Is there an enormous population of New York families living on the edge of homelessness? The majority of New York families who enter city shelters come from shared housing. From that fact, advocates for the homeless have reasoned that the more than 300,000 doubled-up households in New York constitute a vast pool of potential future homelessness. In this view, the root cause of homelessness is a severe citywide housing shortage. The 300,000 doubled-up families are both proof of the housing crisis and a measure of how bad the homeless problem could get if the city does not act to provide more housing.
It is not only activists who hold this view. References to doubled-up families as the hidden homeless abound in city documents and press reports. A 1984 New York State Department of Social Services report refers to the “more than 143,000 poor families [who] were ’doubled-up’ in the homes of other people,” claiming that “while not all these families are on the brink of homelessness, many of them probably are.” A look at the data, however, suggests that this widespread impression is wrong. The overwhelming majority of those in shared housing are not at risk of homelessness. For most doubled-up New Yorkers, shared housing is a perfectly normal, even desirable housing choice.
The most reliable, up-to-date information about the composition of doubled-up households can be found in the 1987 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey. Eighty-nine percent of New York City’s 2.7 million inhabited housing units are occupied by a single nuclear family, consisting of either one or two adults and their children. (A small fraction of these households also contain an unrelated person connected to the family by economic ties, mostly live-in help, but also occasionally foster children.) The “hidden homeless,” if any, must be found among the remaining 307,000 doubled-up households.
Very few of these households are poor. For instance, only about 11.6 percent of New York’s doubled-up families are on public assistance. That alone suggests that relatively few of the doubled-up are candidates for homelessness. A more detailed look at just who lives in shared housing in New York confirms that conclusion. The 307,000 doubled-up households in New York can be divided into six major groups:
Thirty-nine thousand households consist of a man and a woman living together without children. The Census Bureau may refer to such couples as POSSLQs (Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters), and the more romantic may call them “lovers,” but surely no one would call them a major concern for New York’s housing policy.
Another 47,000 households consist of adults of the same sex, also without children. They may be roommates, or lovers with alternative sexual preferences, but very few are on public assistance or living in crowded conditions. Fewer than 1,300 doubled-up households consist of either same or opposite sex couples who report children under 18 also living in the household.
Some 59,000 of the “doubled-up” households consist of an elderly parent or other relative living with the primary family—surely more a sign of healthy families than of a housing crisis. (Since the information in the Housing and Vacancy Survey is more limited than one might like, technically this category consists of all households where a relative who is at least 14 years older than the householder has moved in with the primary family.)
Another forty thousand doubled-up households contain only the householder and one or more minor relatives at least thirty years younger—typically children being raised by grandparents. In a city dealing with widespread child abuse, drug addiction, AIDS, and incarceration, such doubled-up households appear to be a social solution rather than a social problem. Indeed, the city, through the “foster grandparents” program, actually encourages the creation of these households. (See Maggie Gallagher’s article, page 16.)
A potentially larger source of concern is the 89,000 households containing relatives of the householder who are roughly the same age or younger than the householder. These may be as innocuous as sisters rooming together, or they may be as troublesome as young adult children who cannot afford to move out. One thing they cannot be, however, is a major source of future homelessness among families, since almost every family that enters the shelter system contains one or more children. Yet only two thousand of these households contain children other than those of the head of the household. Consequently, this pool cannot contain very many potentially homeless families.
The last major group of the doubled-up is the 33,000 families consisting of the householders, their children, and their grandchildren. It is unclear to what extent these households are a cause for concern. Is the middle generation trapped in shared housing because of economic conditions, or do they view living with parents as a desirable option? Some may indeed be mature adults forced to move in with their parents for economic reasons. On the other hand, some are undoubtedly women seeking temporary havens after a divorce. Others may be recent immigrants following long-standing patterns of close family living. And still others may be unmarried teens with children, for whom living with parents is the best possible option.
As these data suggest, New Yorkers live in a variety of housing situations. Most, however, seem normal, healthy adaptations to personal circumstances rather than a cause for public concern. This is not to say that no families in the city are doubled-up because they cannot afford better housing. It does suggest, however, that the number of such families is far smaller than is often claimed.
The housing survey does contain information that may allow us to identify the real dimensions of the hidden homeless problem. To find the hidden homeless, we must look for households that are: 1) doubled-up, 2) on public assistance (including AFDC, SSI, Home Relief and other programs), and 3) living under crowded conditions, which the city defines as more than one resident per room. If poor families live crowded together in inadequate housing, it is a good guess that they have been forced to do so by precarious economic circumstances. These are the families most likely to be at risk of becoming homeless. They are also, as the data make clear, only a tiny fraction of those living in shared housing.
As of 1987, there appear to be at most 15,000 doubled-up families on public assistance. The other twenty thousand doubled-up households receiving public assistance consist of only single individuals in addition to the primary family, and thus are unlikely to be a source of future family homelessness. Of the 15,000 doubled-up families on public assistance, only about two thousand were living in crowded conditions. Only these two thousand families really deserve the label “hidden homeless,” i.e., people who might become homeless not because of some unusual behavior or change in circumstances but because they have been seriously unable to find housing. Thus the hidden homeless amount to less than seven-tenths of 1 percent of all families sharing housing. Since 1987, however, there have been over 38,000 entrances into the city shelter system. Either the same families have been churning through the shelter system, or most of the families in the system were made homeless by factors far more complex than simply a tight housing market forcing many families to double up.