How many people are homeless in America? By the nature of homelessness, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate count. The dictionary definition of homelessness is “having no home or permanent residence.” However, there are a few different definitions of homelessness and ways of counting homeless people used by the federal government and people who work in homeless shelters and programs.
Homeless people—no matter which definition we use—often don’t want to be known as homeless. They avoid circumstances where they could be counted because they fear stigma and other repercussions. For example, many homeless parents fear social services would take away their children if people knew they were homeless.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 326,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S. on a single night in 2021. Nearly half of people experiencing homelessness (46%) were individuals staying in sheltered locations, 37 percent were people in families with children staying in sheltered locations, 15 percent were unsheltered individuals, and three percent were unsheltered people in families with children. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines and counts homelessness in four ways:
The National Center for Homeless Education reports that 1,508,265 students enrolled in public school districts and reported by state educational agencies experienced homelessness during the course of the 2016-2017 school year. The U.S. Department of Education defines and counts homeless children and youth as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence including:
There are several reasons it is difficult to get a complete, precise count of the number of people homeless in America. The varying federal counts and definitions of homeless are helpful, but do not include everyone.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counts homeless people on one night each year and uses a different definition of homelessness than the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education counts only those students enrolled in public school. The department does not capture those who experience homelessness during the summer only, those who dropped out of school, or babies and young children who are not enrolled in preschool programs administered by public schools. We must always remember that counts of homeless people at best are a good guess. The numbers of people experiencing homelessness are most likely much higher than reported.
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