Who counts as homeless depends on how you ask

A proposed law would change the definition of homelessness and who qualifies for help

Department of Education
Clyde Heimer, left, and his friend Bill (who did not give his last name) volunteered to help in the Los Angeles homeless count, Jan. 28, 2015. They are homeless and said the tally underestimates the number of people living on the streets.
Haya El Nasser / Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — About two dozen volunteers gathered in a room Wednesday night for their instructions: Don’t shine flashlights at people. Don’t talk to them. Use your judgment when you see a recreational vehicle or makeshift tent. Do not get out of the car alone.

It was day two of a three-day homeless count in Los Angeles, the U.S. city with the largest population living on the streets. About 6,000 people had signed up to help. Each was required to attend a 30-minute training session, then paired with another volunteer and provided a map, tally sheet and flashlight.

Leah Hubbard, a graduate student, canvassed a 0.89-square-mile area of the city’s Westchester neighborhood. “Most people think homelessness is confined to Skid Row,” she said. But on the count, she and her teammate looked for homeless people along far less infamous areas.

Counters in some 3,000 cities and counties across the country helped quantify the nation’s homeless population this month. It’s a massive ritual overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

Yet critics warn against relying solely on this “point-in-time” method and its underlying definition of homelessness. Last January, HUD counted 578,424 people on the streets and in shelters in the U.S., down 11 percent from 2007 — while the Department of Education, or DOE, which uses a different, more expansive methodology, reported that child and family homelessness doubled over the last decade.

Advocates concerned about this discrepancy are pushing for a legislative fix. On Wednesday, a bipartisan bill meant to enlarge HUD’s concept of homelessness was introduced, for the second consecutive year, in both houses of Congress. The Homeless Children and Youth Act, or HCYA, would force HUD to align its definition with those used by federal programs for low-income families and vulnerable minors and reduce the requirements for proving homeless status, backers say. Esoteric perhaps and, in the context of a new legislature, an unlikely priority. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has stuck by HUD’s current definition and emphasized services for adults. The president’s Opening Doors plan promises to eliminate veterans’ homelessness by the end of December, chronic homelessness by 2016, and homelessness among children, families and youth by 2020.

This timetable puts a focus on adult homelessness, said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and an architect of the HCYA. “HUD has essentially forced communities to prioritize adults over kids.”

On the second night of the 2015 Los Angeles homeless count, volunteer Leah Hubbard examined a map of her assigned area.
Haya El Nasser / Al Jazeera America

Who counts as homeless depends on meaning and method and, despite decades of contention, remains unsettled. In theory, the decennial census has always had to measure both those who have housing and those who don’t, but not until after the 1990 count, when it was sued for inadequate outreach to the homeless, did the U.S. Census Bureau refine its approach.

Just a few years earlier, in 1983, HUD held its first point-in-time count in 60 municipalities — a response to housing insecurity at a time of escalating poverty and drug use. National standards for the count were applied in 2005 and have been adjusted over time, and some local agencies go well beyond what is required. The measurement targets the demographic HUD considers most in need of its limited resources: people who are visibly “unsheltered” or staying in emergency and short-term shelters. It occurs on an evening in late January, every other year at minimum. (Shelter numbers must be submitted annually.)

Even this limited population of “street homeless” — to say nothing of youth who trade sex for a place to stay, families doubled up in cramped apartments or individuals facing eviction — is difficult to capture accurately, and HUD has never claimed comprehensiveness. Because the agency dictates so much of U.S. housing policy, however, its data are influential — used to allocate funding, guide eligibility criteria and outreach strategies, and rebroadcast by academics, media and advocates.

In October 2014, when HUD released its annual homelessness report, major news outlets proclaimed, “Homelessness on the decline.” Yet data show the dangers of putting too much faith in point-in-time statistics.

Comparing data on homelessness

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees an annual point-in-time (PIT) count of the homeless and collects cumulative data through its Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The Department of Education (DOE) also records yearly homeless numbers based on input from school districts across the country.


The number of homeless people according to the PIT count has decreased 11.2 percent since 2007.


The number of homeless people according to HMIS data has decreased 10.5 percent since 2007.


The number of homeless students according to DOE data nearly doubled between the 2004–05 and 2012–13 school years.

Sources: HUD Annual Point-In-Time estimates, HUD Annual HMIS estimates, Education for Homeless Children and Youth Consolidated State Performance Report Data.
Note: HUD PIT statistics represent one day of data, while HUD HMIS and DOE numbers reflect annual, cumulative data. The spike in the 2005–06 school year (DOE data) has been partially attributed to displacement of students after Hurricane Katrina. Data are pulled from the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), a technical assistance center for DOE.

