How Homelessness is Measured and 2018’s Count

By Andrew Fraieli

The word “homeless” doesn’t differentiate between the person with a job staying at different shelters, and the teen from a troubled home sleeping by the train tracks. “Homeless” doesn’t helpfully define who is potentially going to freeze to death sleeping outside, and who is between jobs camping in the woods full time; it’s a word that is fluid and changes in context.

So, how does the government define the amount of homeless in the country and track this fluid number every year?

The tactic used by the government is called a “point in time count.” According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, it’s “an unduplicated count on a single night of the people in a community who are experiencing homelessness that includes both sheltered and unsheltered populations.”

This count includes people living in shelters and people unsheltered who are counted every other year to be included, all done by outreach workers and volunteers who go out to find the unsheltered people.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gives a yearly assessment report to Congress with numbers pertaining to different situational types of homeless in the country. They get these numbers because counts described above are required by communities that receive funds from the federal Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grant program.

The terms used by the report to break down the numbers are defined in the sidebar, but include the difference between sheltered and unsheltered homeless, different counts for youth, veterans, families, and people who are chronically homeless.


Assessment Report Terms

Chronically Homeless – an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.
Individual – a person who is not part of a family with children during an episode of homelessness.
Sheltered Homeless –  people who are staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.
Unsheltered Homeless – people whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (for example, the streets, vehicles, or parks).
Unaccompanied Homeless Youth (under 18) – people in households with only children who are not part of a family with children or accompanied by their parent or guardian during their episode of homelessness, and who are under the age of 18.

Published in December of 2018, the Annual Homeless Assessment Report states, “On a single night in January 2018, 552,830 people experienced homelessness in the United States.” This breaks down to about 65% being sheltered, and 35% unsheltered.
In that single night count, 20% or 111,592 were under 18, 9% were between the ages of 18 and 24 — with about 51% of that age range being unsheltered — and 71% were over the age of 24.

37,878 veterans were found homeless, accounting for just under 9% of homeless adults, with 62% or 23,312 being sheltered and 38% “staying in places not suitable for human habitation.” The amount of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased by 48% though since 2009 with the current count in 2018 being a new low.

In terms of families, “180,413 people were homeless in 56,342 families with children, representing one-third (33%) of the total homeless population in 2018.” 90% or 164,023 of the people experiencing homelessness in a family were sheltered though, with only 16,390 unsheltered.

The last major category in the report is chronic homelessness, with 24%, or 88,640 of homeless individuals showing chronic issues with homelessness; 65% or 57,886 of those people were unsheltered. The report also mentions that “the number of individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness increased by two percent between 2017 and 2018 but is 26 percent lower than it was in 2007.”

In Florida, about 31,030 were found to be homeless, but had a rate of homelessness less than the national average — being 17 per 10,000 people — at 15 per 10,000. Florida did have the largest unsheltered population though at 7% of the total homeless population, or 13,393 people.

As a comparison, the state with the largest homeless population was California with 129,972 people at a rate of 33 per 10,000 people. The state with the lowest rate of homelessness was Mississippi with 5 in 10,00 and a total of 1,352 homeless.
Compared to 2017, the rate amount of homeless raised by only 0.3%.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness acknowledges that this “point in time” count is not without flaws, “There is variation in count methodology year-to-year within and across communities. Unsheltered counts have more limitations than sheltered counts and there is more variation in methodology.”

Even so, these “point in time” counts are the only way to track unsheltered homeless as they have to be found by volunteers according to their page on the matter, “despite its flaws, the annual point-in-time counts result in the most reliable estimate of people experiencing homelessness in the United States from which progress can be measured.”