How Old Is “Homeless?”

The average homeless person in this country wasn’t born when 9/11 happened.  She wasn’t born when the war in Afghanistan started and was a newborn when the the second Iraq war began.

The average homeless person in America is 9.

I didn’t know this until a week or so ago.  A week or so ago, I would have answered this question on facebook just like everyone else:

I know I shared the next picture right after the Allentown U2Charist, but I’m going to share it again.  Feel free to adapt it for your community:




  1. chadhogg · March 24, 2012

    I’ve seen you write this in several different media this past week. Can you share any information about Chris Nelson’s sources? Because this seems like something that cannot possibly be true. Also, is the correct claim that this is the average for America (as you say one place) or for the Lehigh Valley (as you say elsewhere), or both?


  2. Christopher Cocca · March 25, 2012

    The claim is that it’s both. Some studies nation-wide say the average age is actually seven. But it all depends on definitions.

    Homeless doesn’t just mean living on the street. It can mean 3 families living in housing meant for one. It can mean families with small children living in motels, with or without vouchers for assistance. It takes into account all of the children living with their mothers at women’s shelters (boys over 13 have to go elsewhere, typically). It could include every family in transitional housing.

    The problem is that the federal government has one set of definitions, local agencies may have another, and the real situation may be different from all of those.

    The City Room blog (New York Times) finds the number impossible: but given the number of homeless and displaced families out there living doubled and tripled up or in shelters, I honestly don’t doubt it.

    That said, I’m looking for more bona fide evidence. Everything I’ve stated so far has been in good faith re: the Conference’s local claims. When I saw the same age corroborated for national numbers on national sites, I extended the benefit of the doubt. I may be proven wrong. Many people of all ages avoid the various indexing efforts done by cities and non profits.


    • chadhogg · March 25, 2012

      Yeah, I do doubt it. The case that lowers the average is supposedly that of a mother with her children. How many young children are we talking about? If a family’s ages are 30, 12, 9, 6, and 3, that entire family’s average age is 12. If they are 21, 2, and 4, that family’s average age is 9. But if you are going to cancel out all of the people in their 20s through 40s who do not have children, finding a family whose average age is 9 does not help; you need to find a large number of them whose average age is quite a bit below 9.

      I did not comment on this: but I am not sure I agree with you there. When your art consists of making statements any reasonable person would believe to be factual, and when people engage in activism because of the things you say that they believe to be truthful, I think you do have a responsibility to be clear about what is fact. what is fiction, what is well supported by evidence, and what is just a thing some people have said.


      • Christopher Cocca · March 25, 2012

        I think in Daisey’s case, Ira Glass knows who Daisey is and what Daisey does. I think Glass failed to convey those things in the first place.

        In case of the homeless numbers, I took as fact what someone who is in a position to know told me in good faith. I may end up with egg on my face. I may not. It may be the case that we can’t even know the average age of homeless people beyond our local contexts.

        In any case, I appreciate your vigor for seeing the facts. When thinking about people on the margin, I’m not sure that facts are always forthcoming. Part of that is because marginalized people often don’t trust the mechanisms designed to count them, which makes total sense. Part of it is because the actual facts may very well expose our worst fears, and the failure of the powerful to do anything about them. I’ll go with you here: if we’re going to use numbers to make a case, we should make sure they’re solid. If we’re using stories, then I’m not as sure.


  3. Christopher Cocca · March 25, 2012

    “In 2003, children under the age of 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population; 42% of these children were under the age of five (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004). This same
    study found that unaccompanied minors comprised 5% of the urban homeless population. However, in other cities and especially in rural areas, the numbers of children experiencing homelessness are much
    higher. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in 2004, 25% of homeless were ages 25 to 34; the same study found percentages of homeless persons aged 55 to 64 at 6%.”

    We know that there are more homeless kids today than there were in 2003. In 2010, there were 1.6 million homeless children in America.

    The 2003 data isn’t helpful for getting us to 2012 numbers, but it does show children making up 39% of the homeless and 42% of those children being under the age of 5. Look how small the number for 55-64 is. That’s partly because the life expectancy of homeless people is low. In England, it overs at around 47 (

    If I’m reading the data correctly, in 2003:

    39% were under 18
    25% were 25-34
    6% were 55-64

    30% fell in somewhere else. I’m working on finding those specifics.

    The same National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty report also says that between 2.5 and 3.5 million Americans were homeless in 2003, and 1.5 million of them were children.

    Again, none of this gets us to 9, but it does suggest to me that homelessness skews much younger than many (most?) people would think possible.

    Of course, I’m doing this in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. This coming week, I’ll make some phone calls. I’ll get a number with supporting data.


  4. Kimberly Adams · March 25, 2012

    Hello, in reading this exchange I think this is an example of where stats are never going to tell the full story. Homelessness is too diverse as a concept to give an “average” anything – the Vietnam vet who stands at the intersection of Hamilton and Cedar Crest really has nothing in common with the kid I know who has changed residence five times in two years. This has included living with a friend and at a shelter, both considered transitional, but the apartment he currently lives in is probably in the least safe area of all, even though he’s not considered “homeless” while he’s there. I appreciate the debate about going back to the source to determine how these numbers are complied, but I think the real information that they show is that there is no true safety net in our country for the people who actually need one.


    • Christopher Cocca · March 26, 2012

      Great, great point. There are safety nets, but they don’t catch everyone. Often, they don’t catch the people who need them most.


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