“We get concerned when people start reporting that homelessness is way down, when we don’t think that’s accurate. So I think the numbers take on an importance beyond what’s really justified,” said Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Chip Halbach, executive director of Minnesota Housing Partnership, said that HUD numbers don’t reflect the “pretty significant change in the makeup of the homeless population — from individuals to families with children,” a shift he traces to the 2007–09 recession.

Problems in the point-in-time methodology lead to undercounting, said Kim Hopper, a Columbia University anthropologist who has advised both the U.S. Census Bureau and New York City on their counts. In most of the country, he said, the freezing cold of late January is a preliminary hurdle: More homeless people are likely to find shelter, and volunteers may beg off early or be less than diligent in approaching people on the street.

One former nonprofit worker who participated in the New York count for several years (and wished to remain anonymous) said, “My experience with volunteers is, some people are mindful about following the instructions, but a lot are just there because they have to be.” She added that officials sometimes cite the numbers to their advantage: “To ignore the fact that there’s a political motive for the count would be silly. You’d see in the papers, ‘X fewer homeless people in the city.’ ” 

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These days, as more and more cities impose penalties for sleeping on the streets, homeless people are likely to conceal themselves. That’s particularly true for women fleeing domestic violence, runaway teens, people with mental illness and parents fearing child-welfare enforcement, said Duffield of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Critiques of methodology aside, HUD’s limitations start with how it defines homelessness, say advocates. While the agency has a few programs that help those at risk of homelessness, the majority require that individuals fall into specific categories, namely living on the street, in temporary shelter or on the brink of eviction. Those like Bowe Romero, a 21-year-old Oregonian staying with his grandmother while trying to find a job and a place of his own, or Janet Stewart Cross and her family, who have moved from one unaffordable apartment to another in Baltimore, would not qualify for HUD’s homeless-assistance programs.

Nor would many of the students counseled by Stephanie Van Housen, who works with homeless youth in Iowa City, Iowa, schools. She described one such 18-year-old: “He is not homeless according to HUD, because he is sleeping on the floor at a 19-year-old’s apartment with some other kids.” Yet he is constantly tired, misses classes, wears dirty clothes and fails to turn in homework — “the telltale educational barriers that go with homelessness.” Van Housen added, “The only way HUD will help him is if he goes to an adult shelter or sleeps outside in the Iowa weather.”

Some government agencies already define homelessness more broadly — to include those who live in motels and crash in the living rooms of family and friends. The DOE tracks K–12 students’ housing status throughout the school year. “Homeless liaisons” designated by every school district in the country are trained to spot signs of housing insecurity and poverty: children who hoard food, frequently change their address or fall asleep in class, for example. 

Federal definitions of homelessness

If passed, the Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) would expand the federal definition of homelessness established in a 1987 law and push HUD to do the same, particularly when it comes to children.

Department of Housing and Urban Development Department of Education Homeless Children and Youth Act
Individuals and families in emergency shelters or transitional housing yes yes yes
Individuals and families on the street/unsheltered locations yes yes yes
Couchsurfers (or "doubled-up" households) no yes yes
Individuals and families living in motels no yes yes
Individuals and families on the verge of losing their homes within 14 days within 14 days within 30 days

In the 2012–13 school year, 75 percent of homeless students lived in doubled-up households, what Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, calls being “on the edge of homelessness.” But even the DOE statistics may be conservative: In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of Massachusetts high-school students in 2013, 3.3 percent self-identified as homeless, in contrast to the 1.5 percent identified by the DOE. (There is some momentum among state and local authorities to add questions about housing to the CDC’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey.)

HUD, too, is trying to improve the way it identifies and delivers services to the entire homeless population. Two years ago, it started a pilot program to count unaccompanied homeless youth in nine cities, including Los Angeles. And since 2007, the agency has required local organizations and agencies to report data on the people they serve through its Homeless Management Information System. Whereas the point-in-time count provides only raw numbers of unsheltered individuals, HMIS logs such details as race, gender, age, veteran status and risk of eviction.

The HCYA could affect how billions of dollars allotted to housing and homelessness programs are spent by HUD, its partner agencies and grantees — and who benefits. In the case of Los Angeles, there are as many as 18,000 “hidden homeless” living in cars or under bridges and an untold number in unstable, even dangerous homes who aren’t counted or served by HUD. 

“We know that government can’t do everything,” said Cara Baldari, a senior policy director and legal counsel at the advocacy group First Focus, “[but] without having an honest idea of how many homeless people we’re talking about, how do you know how much money is needed?” 

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.