Who are the homeless?
My recent post on the homeless elicited a bunch of comments citing surveys of homeless people. I wish I had been more careful with my terminology, as I was not actually trying to discuss the homeless population, rather my focus was on people living on the streets.
In America, there are an estimated 550,000 homeless people. Within that group, about 85,000 live on the streets or in homeless shelters. Even this figure somewhat overstates the number who live only on the streets. The focus of my post was on those actually living on the streets.
It’s also important to understand that just as people move in and out of homelessness, they move in and out of living on the street. One person might move to California and work for 2 years, lose their job, and end up homeless. Another may be local and have an apartment, and then lose the apartment after being unable to pay rent due to a divorce. Many of the families that are homeless but not living on the street are local residents that receive public assistance. Every situation is complex, hard to describe with simplistic survey questions.
There’s a reason that most economists are highly skeptical of using survey questions to ascertain motivations.
Most of the critics of my post are correct if you look at the entire 550,000 population of homeless. I stand by my claims for the subset of homeless that live on the streets. I still believe there is a strong (and rational) preference to live on the streets of LA compared to Mississippi or Minnesota. It’s very hard to get money in Mississippi and it’s very cold in Minnesota. This has nothing to do with people “choosing” to live on the street, rather its about how people make the best of a very bad situation.
One final point. Many of our homeless stereotypes are about people living on the streets. I suspect that YIMBY policies to build more housing would be most effective at reducing the number of homeless who do not currently live on the streets.