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Trends in the size of the nation's homeless population during the 1980s: A surprising result

Listed author(s):
  • I. Garfinkel
  • I. Piliavin
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    There are good national estimates of the number of homeless people in shelters in 1984, 1988, and 1990, but only in 1987 is there a reliable estimate of the number of people sleeping in streets. The large increase in the sheltered homeless population between 1984 and 1987-88 could reflect a shift of the homeless from street to shelters rather than a growth in total homelessness. Data from a number of local studies of homeless populations in U.S. cities in the 1980s have made it possible to estimate the ratio of the number of homeless on the street to the number of homeless in shelters and thereby to estimate the size of the national homeless population over this period with some degree of accuracy. Our estimates indicate that the expansion of shelters over the decade did have the effect of reducing the proportion of the homeless living on the street. Still, when we combine the estimated ratios with the estimates of the shelter population in 1984, 1987, 1988, and 1990, we find that homelessness about doubled between 1984 and 1987. We also find that homelessness declined between 1987 and 1990. At its peak, the number of people literally homeless on any given night was less than 400,000. Finally, our results also provide evidence that pure enumerations or censuses of the homeless population lead to undercounts. Both sample censuses and retrospective interview studies provide more complete counts.

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    Paper provided by University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty in its series Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers with number 1034-94.

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    Handle: RePEc:wop:wispod:1034-94
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    1. Barrett Lee, 1989. "Stability and Change in an Urban Homeless Population," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 26(2), pages 323-334, May.
    2. Richard B. Freeman & Brian Hall, 1986. "Permanent Homelessness in America?," NBER Working Papers 2013, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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