The Housing Problem - Where The Homeless Live

children people shelters shelter

When faced with high rents and low housing availability, many poor people become homeless. What happens to them? Where do they live? Research shows that after becoming homeless, many people move around, staying in one place for a while, then moving on to another place. Many homeless people take advantage of homeless shelters at some point. Such shelters may be funded by the federal government, by religious organizations, or by other private homeless advocates.

Emergency Housing: Shelters and Transitional Housing

Typically, a homeless shelter provides dormitory-style sleeping accommodations and bathing facilities, with varying services for laundry, telephone calls, and other needs. Residents are often limited in the length of their stays and must leave the shelter during the day under most circumstances. Transitional housing, on the other hand, is intended to bridge the gap between the shelter or street and permanent housing, with appropriate services to move the homeless into independent living. It may be a room in a hotel or motel, or it may be a subsidized apartment.

Counting the Homeless in Shelters

The 2000 census showed a decline in the number of people living in homeless shelters since the 1990 census. The Census Bureau counted 170,706 people living in shelters in March 2000, down 4% from the 178,638 people counted ten years earlier. Based on their own experience, advocates for the homeless denied that there could have been a decline in the numbers. They criticized the Census Bureau's count as flawed, complaining that the survey excluded shelters with fewer than 100 beds and could not provide a full picture of homelessness because it was conducted over only three nights. In its report, Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2000: Census 2000 Special Reports (Washington, DC, October 2001), the Census Bureau itself cautioned that its count was not "representative of the entire population that could be defined as living in emergency and transitional shelters."

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2003 the number of demands for emergency shelter beds in the twenty-seven major cities surveyed increased since the previous year by an average of 6%. Of all the cities surveyed, 70% reported an increase in demand.

Homeless Youth

In 2002 an attempt to count the number of homeless people in Monterey County, California, was undertaken. Researchers focused on what was called "the fastest growing segment of the homeless population," homeless youth (Homeless Census and Homeless Youth/Foster Teen Study, County of Monterey, California, 2002). Based on an actual count and interviews with 2,681 homeless individuals, the researchers estimated that between 8,686 and 11,214 people were homeless in Monterey County at some time during 2002. The majority of those interviewed (65%) were found on the street, 14% were in transitional housing, and 6% were in emergency shelters.

Of the individuals counted, more than one-fifth (21%) were between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. The youths were asked to describe their current living situation. The majority (61%) reported staying temporarily with family or friends. More than one-fifth (22%) reported they were living outdoors, 6.1% were living in a shelter, and 11.5% were living in an automobile/van. This particular segment of the homeless tended to shy away from shelters, especially if they were underage and feared interference from the authorities.

Homeless Children

In accordance with the provisions of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 USC 11431 et seq.), states that receive funds under the act must submit a report to the U.S. Department of Education regarding the estimated number of homeless children in the state every four years beginning in 2006. According to the previous count (Report to Congress Fiscal Year 2000, Washington, DC, 2000), in 2000 there were an estimated 866,899 homeless children in forty-six reporting states. (See Table 4.3.) This number represented an increase of 176% from the 314,449 homeless children reported in TABLE 4.3
Primary nighttime residence of homeless children, by state, 2000 SOURCE: "Table 2. Primary Nighttime Residence of Homeless Children and Youth," in Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, Report to Congress, Fiscal Year 2000, 2000, February 28, 2005)

