We’re Demystifying Data on Homelessness

How many homeless children are in there in America?

This may seem like a simple question to answer. I bet some of you are thinking, “Just look at point-in-time count data,” while others are musing, “That can be answered from annual shelter counts.” Others, still, may be thinking, “The number can be found in a report from the Department of Education.” With so many data sources to choose from, this question isn’t as straightforward as you might assume.

Every time we at the Alliance rely on data, we have to decide which data source will give us the best approximation of the figure we seek. This involves a high level of knowledge and understanding about how each of these data sources collects and compiles numbers. For example, we used five different data sources in our most recent report, The State of Homelessness in America 2015, because no single source captured all the information we needed.

We know from experience how difficult it can be to draw conclusions when looking at varying data from multiple sources. It can be a complicated, often confusing process.

So last week we released “Media Resource: Trends in Homelessness.” It’s intended primarily for members of the media who are working on stories about the issue of homelessness, but it should be of interest to policymakers, homeless advocates, students, teachers, and anyone else who cares about the issue (including you, we hope).

This tool looks at data from three of the sources most frequently cited in examining trends in homelessness: Parts 1 and 2 of the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, and data from the National Center for Homeless Education. In short, this is what each of these data sets measures:

  • The AHAR Part 1 is a record of point-in-time counts. These counts are done yearly at the end of January by communities across the country, and they capture a single-night snapshot of homelessness in America, including both sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons.
  • The AHAR Part 2 estimates the number of people who are in shelter—emergency shelter or transitional housing—over the course of a year. This data does not include the unsheltered population.
  • Education data shows the number of school-age children enrolled in school who are identified by school personnel as being homeless during the course of a year. This data set defines homelessness differently than the AHAR Parts 1 and 2, because it counts students who are living in a hotel/motel or doubled up with family or friends as homeless.

Table 1. Measures of Homelessness in Official Reports of Federal Agencies

The nuances of these data sets and the wide variety of measures they include are distinctions that we must always keep in mind, because each data set captures a different population. But we recognize that for most people all of that can be rather confusing to tease apart, and it might be hard to determine which data set best suits your purposes. That’s why we’re making it easy for you with this resource.

You can check it out here.