The National Center on Family Homelessness has generated headlines today by releasing a report that claims “one in 50 children is homeless in the United States every year.” That would be a total of 1.5 million homeless children, a truly shocking figure. The number is all the more shocking because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says there actually only 671,000 people were homeless in 2007 (the last year for which data is available), of which only about 249,000 were people in families. Assuming even one adult per family would mean there were around 166,000 homeless children, far too many, but also far fewer than 1.5 million.
What accounts for the discrepancy? First, the National Center uses an incredibly broad definition of homeless. For example, in addition to those we usually think of as homeless (those living in shelters or on the streets), they also include people “Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” Under this definition, when your out-of-work in-law crashes on your couch, he’s homeless. The National Center also includes people “living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds,” children awaiting foster care placement, and children of migratory farm workers. And, a child needs only to fall into one of these categories for a single day to qualify as homeless.
Second, this study, like the HUD study as well, are not actual counts of the homeless, but estimates and extrapolations based on reports by various government agencies. The Census Bureau does attempt to do an actual head count of the homeless (170,000 in 2000), but that estimate is both out-of-date and generally criticized as an undercount. Still, going from that estimate to 1.5 million homeless children seems quite a stretch.
Homelessness is clearly a problem, and for the children involved, a tragedy, but scare headlines are a poor substitute for thoughtful public policy.