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Millions Still Face Homelessness in a Booming Economy

Document date: February 01, 2000
Released online: February 01, 2000
Contact: Susan Brown (202) 261-5702
  Renu Shukla (202) 261-5278

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 1, 2000—Even in a booming economy, at least 2.3 million adults and children, or nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population, are likely to experience a spell of homelessness at least once during a year. This likelihood grows to 6.3 percent if one considers only people living in poverty, according to the newest national analysis of homelessness by Urban Institute researchers Martha Burt and Laudan Aron. At the same time, there is a larger and more diverse network of homeless services than in 1987, when the Urban Institute released earlier national estimates of the homeless population.

"The growth of the homeless assistance network can be considered a success story from the point of view of the homeless people who are now receiving services," notes Burt. "But housing costs are on the rise in metropolitan areas, while extreme poverty and other vulnerabilities are facts of life for millions of people, homeless and otherwise. Preventing homelessness in a booming economy is an ongoing challenge."

Burt and Aron developed the new estimates from the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC). The NSHAPC covers suburban, rural, and urban areas, and was conducted in 1996 by the U.S. Census Bureau. Last December, the Federal Interagency Council on the Homeless released descriptive data from the survey, but did not include population estimates. The new independent analysis by Burt and Aron provides estimates of the size of the homeless population in 1996 and enables a comparison with 1987 estimates of homelessness.

Burt and Aron employed a complex set of assumptions to represent the amount of turnover within the homeless population, variation in the length of homeless spells, multiple contacts with homeless services by a single client, and seasonal variations in homelessness. As a result, rather than a single homeless population estimate, they offer a set of estimates, each appropriate for a different purpose. Since the NSHAPC could survey only in areas where service providers existed, the homeless population may be underestimated in rural areas and other locations where there are few homeless services. Therefore, Burt and Aron characterize their results as lower-bound estimates.

Ultimately, Urban Institute estimating procedures, based on the NSHAPC methodology, bring the nation as close as it is ever likely to get to a full representation of homeless adults and children. The estimates yield a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percent.

Among the key findings:

High Seasonal Variation in Homelessness. The researchers estimate that 842,000 adults and children were homeless during an average week in February 1996. In an average week in October that same year, they estimate 444,000 homeless people.

Likely Increase in the Size of the Homeless Population since 1987. In 1987, the Urban Institute estimated that between 500,000 and 600,000 people were homeless at any one time. The Urban Institute's two 1996 estimates, based on NSHAPC, fall on either side of the 1987 estimates. After taking all assumptions into consideration, the researchers conclude that the higher 1996 estimate is more representative of the full homeless population, and that the size of the homeless population since 1987 has increased.

High Proportion of Poor People Likely to Have Homeless Spell. Between 2.3 to 3.5 million people are estimated to experience homelessness at least once during a year, based on October and February 1996 estimates respectively. Estimates for children range from 900,000 to 1.35 million. The range accounts for .9 to 1.3 percent of the U.S. population. People living at or below the federal poverty level are the most vulnerable to experiencing a homeless episode. The estimated annual projections account for 6.3 to 9.6 percent of the total U.S. population in poverty, and 6.2 to 9.3 percent of children in poverty.

Tremendous Growth in Homeless Services. The nation's shelter and housing capacity within the homeless assistance network grew by 220 percent between 1988 and 1996, from 275,000 beds to almost 608,000 beds in 1996. Much of the growth is due to new funding and to priorities placed on developing transitional and permanent housing. Between 1988 and 1996 the number of such units grew from close to zero to about 274,000, in contrast to the capacity of emergency shelters, which grew by only 21 percent.

Soup kitchen and meal distribution services in central cities nearly quadrupled between 1987 and 1996, from 97,000 to 382,100 meals on an average day in February 1996. Nationally, these programs expected to serve almost 570,000 meals—one-third of which were served outside of central cities. Other types of homeless services also have increased, including health services, outreach programs, and drop-in centers.

For additional information, visit www.urban.org.

This analysis was supported by the Melville Charitable Trust and the Fannie Mae Foundation.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization established in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Its objectives are to sharpen thinking about societal problems and efforts to solve them, improve government decisions and their implementation, and increase citizen awareness about important public choices.

Topics/Tags: | Housing | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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