Education Homelessness NYC

How Long Do People Stay Here?

Let’s visit a homeless shelter in New York City.

There’s no sign on the building. On the sidewalk outside of the unmarked entrance are several men. Three of them are chatting with each other. Two others are leaning against the wall, taking drags from their cigarettes. After you pass, one of them coughs up a wad of phlegm and spits it out. A man sitting on the sidewalk asks, “Spare some change?” He shakes a tattered coffee cup at you. The few coins inside jangle.

You try to pull the door open. It’s locked. Through the glass you see a few people looking out at you. They’re not smiling. Finding the doorbell, you press the white button. A few seconds pass. A harsh, steady buzz suddenly fills the air, informing you that you may now enter.

“Sign in!” a man barks at you. Behind the splintered desk is a man in a security uniform. He’s pointing at a log book, the page nearly filled with names in blue ink.

As you write in your information, he asks, “Who are you? Where you from?”

“Empty your pockets.”

“Open your bag.”

Satisfied with your answers and confident that you don’t have weapons, drugs, or alcohol, he steps out from behind the desk with a metal detector wand. After he waves it over your body, he says, “Go. You’re fine.”

Before you see the thick, plastic chairs in the main room, you smell the odor of fetid sweat. Seated in the chairs are men wearing unwashed jeans, oversized shirts, baggy jackets, and generic baseball caps. Some of them are reading newspapers and books. A few older women are sleeping upright, their chins nearly resting on their chests. One of them is wearing sandals; her toenails are discolored and misshapen from fungus. Her ankles look like eggplants. A young man seated in a wheelchair tries to drink his coffee, but his tremulous hand cannot keep the cup steady. Next to him is a man wearing a porkpie hat, red lipstick, two winter coats, board shorts over torn tuxedo pants, and yellow sandals. Three women are shouting at each other; one of them reaches for the neck of another and screams, “I’M GONNA KILL YOU, YOU—”

“How long do people stay here?” you ask, realizing that the room is filled with people. You can’t imagine living like this; you’d get out of here as soon as you could.

They feel the exact same way.

But you ask an excellent question. What is the average length of stay in a homeless shelter?

Some caveats: Data on homelessness is almost always incomplete and inaccurate:

  1. Researchers can only collect data that is available. People who stay in homeless shelters are available. People who live in cars, abandoned lots, and in transit stations—away from researchers—are generally unavailable.
  2. Researchers often must rely on the information homeless individuals share (“self report”). For a variety of reasons, people who are homeless may not share much about themselves… if they consent to interviews at all.

That being said, available evidence suggests that people stay in homeless shelters anywhere from two [1. “The average length of stay in emergency shelter was 69 days for single men, 51 days for single women, and 70 days for families.”] to seven months. [2. “In a survey of 24 cities, people remain homeless an average of seven months…”] (I read a paper within the last year that I now cannot find—of course—that demonstrated that the majority of people who experience homelessness are homeless for less than six months. Furthermore, of those people, most of them are homeless for only one day!)

This suggests that the majority of people in shelters do not experience chronic homelessness. Emergency shelters, then, are arguably used just for that: emergencies. Those who enter shelters obtain the help and resources (either within or outside of the shelter) to get them back on their feet. They exit the shelter system in less than a year—sometimes within a few months—and never use the system again.

However, there are individuals in shelters who meet the definition of “chronically homeless”. Some researchers have “identified that approximately 10 percent of users account[ed] for 50 percent of the annual nights of shelter provided”. [3. See page 1-10 of this document for the statistic that 10% of shelter users account for 50% of annual nights of shelter provided.] These numbers should sound familiar to those of you who follow health care policy discussions, where “5% of patients use 50% of all health care spending dollars”. [4. More about “A Small Proportion of the Total Population Accounts for Half of All U.S. Medical Spending” here.]

So what’s going on with these individuals who experience chronic homelessness? Are there risk factors for chronic homelessness? If so, what do you think they are?