During the first half of the
1900s, homelessness in the United States wasn’t determined by the
physical surroundings in which people slept, but rather by their status
in society and their relationships with other people. In the 1920s
people considered outsiders, such as skid-row residents, people who were
constantly moving, and vagrants, were called homeless. This continued
into the 1950s and 1960s: “homelessness” was defiined not by whether
people had permanent or continuous lodgings, but rather by their
personal bonds with others, if they lived with their family or within a
After the 1960s, as more Americans began living on their own, these
definitions became outmoded. People with a home had a fixed address
where they could keep their belongings and return as they wished.
Homeless people, including migrant workers, did not.
By the 1980s, the definition of homelessness had again changed.
People were considered homeless if they had no private sleeping space of
their own, regardless of how temporary it was. Migrant workers were no
longer considered homeless.
The definition of homelessness in the 1900s reflected public opinion
about what an acceptable “home” was. After World War II, for example,
some Americans began to define people as homeless who for all practical
purposes had homes, because their housing was of “unacceptable” quality.
Distinctions between “homes” and “shelters,” as well as “homeless
shelters” and “acceptable shelters,” complicate the definition. Most
observers would agree that people who regularly sleep on the street, in
train stations, in cars, doorways or abandoned buildings are homeless.
These are places not intended for sleeping. And people who sleep
alongside strangers in shelters are usually defined as homeless.
Yet the distinction is not as clear when discussing people in jails,
hospitals, detox facilities, or mental institutions, who are sleeping
among strangers and who, while currently having a place to stay, might
not upon release. In most definitions, residents of these public and
private institutions are not considered homeless. And to further
complicate matters, how do we label people who double up with families
The definition of a “homeless person” found in the Stewart B.
McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 shows just how complex the
issue is: An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate
residence or a person who resides in a shelter, welfare hotel,
transitional program or place not ordinarily used as regular sleeping
accommodations, such as streets, cars, movie theatres abandoned
buildings, etc. In addition, individuals who are staying in their own or
someone else’s home but will be asked to leave within the next month are
considered homeless. People in jail are not homeless.
The definition makes judgments about what is considered a home, and
at what point a person becomes homeless. For example, while a jail is
considered a home, a car or a welfare hotel is not. Many people would
call such accommodations more of a home than a jail cell. But people in
jail are out of the sight of society; those living in cars or in hotels
The act also raises questions about time. People who will be evicted
from their “homes” within a month are considered homeless, yet those in
jail who will have no home when released are not. A cynical observer
might say that with no place to go after gaining their freedom,
ex-prisoners will find themselves back in jail, back at home.
Although the McKinney act does not specifically refer to homeless
families, their special characteristics call into question the act’s
guidelines. Local welfare departments send families with children to
welfare hotels when there is no more shelter room. Although these
families have private rooms and access to them whenever desired, they
are considered homeless just as if they had stayed in the shelter.
Families who stay rent-free in welfare hotels are considered homeless,
while millions of families who live in federally subsidized housing and
pay only token rent are not.
Many of these definitions include a time variable, but like the
definitions themselves, there is no agreement on what the timeline is
for being homeless. One approach defines people as homeless if on the
day they are surveyed they have stayed in one of the places usually
associated with being homeless during the last seven days. Another makes
time distinctions according to who is most in need of resources: who is
“literally homeless,” is regularly in and out of homelessness, in
inadequate housing, or “at risk” of becoming homeless.
Definitions of homelessness are often measures of public attitudes.
There are “worthy homeless” such as families, children, and people
suffering from mental or physical handicaps, but not drug abusers,
alcoholics, or ex-criminals. Most people feel compassion toward homeless
children and people with disabilities but rage over the use of valuable
resources for the “unworthy” homeless.
The “visible” homeless most affect our lives. Discussions invariably
revolve around the shabbily dressed people with shopping carts that we
define as homeless without knowing whether they indeed have no home.
Regardless of whether the actual numbers change, increased visibility
creates a feeling that the problem is growing, Similarly, a decrease in
visibility supports the conclusion that homelessness is no longer a
How we define homeless people has many consequences. Whom we label as
homeless determines what the causes, demographics, and needs of a
homeless population are. Only those who fall under the homeless
definition will receive assistance from homeless programs.
The definition that is used affects who and how many people will be
counted as homeless. These counts have serious implications for the way
programs are implemented and resources are used, as well as how policy
decisions will be made. But counting homeless people is just as
controversial and as defining them.
Counting methods are chosen according to the goals of the
researchers, available resources, characteristics of the specific
homeless population, and simply because it seems like the best process.
Not surprisingly, inconsistencies in how homelessness is defined and
counted mean that there is no agreement on the number of homeless people
either nationwide or locally.
Research teams have looked at shelters, soup kitchens, streets,
abandoned buildings, hotels, train stations and cars to enumerate
homelessness, but rarely at jails, detox facilities, hospitals, or
people doubling up with friends and families. Sometimes they obtain
additional information from shelter operators, welfare administrators,
activists, and other knowledgeable people.
In a statewide analysis published by the Public Policy Institute of
California, John M. Quigley, Steven Raphael, and Eugene Smolensky
combined data from four sources: case studies from the Homeless
Assistance Project (HAP), estimates from county officials to HUD as part
of the Continuum-of-Care funding process, the U.S. Census Bureau’s
S-Night count of the homeless, and homeless shelter survey data gathered
by researchers at the Urban Institute.
In contrast, in 1983 in the city of Nashville, researchers began
counting the city’s homeless population twice a year, in June and
December. Their counts consisted of two parts: First, the staff at
shelters and other facilities with free temporary bed space, alcoholic
treatment programs, SRO hotels, and other settings where there was a mix
of homeless and non-homeless clientele, were asked on the designated
night to keep records on the number of homeless people they saw,
including those who would be without a home if released the next day.
Second, teams of two to four members conducted a street count, carefully
checking all areas where homeless people would likely be. The teams
consisted of people with experience working with the homeless
population, who could use their knowledge to help determine who was
It is difficult to find a method for counting homeless people that is
not considered in some way flawed. Data collection is complicated not
just by relationships and familiarity with the local homeless
population, but also by the goals of the counter. Concerns over who does
the enumerating are enmeshed in politics, policy, and the allocation of
Homeless advocates will push for higher numbers to accentuate the
severity of the problem and to obtain policies and resources that
support the needs of homeless people. They may publicize the high
numbers of “worthy homeless” over other groups to attract the sympathy
and support of the public. Politicians, on the other hand, might support
lower estimates to show that homelessness is decreasing, to demonstrate
that they are doing a good job, and to free up resources for pet
One of the prevailing suggestions for improving the homeless
enumeration process is for local jurisdictions to collect their own data
using people who know the targeted population. Local researchers have
inside perspectives on not just who is homeless and where they can be
found, but also characteristics specific to the area such as social
programs, climate, police crackdowns, and laws. Additionally, people
already working in the local system know what questions will be most
useful to local politicians, activists, and planners.
If despite all good intentions an enumeration attempt seems seriously
flawed, there are mathematical models to fill in the gaps. These methods
have received acclaim not just for their provision of more accurate
estimates, but also for their cost effectiveness and ability to map out
the impacts of social and policy changes on homelessness.
Definitions of homeless people matter. They determine how the
homeless population will be portrayed, and consequently how and what
policies, resources, and programs will be used.
Counting homeless people tells planners how to plan. Changes over
time gauge what has helped and what has increased the problem of
homelessness. The process matters because every homeless person deserves
to be counted and given the assistance needed for a safer, more
productive, and happier life.
Jessica Scheiner is a graduate student in the Goldman School
of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.