Homelessness - what we know

People experiencing homelessness are more likely to report having a criminal record than the general public (Burt et al 1999, Metraux and Culhane 2006). In addition, those who have experienced homelessness are overrepresented among those incarcerated in prisons or jails (Greenberg and Rosenheck 2008). Homelessness can be both a cause and consequence of having a criminal record. More than 25% of people experiencing homelessness report being arrested for activities that are a direct result of their homelessness, like loitering, sitting, lying down, or sleeping in public.

One study found the first 30 days after release from prison or jail was when people were most likely to experience homelessness (Metraux and Culhane 2006). Not only are people leaving jails and prisons at risk of homelessness, they are also more likely to be homeless for longer periods of time (Caton et al 2005). Finally, having a criminal record does not impact someone's ability to stay housed (Malone 2009).

State of Homelessness - It is estimated that over 1.5 million Americans experience homelessness in a year and over 500,000 on any given night in the U.S. The largest subpopulation of those experiencing homelessness are single adults. A lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of homelessness for this group and with a criminal record or cycling between prisons, jails and other institutions makes housing more elusive.

People of color and other oppressed communities are significantly more likely to experience homelessness and related criminal legal system interactions.  In 2014, African-Americans made up approximately 40% of people experiencing homelessness.  At the same time, approximately 40% of young people experiencing homelessness identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).  

DEfinition of Homelessness

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as an individual or family who:

(1) lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence;

(2) primary nighttime residence is not designed for regular sleeping, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground;

(3) living in a supervised shelter designated for temporary living arrangements (including hotels and motels paid for by government programs or by charitable organizations, congregate shelters, and transitional housing);

(4) who resided in a shelter or place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided (for less than 90 days); or

(5) will imminently lose their housing (within 14 days), including housing they own, rent, or live in without paying rent, are sharing with others, and rooms in hotels or motels not paid for by government programs or by charitable organizations.

Find more information here and here.

The Department of Education has a broader definition of homelessness that also includes families doubling up for economic reasons who can stay longer than 14 days. Violence Against Women Act and Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs also use this broader definition.