Rd., Thousand Oaks, CA 91320; 805/499-0721.
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