New Research on Homelessness Reveals Long-term Economic Hardship, Relatively Little Interstate Mobility

A working paper from scholars at the University of Chicago and the U.S. Census Bureau, “Learning about homelessness using linked survey and administrative data,” connects multiple large data sources to create a clearer picture of the characteristics, employment, income, and safety-net participation by people experiencing homelessness. People who experienced homelessness had lower earnings over a ten-year period than those in a “poor” (i.e. impoverished) but housed comparison group, suggesting homelessness is a symptom of long-term low material well-being. The research finds that people experiencing sheltered homelessness are no more likely than the general population to be from out of state—indicating they are usually longtime local residents unable to afford housing.

The authors draw on restricted-use 2010 Decennial Census (which estimates sheltered and unsheltered homelessness) and 2006-2018 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year data (which include interviews with several thousand people residing in emergency and temporary shelters). They also examined Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data on homeless services provision, HUD annual point-in-time (PIT) estimates, IRS tax forms, and housing assistance administrative records.

The authors compare characteristics of people experiencing sheltered homelessness with the general population and a comparison group of poor households with a single adult not experiencing homelessness. Among findings for the 2011-2018 period:

  • Over 60% of people experiencing sheltered homelessness were male, 12 percentage points higher than the general population and nearly 20 percentage points higher than the poor comparison group. A smaller share of people experiencing sheltered homelessness were children (13%) relative to the poor comparison group (38%).
  • Nearly 47% of people experiencing sheltered homelessness were Black, compared to just 30% of the poor comparison group and 13% of the general population. American Indian/Alaska Natives were also overrepresented compared to the poor comparison group.
  • People experiencing sheltered homelessness were more likely (36%) than the poor housed comparison group (23%) to experience at least one severe physical or cognitive functional limitation.
  • Sheltered homeless adults were more likely to reside in their state of birth (55%) than the general population (52%).

Analysis of income and access to safety-net programs showed that people experiencing homelessness suffer substantial long-term material deprivation. To make this comparison, the authors compared individuals identified as homeless in the 2010 Census with a poor comparison group from the 2010 ACS. Linked administrative datasets allowed the authors to track individual longitudinal income and programs received between 2003 and 2016. Findings included:

  • In 2010, 52.8% of people experiencing sheltered homelessness and 40.4% of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness appear to have earned income. Despite this high rate of formal employment, their earnings were significantly less than for the poor comparison group across the entire period of observation.
  • Most people experiencing homelessness received some form of social safety net program. In 2010, 88.8% of people experiencing sheltered homelessness and 78.1% of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness received at least one of the tracked benefits (SNAP, VA, HUD housing assistance, Medicare, or Medicaid).
  • About one-tenth of people experiencing homelessness received a housing benefit in 2010, compared to 19% of the poor comparison group (11.1% of those who were sheltered and 10.4% of those who were unsheltered). Prior to 2010, the people who were observed to be experiencing homelessness in 2010 were about 5-9 percentage points less likely than the poor comparison group to be receiving housing assistance.
  • People experiencing sheltered homelessness had higher rates of program participation than those experiencing unsheltered homelessness, which may be partly due to shelter services and partly due to characteristics of people who elect to enter a shelter.

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