A moment’s reflection will make plain that ‘the total number of the homeless’ is of necessity a ‘soft,’ ambiguous number that probably cannot be known with a high degree of precision. …There [is] no shared or widely agreed-upon definition of just what constitutes a ‘homeless’ condition, and so different investigators are free to define the phenomenon in different ways. There is a large and obvious difference between the number literally homeless on any given night (a point prevalence rate), the number homeless at least once in the course of, say, a year (a period prevalence rate), or the number who become homeless during a given year (an annual incidence rate). No matter how inclusive the definition and how systematic the search, it is obvious that the homeless are a mobile, even nomadic, and certainly hard-to-locate group, and so the possibility is always open that large numbers of them have been missed in the counting effort. The above and a range of related factors imply that no study can provide a definitive count of the size of the homeless population. The best one can hope for is a more or less plausible count with known and small uncertainties attached to it.

“Public awareness of the ‘new homeless’ can be traced to the late 1970s,” notes Kusmer (2002:239), “when beggars and ‘street people’ became increasingly noticeable in the downtowns of many cities.” Homelessness continued to grow in prominence as a problem through the 1980s. In 1984 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that, on any given night, at least 250,000 people lived on the streets or in shelters. “By 1990, that figure had doubled. A 1996 Urban Institute survey estimated that on an average night 470,000 persons in the United States were sleeping in shelters but that a much larger number, close to 2 million, had experienced homelessness at some point during the previous year” (Kusmer, 2002:239). Contemporary estimates put the point prevalence rate of homelessness (the number literally homeless on a particular day) at on the order of 840,000 people; over the course of a year, it is suggested that at least 2.3 million, and perhaps as many as 3.5 million, experience a spell of homelessness (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004; Burt and Aron, 2000). Limited survey data suggest that episodes of homelessness average 5 months in length (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004:7).17

Very few survey measures have attempted to give a nationwide examination of homelessness. The most recent national-level study was conducted in 1996, when the Census Bureau was the contracted data collector for the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC).18


See also “How Many People Experience Homelessness?,” Fact Sheet #2 published by the National Coalition for the Homeless, June 2005 version, posted at http://www.nationalhomeless.org [8/1/06].


See Burt and Aron (2000) and Burt (2001) for additional discussion of NSHAPC findings and Burt et al. (1999) for a full description of the survey’s design. Prior to the NSHAPC, the last

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