Friday, March 11, 2016

Statistics about the homeless

In 2013, a report about homelessness was presented to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. You can find a copy of it here. There's a pile of data in that report, and it's very interesting reading. I'm going to summarize some of it, because I understood more after reading it.

Understand, first, though, that these statistics don't necessarily show fault or causation.

They were searching for factors associated with homelessness. They often cite other studies for some interesting related statistics. Generally, I’ve limited statistics to whole numbers in the comparisons (they gave them to 1 decimal point).

5.6% are homeless; 6% of veterans are homeless.
2.8% are homeless again; 2.1% of homeless veterans are homeless again.

41% of homeless men and 83% of homeless women are parents.

30% of homeless report binge drinking in the last 30 days, vs. 16% of non-homeless.

20% of homeless scored 13+ on the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, vs. 2% of non-homeless.

50% of homeless were unemployed, vs. 11% of non-homeless.

20% of homeless have no high school diploma, vs 6% of non-homeless.

41% of homeless have been incarcerated, vs 4% of non-homeless.

31% of homeless have fair or poor health, vs 13% of non-homeless.

Many homeless people have experienced an Adverse Childhood Event (ACE), and they've experienced more of them.

An ACE is defined as one or more of the following:
  1. Mental Illness in Household – Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal?
  2. Substance Abuse in Household – Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic? Did you live with anyone who used illegal street drugs or who abused prescription medications?
  3. Incarcerated Household Member – Did you live with anyone who served time or was sentenced to serve time in a prison, jail, or other correctional facility?
  4. Parental Separation or Divorce – Were your parents separated or divorced?
  5. Parents Physically Aggressive Toward Each Other – How often did your parents or adults in your home ever slap, hit, kick, punch or beat each other up? (once or more versus never)
  6. Parents Physically Aggressive Toward You – Before age 18, how often did a parent or adult in your home ever hit, beat, kick, or physically hurt you in any way? Do not include spanking.
  7. Emotional Abuse – How often did a parent or adult in your home ever swear at you, insult you, or put you down? (once or more versus never)
  8. Sexual Abuse – How often did anyone at least 5 years older than you or an adult ever touch you sexually? (once or more versus never) How often did anyone at least 5 years older than you or an adult try to make you touch them sexually? (once or more versus never) How often did anyone at least 5 years older than you or an adult force you to have sex? (once or more versus never)

Indeed, for each of these experienced, a person is 40% more likely to become homeless. The average score for the homeless was 3.97; for non-homeless, 1.58. One-third of those with a score of 8 (the max) are homeless.

Here are some of the statistics (read the paper for the rest of them!):

58% of homeless have divorced/separated parents, vs 27% of non-homeless;
29% of homeless had an incarcerated household member, vs 6% of non-homeless;
52% of homeless have been struck or hit by parents (not counting spanking), vs 18% of non-homeless;
70% of homeless were emotionally abused by parents, vs 31% of non-homeless.

The numbers do tend to overwhelm somewhat, but step back and look at the patterns.


Well, no. We can't show that with this data.

While it's true that 1/3 of those who scored 8 on the ACE are homeless, it's also true that 2/3 are not.
While it's true that 58% of homeless have divorced/separated parents, 42% do not.

What we do see are risk factors.

Just as smoking one cigarette may cause lung cancer, beating your children once may cause them to be homeless as adults.


The report was created for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a long history of working to change some the behaviors this report indicates are associated with homelessness. I doubt the data is biased (after all, it's pure data). The choice of questions and topics may have been. 

And when you read the report, you will understand they did some "weighting" with their statistics, and I'm not sure I understand why. The raw data is not all presented, and does not seem to be easily available. I'm planning on asking for their tabulated survey data, stripped of identifying information.

There are questions they did not ask. Use of drugs, use of tobacco, experience with landlords, number of employers, length of last employment, time of last employment, and a few others. This seems to me to indicate a lack of understanding. However, the data they did acquire seems to be reasonable. I'm not sure I trust some of it, and I suspect a bias in the methodology. But it's a study, and the data is useful.