Homeless is a term used to describe people without permanent housing, including those living in shelters and those sleeping outside. It can also refer to people who are in transition from being homeless to a place of their own or those who have a job but still lack adequate income to pay for an apartment or condo. Homelessness is a complicated issue, and there are many reasons why someone becomes homeless, including mental illness, substance abuse, family violence, unemployment, or a lack of affordable housing.

The number of people who are homeless varies widely, from conservative government estimates of 250,000 to advocates’ estimates of upwards of 3 million. In recent years, many cities have seen a spike in their homeless population, with New York City’s increasing from 71,000 people in 2007 to 120,000 in 2016 (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2014).

There are a variety of reasons for homelessness, and the characteristics of the group vary widely from one community to another. For example, the proportion of homeless adults with a high school diploma or higher varies by region; in some areas, there are more two-parent families among the homeless than in others. In addition, the age of homeless individuals ranges from youths to senior citizens.

Various methods can be used to measure homelessness, including a point-in-time count and sample surveys. Point-in-time counts are a snapshot of the population on a single night. These are often conducted by local organizations that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the Continuum of Care program. Sample surveys are more useful than point-in-time counts because they provide more detailed information about individual circumstances.

Although some people are accustomed to thinking of homeless persons as an invisible population, the truth is that they are very visible. They can be found in a variety of places, from major transportation hubs like Penn Station and the Port Authority to church steps and ATM vestibules, huddled in cardboard boxes and stacked in trash bags. In a recent survey, THE CITY interviewed people living on the streets to find out more about their lives and the obstacles they face. They included Whitney, a bipolar woman with multiple sclerosis, and George, who says he’s been homeless for 30 years. They told us about the coping skills they use and how they survive on the streets. They also gave their thoughts on how to end homelessness. Read the full article in the March issue of THE CITY. Not a subscriber? Start your free trial today. Your support ensures a bright future for independent journalism. Thank you!