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The Age Structure of Contemporary Homelessness: Risk Period or Cohort Effect?


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This paper assesses the age composition of the sheltered homeless population and how the age of this population – both single adults and adults in families – have changed over the past two decades. Data for this study came from administrative records on shelter use in New York City and from the nationwide shelter and general population enumerations in each of the last two decennial census enumerations. 

In the late 1980s, homeless single adults and adults in families were relatively young, with the median age for both being in the late-twenties. Subsequently, however, these household types appear to have diverged, as the birth cohort from which the young single adults had come (born 1954-1965) has continued to be overrepresented in the shelter population, whereas homelessness among adults in families has remained linked to households in the early parenting years (ages 18-23). While the families and the single adults may have experienced some common precipitating factors that led to the emergence of homelessness in the 1980s, the young mothers appear to age out of their risk for homelessness while homelessness among this birth cohort of single adults sustains. Hypotheses are discussed regarding the social and economic factors that may be associated with disproportionate housing instability and homelessness among adults from the latter half of the baby boom cohort.

Implications for public policy are considered, including the premature risk of disability, frailty and mortality associated with this cohort.


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Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

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