Primary nighttime residence
State Shelter Doubled-up Unsheltered Other Unknown Total
Alabama 2,984 3,243 105 6,332
Alaska 1,057 548 160 723 3,178 5,666
Arizonaa 1,288 6,225 841 1,408 1,416 11,178
Arkansas 2,629 1,442 127 190 1,136 5,524
California 61,182 80,058 17,640 130,145 289,025
Colorado 1,773 1,976 436 1,326 893 6,404
Connecticut 3,151 3,151
Delaware 1,100 1,100
Georgia 14,717 3,287 1,619 1 19,623
Hawaii 563 80 388 1,031
Idaho 218 452 13 45 28 756
Illinois 1,547 14,567 260 16,374
Indiana 14,060 11,200 1,400 840 1,500 29,000
Kansas 2,075 1,175 43 61 20 3,374
Kentucky 1,294 5,798 702 250 292 8,336
Louisiana 10,438 4,873 565 15,876
Maine 4,913 4,913
Maryland 3,618 820 1,086 229 5,753
Michigan 28,900 11,376 2,054 3,043 2,528 47,901
Minnesota 2,396 303 2,699
Missouri 7,264 6,741 5,094 2,277 207 21,583
Montana 1,113 1,127 168 157 170 2,735
Nebraska 5,119 786 94 719 445 7,163
Nevada 192 992 35 485 1,704
New Hampshirec 4 4
New Jersey 6,435 1,064 5 8,940 71 16,515
New Mexico 682 1,264 269 2,215
New York 9,165 9,165
North Carolina
North Dakota 93 130 8 1 232
Ohio 7,124 17,809 2,968 1,780 29,681
Oklahoma 2,998 3,793 127 6,918
Oregon 12,540 4,390 2,900 12,000 920 32,750
Pennsylvania 17,000 3,000 1,000 21,000
Puerto Rico 649 100 100 858 500 2,207
Rhode Island 1,286 53 1 1 2 1,343
South Carolina 1,731 4,219 33 196 36 6,215
South Dakota 2,968 1,245 381 379 4,973
Tennessee 2,300 2,600 275 443 5,618
Texas 29,910 90,728 29,975 150,613
Utah 1,668 3,845 282 2,402 581 8,778
Vermont 276 276
Virginia 12,631 2,649 174 572 952 16,978
Washington 15,703 15,703
West Virginia 402 2,061 355 651 3,469
Wisconsin 2,718 1,220 244 617 55 4,854
Wyoming 150 550 108 808
Totals 306,404 301,195 38,732 201,313 19,255 866,899
—Data were not provided.
aOnly 34 school districts responded.
bData were reported by percentage: shelters, 23 percent; doubled-up, 75 percent; unsheltered, 2 percent.
cData were requested but not consistently reported by school district.

forty-eight states in 1997. About two-thirds (67%) were enrolled in school, and the greatest number of those children were in preschool and elementary school. More than one-third (35%) of these children lived in shelters; 35% stayed doubled up with others, presumably family or friends; 25% lived in motels and the like. Most distressing for those concerned about the health and well-being of children was that 38,732 children lived unsheltered. By far the greatest number of unsheltered children (17,640) lived in California.

Illegal Occupancy

Poor neighborhoods are often full of abandoned buildings. Even the best-intentioned landlords cannot afford to maintain their properties in these areas. Many have let their buildings deteriorate or have simply walked away, leaving the fate of the building and its residents in the hands of the government. Despite over-crowding and unsafe conditions, many homeless people move into these dilapidated buildings illegally, glad for what shelter they can find. Municipal governments, overwhelmed by long waiting lists for public-housing and a lack of funds and personnel, are often unable or unwilling to strictly enforce housing laws, allowing the homeless to become "squatters" rather than forcing them into the streets. Some deliberately turn a blind eye to the problem, knowing they have no better solution for the homeless.

The result is a multitude of housing units with deplorable living conditions—tenants bedding down in illegal boiler basements or sharing beds with children or in-laws, or sharing bathrooms with strangers. The buildings may have leaks and rot, rusted fire escapes, and rat and roach infestations. Given the alternative, many homeless people feel lucky to be sheltered.


Squatting can leave the homeless vulnerable to legal remedies or public criticism. In December 1999 in Worcester, Massachusetts, a homeless couple had taken up residence in an abandoned building. One of them allegedly knocked over a candle during an argument and the building caught fire. The Worcester fire department was called, and six firefighters were killed. The homeless man and woman were each charged with involuntary manslaughter. The public outcry against the homeless couple, and against homeless people in general, reached national proportions. Frustration ran rampant in the ranks of homeless advocates. Most believed the Worcester couple was guilty of nothing more than trying to stay alive. In an Associated Press story dated December 8, 1999, Nicole Witherbee, policy coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, voiced her frustration: "We make laws all the time, they can't panhandle, they can't loiter, we don't have enough shelter beds, so when they go into abandoned buildings it's trespassing. So where is it they're supposed to be?"—underscoring the lack of options and resources homeless people deal with on a daily basis.

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

over 5 years ago

It is amazing how theses people can survive, I give them major props, i hope in the future I Could Hepl Them :)