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What Does Homelessness in the U.S. Really Look Like?

April 10, 2017

We see makeshift tents strewn under highway overpasses. We walk past weathered faces sleeping on city sidewalks and park benches. Many of us have witnessed homelessness firsthand, and these highly visible signs shape our perceptions of what homelessness looks like in the United States.

But, is this really the face of homelessness? Can we believe our perceptions of homelessness based on what we see on the streets? A decade of research provides a definitive answer: no.

To realize what homelessness really looks like in the United States, we need a way to look deeper and see the full extent of the issue. It is with this knowledge that our nation can then tailor programs and approaches needed to better the lives of individuals and families who have lost their housing.

Since 2007, researchers at Abt Global have compiled data from hundreds of communities nationwide to produce a more complete picture of homelessness in the United States. The results from this work—reported in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress—show that homelessness is experienced by a remarkably diverse range of people and more often than we may think.

Dispelling Myths About the Face of Homelessness in the United States

So, what does homelessness really look like in the United States?

The most recent AHAR reports (Part 1 and Part 2) tell us a lot about homelessness and why perceptions from the street may be misleading:

Perception: Who you see on the street is a good representation of the full extent of homelessness in the United States.
Evidence: Depending on the community, street homelessness is a small share of the larger homeless population. Nationally, two-thirds of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January were in shelter and the remaining one-third were in unsheltered locations, such as streets, parks, abandoned buildings, or cars. In many major cities (e.g., Boston, the District of Columbia, New York City, and Minneapolis) 90+% of the homeless populations are sheltered, and thus, may not be visible when you’re walking around downtown. In fact, in 2015, the number of people who accessed a homeless shelter was 1,484,574. To put that into perspective, the number of people accessing shelters in the U.S. was 20% larger than the capacity of every Major League Baseball stadium in the U.S. combined.

Perception: Homelessness is something that only happens to adults.
Evidence: The number of children who accessed a homeless shelter in the U.S. in 2015 was 330,074. This estimate was 20% larger than the entire elementary school population of the Los Angeles school system (274,193), the second largest school system in the country. In addition, the number of children who accessed a homeless shelter without an accompanying adult increased by 21% (3,774 children) between 2014 and 2015.

Perception: Homelessness only happens to particular genders and races.
Evidence: In 2015, 62% of people who accessed a homeless shelter were men and 38% were women. On a single night in January 2016, 1,770 people identified as transgender, 45% of whom were residing in shelters. Further, 49% of people who accessed a homeless shelter in 2015 identified as white, 41% identified as Black or African-American, and about 9% identified as another race or multiple races.

Perception: Most people who experience homelessness are homeless for long periods of time.
Evidence:  In 2015, 89% of people who accessed shelter stayed in that homeless situation for six months or less, and 28% stayed just seven days or less.

Perception: Homelessness doesn’t happen to trained professionals.
Evidence: The number of veterans who used a homeless shelter program in 2015 was 139,855. This estimate is 2.6 times larger than the largest military base in the world, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which has just over 52,000 active-duty military personnel.

Perception: Homelessness is an issue that is never going to change or improve.
Evidence: Between 2007 and 2015, the number of individuals entering a homeless shelter dropped by about 11%, or 127,815 people. Between January 2009 and January 2015, the total number of veterans experiencing homelessness dropped by 35%, and there was a 46% decrease in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness on the streets.

Why Understanding the Real Face of Homelessness Matters

Like other social issues, homelessness is a complex issue to prevent and end. The first step in successfully addressing homelessness is understanding its extent and nature. This understanding is important because how society intervenes to prevent and end homelessness can vary considerably by basic demographic characteristics—interventions for youth who are homeless may focus on conflict mediation with the youth’s family or first-time renter support; single homeless adults may need employment training or medical treatment; homeless families with children may need child care support or larger housing units.

Highly visible signs of homelessness that we interact with on a daily basis force an initial dialogue on the humanity of this issue. However, it is when they are then coupled with the reality of data that we are able to see the full extent of the problem throughout our country. This is when we’re able to move from anecdotal to action. Indeed, accurate information about who is homeless in the United States can help challenge our assumptions and lead to better programs and policies.

Data helps provide a picture of what homelessness really looks like in the United States each year. From there, it’s up to us to change that picture for the better.

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