More People Experience Homelessness Than You Think

Some guy named Patrick McConlogue wrote a post over at Medium yesterday about a project he is going to undertake to get a homeless man to learn javascript. Owing to its shocking cluelessness, the post went viral, and received the brutal mocking it deserves. Notably Matt Yglesias seized the opportunity to point out that, according to research, the best way to fight homelessness is to provide people homes. This Housing First approach to things seems to be a real winner, though it naturally attracts the kind of nonsensical resistance most direct and obvious ways of improving the lives of poor people attracts.

On his way to explaining his goofy idea, McConlogue ensures readers that he has a sixth sense for picking out the "unjustly homeless" from, one presumes, those who really should be out on the streets without a home. This is a wildly offensive notion, but not an uncommon one, really. Loads of people believe — as Elizabeth Stoker recently pointed out — that poor folks are generally to blame for their plight. They might, as McConlogue does, hold out that a few are unjustly stricken with dire economic circumstances, but those folks are described as the exception not the rule.

I suspect this understanding of the poor and homeless rests upon an assumption that there are not very many of them. In a given year, for instance, the percentage of people in official poverty tends to be in the 11 to 15 percent range. This is quite high compared to similarly-situated countries, but low enough that people might feel comfortable explaining those folks away as undeserving trash who ought to face the physically-debilitating horror of impoverishment.

But, as I explained earlier this week, the snapshot poverty numbers do not really capture the wide reach of poverty incidence in this country. Using a very vanilla, straightforward method, Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl found that 51 percent of people spend at least one year in poverty between the ages of 25 and 75. There is certainly a core group of people that face very persistent poverty — the underclass if you will — but poverty touches so many more lives than that. It is hard to square that with the comforting myth that the poor are a relatively small group of especially terrible people.

What's true of poverty is also true of homelessness. On first glance, it would seem as if homelessness is a very uncommon phenomenon. Every year, HUD does a point-in-time count of homeless people in the US, and in 2012 it concluded that 633,782 people were homeless at the specific time the count was conducted. That figure is around 0.2% of the population. But this point-in-time method, while useful for HUD's purposes, does not tell the full homelessness story. A 1994 survey (which is mentioned in Stephen Pimpare's A People's History of Poverty) found that 14% of people had been homeless at some point in their life. Of those 14%, 7.4% had been "literally homeless" in the sense many people think of it, while the remainder had been homeless in the sense that they were forced to double up with friends or relatives. Of those who had been homeless at some point, 8% had been homeless less than a week, 33% for a week to a month, 46% for a month to a year, and 13% for more than a year.

So, somewhere around 1 in 7 people face homelessness at some point in their life. It is a minority phenomenon to be sure, but it's not the kind of super-rare occurrence many — including, I suspect, Patrick McConlogue — think it is.