Data Points: Is the Homeless Population Aging?

written by Sam Batko
March 5, 2013

This blog post is the first in a series that will analyze important research on homelessness, housing, poverty, and other related topics and what it means in the context of ending homelessness. Research can help inform both policy and practice and this blog series will attempt to do just that.

The Age Structure of Contemporary Homelessness: Evidence and Implications for Public Policy by Dennis Culhane (and Metraux, S., Byrne, T., Stino, M., & Bainbridge, J.), released in January, examined the changes in age demographics among the single, unaccompanied adults and families experiencing homelessness. The study used data from New York City dating back to 1987 and the census data from 1990, 2000, and 2010. The findings in this study have very distinct impacts for homelessness assistance for both single, unaccompanied adults and families.

The study found that single adults born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s have consistently remained the age group with the highest risk of becoming homeless. In 2010, this population was age 49 to 51. Additionally, this population is not a set of individuals who have remained homeless for a long period of time. Instead, individuals in this age bracket are simply more likely to move through the homelessness assistance system.

For providers this means being aware of the unique health care needs of an aging population that may not necessarily need long-term assistance from homeless service providers. It may be necessary to develop best practices in serving older persons in rapid re-housing and prevention programs. Still, permanent supportive housing may also be needed by some of these adults and this population will increasingly become eligible for mainstream programs that provide for long-term subsidized housing and care for low-income elderly adults.

The study also found that the most common age of a head of a homeless family is between 21 and 24. Instead of there being a group of individuals born around the same time who remain at risk of homelessness as they age, this study found that poor single parents with young children are at high risk of homelessness regardless of when they were born.

These results are similar to what is seen in communities across the country. Young parents with young children are unable to afford housing and child care. When housing and serving this population, it is important for providers to keep in mind the developmental needs of both the parent and the children. The parent may be in need of parenting and education or employment supports and the children may need early education services.

Finally, both the later data from New York City and the 2000 census data indicated possible development of a new age bracket of heightened risk of homelessness—youth under the age of 25. Policymakers should pay particular attention to the employment and social needs of the current generation of youth to ensure that a new generation of individuals is not at continued risk of homelessness as they age. Additionally, youth already experiencing homelessness need help returning to their families or establishing independent living.