The national cross-sectional surveys currently in operation are designed to provide current information on various topics (e.g., the percentage of the population currently working, health status of people, or the extent of illegal substance abuse). These surveys typically collect information on a large number of people in order to be able to provide accurate and reliable estimates not only at the national level, but also for smaller geographic subunits, such as the state, metropolitan region, city, or even census tract level.
In terms of providing useful information on families that are, have been, or may be homeless in the future, these cross-sectional, general population surveys have several major advantages:
- The ability to understand factors that helped families exit homelessness;
- Depending on the size and structure of the data set, the ability to examine at-risk and literal homelessness for subgroups of families, including:
- Working poor families;
- Moderate-need poor families; and
- Two-parent poor families.
- The ability to develop estimates (albeit, likely underestimates) of the incidence and prevalence of homelessness among families over a specific period of time at the national level and, depending on the size and structure of the data set, at the regional and/or state level, and the ability to examine change in the incidence, prevalence, and characteristics of homeless families over time.
Cross-sectional studies also have two major limitations for use in the current effort. First, depending on the sampling frame and data collection methods used, a study may exclude currently homeless families. A study that recruits participants from a list of addresses that includes only homes, apartments, and condominiums, for example, would exclude not only those who are living on the streets, but those living in emergency shelters and other types of temporary housing. Likewise, a survey that collects information only by phone could not include people who do not have their own phone, which is likely to be true for most homeless families (as well as families at risk of becoming homeless). As a result, these studies would provide an underestimate of the overall incidence and prevalence of homelessness. Second, these studies can only examine past homelessness, with no opportunity to examine families prospectively. These surveys generally offer large samples, but either select different samples each time data are collected or do not provide the ability to link responses across different collection points.
Table 6-1 presents a summary of the nine major, cross sectional surveys that were identified and reviewed for this effort. Each survey is described according to the type of sampling frame used (i.e., how the sample was initially drawn or identified), the size and composition of the sample (i.e., if the data are collected on individuals, households, or both), the frequency of data collection, whether the sampling frame is supplemented by a specific oversample (e.g., oversample of low-income households), how the data were collected (e.g., in person, by telephone, or some combination), the primary content focus of the survey, and any other notes that help us understand the suitability of the survey for informing the typology.
These features were examined to identify surveys that offer the best opportunity to be enhanced to inform efforts to develop a typology of homeless families. Four criteria were used to select candidates for enhancement:
- Whether the survey is still being conducted;
- Whether the sample design (frame, size, type, and frequency) and data collection methods are more likely to include recently homeless families, as well as currently unstable families;
- Whether the data are collected on family characteristics; and
- Whether the sample size is large enough to examine subpopulations, regional, and state differences in homeless families, and families who are doubled-up.
Only two studies, the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the American Community Survey (ACS), met all four of these criteria. In this section, the rationale for eliminating the seven other studies from further review is explained and then the opportunities offered by the CPS and ACS surveys are described in more detail.