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Businessweek Archives

How The Homeless `Crisis' Was Hyped

Economic Viewpoint


In 1982, Mary Ellen Hombs and Mitch Snyder, advocates for the homeless, estimated in their book Homelessness in America: A Forced March to Nowhere that between 2 million and 3 million people in the U.S. were then without a home. The magnitude of that figure helped create a perception that the number of homeless people was one of the major failures of U.S. social programs.

On the face of it, such an assertion--implying that more than 1 out of every 100 Americans in the 1980s had no place to live--simply wasn't credible. Indeed, a few years after publishing the estimate, Snyder conceded that it had no basis in fact. He admitted that he had simply pulled the number out of a hat to satisfy people pressing him for specificity.

Still, his fabricated estimate was accepted by many. Residents of large cities were receptive in the early 1980s to exaggeration about the number of homeless because their own anecdotal evidence was that a lot more people were sleeping on sidewalks and in public buildings and pushing their belongings around in supermarket carts during the day. But most Americans don't live in big cities, and homeless persons are much less common in the small cities and towns scattered throughout the U.S.

The implausibility of the Hombs and Sny-

der guesstimate did, however, stimulate efforts to obtain more precise numbers. One of the first, by Peter H. Rossi, then at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, counted the number of homeless in Chicago in the mid-1980s by sending interviewers out in the middle of the night. They found about 3,000 persons, less than one-eighth the number claimed by some local homeless advocacy groups. These groups in turn attacked Rossi for being uncaring and for slanting his estimates toward the low side. But his methods were much more scientific than those used by his critics.

URBAN PERCEPTION. Rossi's estimates and those of others are carefully reviewed in an excellent recent book, The Homeless, by the sociologist Christopher Jencks. He shows how difficult it is to define, let alone estimate, the number of people without homes. But he concludes that during any week in March, 1990--the date of the latest estimates--about 300,000 Americans were homeless in the sense that they slept either in free shelters or in public places not intended for habitation, such as bus stations, sidewalks, or abandoned buildings.

Jencks's review does indicate that homelessness greatly increased over time, which surely contributed to the perception among denizens of New York, Chicago, and other large cities that it is so common. The number of people without a home seems to have more than doubled from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, and probably increased in the 1960s and 1970s as well, but it does not seem to have grown much during the latter half of the 1980s.

Contrary to another myth propagated by television and homeless advocates, families with children make up less than one-fifth of the homeless population--the rest are mainly single males--and virtually all families stay overnight in shelters. Even people who sleep on the streets or in public places generally can go to shelters--unpleasant as they may be--if they choose.

Jencks provides a good analysis of why homelessness increased over time and makes sensible suggestions for reducing its incidence and increasing the fraction who sleep in shelters. However, I am not concerned here with the causes and cures of homelessness but with advocacy groups' ability to convince a gullible public and media that homelessness had become a huge problem in America.

COMMON SENSE. In fact, the rather small size of the homeless population in reliable estimates indicates that, although the growth in homelessness is disturbing, it has been a much less serious social trend than several others that received little attention until the past few years. Those include the rapid escalation in the '60s and '70s, especially in cities, of robbery and other crimes against persons, the sharp fall during the past two decades in the earnings of high school dropouts, and the collapse in the quality of inner-city schooling.

The public is constantly bombarded with exaggerated claims not only about the number of homeless but about many other subjects, such as the number of people who will get AIDS, the financial savings from radical changes in the health-care delivery system, the damage to health from various ingredients added to foods, and the size of the world population in the year 2050. It isn't easy to assess the validity of confident assertions on complicated issues, but two common-sense checks often help in gaining perspective. An obvious one is to assess whether persons making the claim gain any advantage from exaggeration. A second, more difficult ene is to look at the basis for the claims, since even a little digging often reveals the shallowness of their foundations.

If early assertions about the incidence of homelessness had been examined in this way, Snyder and others could not have so badly misled the American public.GARY S. BECKER

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