The nation has three-quarters of a million homeless people, filling emergency shelters through the year and spilling into special seasonal shelters in the coldest months, the government said Wednesday.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were 754,000 homeless people in 2005, including those living in shelters, transitional housing and on the street. That’s about 300,000 more people than available beds in shelters and transitional housing.
The report is the government’s latest attempt to count people who are notoriously difficult to track. The estimate is similar to one by an advocacy group in January.
The 2000 Census pegged the number of homeless people at 170,700, but it was widely considered an undercount. In 1996, the Urban Institute used data collected by the Census Bureau to estimate there were between 640,000 and 840,000.
Housing officials hope the new report will serve as a starting point to more accurately measure changes in the homeless population.
“Understanding homelessness is a necessary step to ending it, especially for those persons living with a chronic condition such as mental illness, an addiction, or a physical disability,” HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson wrote in the report.
Based on local data
HUD developed the estimate using data collected by local agencies that serve the homeless. Agencies across the country tried to count the number of people living on the street one night in January 2005. The agencies also collected information about race, gender, and disability status from people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing from February to April 2005.
Among the findings for people in shelters and transitional housing:
- Nearly half were single adult men.
- Nearly a quarter were minors.
- Less than 2 percent were older than 65.
- About 59 percent were members of minority groups.
- About 45 percent were black.
- About a quarter had a disability, though experts said the percentage is probably much higher.
The Urban Institute recently did a study on homeless people in Santa Monica, Calif., and found only 6 percent of those using services for the homeless did not have a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, said Martha Burt, a researcher at the institute.
Emergency shelters are more than 90 percent full on average nights, the report said. They would be over capacity if not for seasonal shelters.
By comparison, less than three-quarters of transitional housing units for families are occupied on an average night.
HUD has been shifting resources from emergency shelters to transitional and permanent housing for years. The number of emergency shelter beds dropped by 35 percent from 1996 to 2005, to 217,900.
Meanwhile, the number of transitional housing beds increased by 38 percent during the same period, to 220,400. The number of beds in permanent supported housing increased by 83 percent, to 208,700.
“We ought to be looking for ways to move people from shelters into permanent housing,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Building shelter beds doesn’t result in these people being housed,” Roman said. “But clearly, short of housing, everybody should have a roof over their head. This points out that we are not there, either.”