The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States include an unemployment rate higher than at any time in the country’s history—including the Great Depression. As an unprecedented number of Americans struggle with job loss, many of them may lose their homes. Many others may lose their homes due to natural disasters or other crises. As these events fluctuate, so too may the number of people without a home. So how do we know how many people are experiencing homelessness in the United States?
We don’t. We have only widely differing estimates based on varying methodologies and definitions.
Estimates of homelessness in the United States range from fewer than 600,000 to more than 1.5 million people, and the estimates vary by source. The two key sources of data—the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Point-in-Time Count, and the National Center for Education Statistics Count of Students Experiencing Homelessness—vary greatly in their coverage and in their annual estimates.
The HUD Point-in-Time Count—One Night Only
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) captures data on people experiencing homelessness through point-in-time (PIT) counts. PIT counts take place nationwide and are conducted on one night in the last week of January each year. HUD mandates that programs that receive funding to assist people experiencing homelessness, called Continuum of Care Programs (CoC), organize a count in their jurisdiction. The count itself is conducted by project staff and community volunteers. The CoC can choose to conduct their count either through a complete count or a sample. The sample method must follow HUD standards for counting and estimating the population.
The PIT counts both sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. People included in the sheltered count sleep in shelters, transitional housing, or hotels and motels paid for by charities or government programs. Those who sleep in cars, parks, encampments, and other places not designated for regular sleeping are included in the unsheltered count.
HUD does not consider people who are temporarily doubled up with family or friends as homeless. This standard misses many people who lack permanent housing. In particular, parents with children may be less likely to seek group shelters and interact with authorities for fear of losing custody of their children.1
HUD provides a one-night snapshot of an experience that is often fluid for people who experience homelessness. The count does not include people who fall in and out of homelessness throughout the year. Additionally, changes in the count from year to year may reflect either an actual change or a change in the count’s accuracy. HUD itself cautions against drawing conclusions or trends from the count since data quality review is limited, reliability and consistency differ between CoCs, and methods may change between reporting periods.
Given these limitations, it is likely that the PIT undercounts the number of people experiencing homelesseness. These estimates can best be thought of as a snapshot of the minimum number of people who are homeless in a community, a state, or the nation.
The 2019 PIT count identified about 568,000 people experiencing homelessness. The states with the largest populations of people experiencing homelessness were California (151,000), New York (92,000), and Florida (28,000).
The NCES Count of Students Experiencing Homelessness—School Children Only
Another source of data on the number of people experiencing homelessness is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Housed within the U.S. Department of Education, NCES compiles data on public school students experiencing homelessness during the school year. The count uses local school enrollment data that are submitted to the states and then reported to the Department of Education.
Unlike the one-night PIT count, the NCES count covers the entire school year and more accurately captures the fluid nature of homelessness. NCES defines students experiencing homelessness more broadly than the PIT count to include youth who are doubled up in housing and other temporary circumstances. However, this count includes only public school students and does not track adults experiencing homelessness. This count also does not include children who have dropped out of school, children in private schools, young children who are not yet enrolled in school, and children who experience homelessness outside of the school year.
According to NCES, more than 1.5 million students experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year. This estimate is more than double the PIT count for 2018.2 More than 390,000 of these students were living at a shelter, staying at a hotel or motel, or were unsheltered. The remainder were doubled-up. California (263,000), Texas (231,000), and New York (153,000) had the largest populations of students experiencing homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year.
Which Estimate Is Best?
Both the PIT and NCES counts have advantages and challenges. Table 1 provides a comparison of the two estimates.
Table 1. Comparison of Data Sources on Homelessness in the United States
Note: The HUD Point-in-Time counts occur only in some communities and likely underestimate the population experiencing homelessness.
The PIT and NCES estimates both have well-documented undercount issues. NCES does not count adults or children not enrolled in school. PIT does not count anyone who is doubled-up. Data users should be aware of these limitations when working with either data source.