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National Survey Data on the Experiences of Unsheltered Individuals

Image of tent on the road by a river belonging to an individual experiencing homelessness

People experiencing homelessness face a number of challenges related to their health and well-being. However, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are far more likely to encounter these problems and the problems are exacerbated the longer they are unsheltered.


On a single night in January in 2018 there were an estimated 553,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the United States. Nearly 200,000 of these individuals were unsheltered, sleeping on sidewalks, in parks, in cars, or in other outdoor locations. Little is known about the vulnerabilities and past experiences of unsheltered individuals or how they differ from individuals in shelters. A better understanding of these differences can inform policymakers as they make decisions about how local resources are designed and deployed. 

Research Project

Status: complete

The California Policy Lab analyzed survey responses from more than 64,000 single adults ages 25 and older who were experiencing homelessness (both sheltered and unsheltered) in 15 states across the U.S. over a three-year period from 2015 through 2017.

Research Team

Janey Rountree, Nathan Hess, Austin Lyke


People who are unsheltered are far more likely to report having chronic health conditions, mental health issues, and experiences with trauma and substance abuse as compared to homeless people who are living in shelters. People with the longest periods of homelessness and the most significant health conditions are not accessing and being served by emergency shelters. Rather than being sheltered or housed and receiving appropriate care, they are instead regularly engaged by police and emergency responders.

Read the report Editor’s note: Please read the entire research note about this report.

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