Geography of Homelessness, Part 3: Subpopulations by Geographic Type

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NATIONAL ALLIANCE TO END HOMELESSNESS

Report | September 29, 2009

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In Parts 1 and 2 of the Geography of Homelessness Series we examined the scope and prevalence of homelessness within geographic categories ranging from completely rural to completely urban (see Geography of Homelessness, Part 1: Defining the Spectrum for the category definitions).  To do this, we established geographic categories and analyzed the total number of homeless people in each geographic category as collected by Continua of Care (CoCs).  In addition to the total homeless count, CoCs also disaggregate their homeless count data along three primary dimensions. First, persons counted in shelters and transitional housing programs are differentiated from those counted on the streets and in other places not meant for human habitation. Second, persons in families with children are distinguished from non-family individuals. Lastly, chronically homeless individuals are singled out from among the individuals.

Nationally, persons in families with children account for 37 percent of the total homeless population and non-family individuals account for the other 63 percent of homeless persons.  Chronically homeless persons, a subset of individuals, account for 29 percent of individuals and 18 percent of the total homeless population.  In this brief, we refer to persons in families, chronically homeless individuals, and non-chronically homeless individuals as subpopulations. Living situation – sheltered or unsheltered - is another important distinction. Unsheltered homeless persons account for 42 percent of the total homeless population, and persons counted in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs make up the other 58 percent.  Each subpopulation can be broken out into sheltered and unsheltered subgroups. Collectively, these distinctions are used in this brief to create the following six mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories:

  • Sheltered persons in families with children
  • Sheltered non-chronically homeless individuals
  • Sheltered chronically homeless  individuals
  • Unsheltered persons in families with children
  • Unsheltered non-chronically homeless individuals
  • Unsheltered chronically homeless individuals
In this third issue in the series we examine the ways in which the distribution of these subpopulations and subgroups across the five geographic types is similar to or different from that of the total homeless population.

Homeless Population by Subpopulation and Geography

nameWe begin by looking at how the geographic distributions of the three subpopulations – persons in families with children, non-chronically homeless individuals, and chronically individuals – compare to each other and to the distribution of the total homeless population. Part 1 of this series revealed that the total homeless population is heavily concentrated in urban areas. Specifically, 77 percent of the total homeless population was counted in Urban CoCs, 5 percent in Mostly Urban CoCs, 11 percent in Urban-Rural Mix CoCs, 3 percent in Mostly Rural CoCs and 4 percent in Rural CoCs (see Geography of Homelessness, Part 1: Defining the Spectrum for the category definitions). The mosaic chart in Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of persons in families, non-chronic individuals, and chronic individuals across the geographic spectrum. Each block in the chart is sized and labeled according to its share of the total homeless population. The chart reveals that a large majority of each of the subpopulations is urban; however, persons in families are less concentrated in urban areas than chronically homeless and non-chronically homeless individuals.

Figure 1. Composition of Total Homeless Population by Geography and Subpopulation

 

Distribution of Subgroups within Geographic Categories

While useful, Figure 1 is limited because it doesn’t differentiate between the sheltered and unsheltered subgroups of the three subpopulations. Additionally, the relative size of the urban homeless population, while proportionate, dwarfs the other geographic categories and makes it difficult to characterize the homeless populations in the non-urban categories. Addressing these limitations, the clustered-stacked bar chart in Figure 2 incorporates each of the subpopulations, subgroups, and geographic types. Breaking out the subgroups of each subpopulation allows for a closer examination of the homeless populations in each geographic category.

On one hand, the chart illustrates the similarities in the composition of the homeless populations in each geographic category. In each geographic category across the spectrum, persons in families and non-chronically homeless individuals are the two largest subpopulations and are of similar size. In this way, each of the subpopulations is similar in geographic distribution to the total homeless population. There are, however, three observations that stand out as noteworthy.

Unsheltered family homelessness outside of urban areas. The percent of persons in families with children who are unsheltered is quite low in urban areas compared to the other four geographic categories.  Rural areas have a rate of unsheltered persons in families of almost double that of urban areas. The high rates of unsheltered persons in families outside urban areas is understandable, since rural areas often lack the level of  emergency shelter and other resources that are commonplace in urban areas (see Rural Homelessness by Robertson, Harris, and Fritz)

Chronically-homeless population largely unsheltered. Nationally, 66 percent of chronically homeless individuals are unsheltered, and the percent of the chronically homeless population that is unsheltered exceeds 60 percent in all categories but one, Mostly Rural. Both Urban and Rural areas have high rates of unsheltered chronic homelessness.  While the majority of chronically homeless individuals in most categories is unsheltered, the higher rates in the rural and urban categories is notable.

Mostly Rural category is unique.  The Mostly Rural category is different from the other categories in almost every way.  Almost 50 percent of its population is persons in families with children, higher than other categories and higher than the national rate of 37 percent. This category also has noticeably fewer unsheltered individuals – both non-chronically homeless and chronically homeless – and a higher rate of sheltered chronically homeless.  The number of CoCs in this group is small (N=17) and is made up primarily of Statewide and Balance of State CoCs.  While it is unclear how, the geographic size of these CoCs (often most or all of a state) likely plays some role. 

In the next issue in the series, we will take a closer look at the 295 Urban CoCs.  Specifically, we will examine the homeless population in cities and suburbs to determine how homelessness in these areas is similar and different.

Click here to go to Part 1 of Geography of Homelessness.
Click here to go to Part 2 of Geography of Homelessness.
Click here to go to Part 4 of Geography of Homelessness.