Report

Metropolitan Neighborhoods with Sheltered Homeless Populations: Evidence from the 1990 and 2000 Censuses

Barrett Lee and Chad Farrell

Findings

An analysis of metropolitan neighborhoods with emergency and transitional shelters, using special decennial census data from 1990 and 2000, reveals that:


  • Critical mass neighborhoods—defined as census tracts with sheltered homeless populations of 100 or more—are disproportionately located in large metropolitan areas. Of the 358 critical mass neighborhoods in the U.S. in 2000, 271 (76 percent) were captured by a sample of 49 large metro areas. While the number of these neighborhoods fell slightly during the 1990s, this likely reflects the growing popularity of smaller shelters and non-shelter housing programs rather than a reduction in the nation’s homeless population.
  • Sheltered homeless people constitute a visible but rarely dominant group in critical mass neighborhoods. In large metro areas, critical mass homeless neighborhoods contained an average of 245 sheltered homeless, representing just over 10 percent of the population. Only three of the 271 critical mass neighborhoods analyzed had a majority sheltered homeless population.

  • The vast majority (86 percent) of critical mass neighborhoods in large metro areas are located within central cities and they tend to be highly transitory in nature. Of the neighborhoods identified as critical mass in 1990 or 2000, only one-fourth held that designation at both points in time. The average critical mass neighborhood moved farther from downtown during the 1990s, though large sheltered populations continue to reside close to downtowns in some cities.

  • Although the sheltered homeless account for only a small share of critical mass neighborhood populations, these neighborhoods tend to exhibit high levels of disadvantage generally. Compared to adjacent neighborhoods and others within the central city, critical mass neighborhoods have much higher levels of unemployment, poverty, and disability among their residents, and higher levels of vacancy and overcrowding in their largely rental housing stock.

Of the 358 critical mass neighborhoods in the U.S. in 2000, 271 (76 percent) were captured by a sample of 49 large metro areas. While the number of these neighborhoods fell slightly during the 1990s, this likely reflects the growing popularity of smaller shelters and non-shelter housing programs rather than a reduction in the nation’s homeless population.

Shelter downsizing, closure and relocation, as well as the creation of smaller facilities for specialized groups, appear to have spread sheltered homelessness to different locations throughout the metropolis over the 1990s. Still, critical mass homeless neighborhoods are found largely in struggling central city locales. The impact of current policies and economic conditions on the location and condition of these neighborhoods and their residents should motivate further research.

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