Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Review of Cross-Sectional Surveys


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.

Survey Sampling frame Sample size and type Frequency Oversamples How data collected Primary focus Other notes
Table 6-1. Overview of Federal cross-sectional survey efforts
American Community Survey (ACS)
(Conducted by Census Bureau)
National area probability

Currently excludes group quarters, expected to include in 2006

800,000 households

3 million households starting in 2005

Data collected on all household members

Annually None Mail (50%)

Computer-assisted telephone surveys (CATI)

In-person (sample of nonresponders)

ACS replaces the decennial census long form
American Housing Survey (AHS)
(Conducted by Census Bureau)
National area probability (excludes group quarters)

Metropolitan area probability surveys collected as well

55,000 households - national survey

3,200 households - for each metropolitan survey

Biannually - national survey

Every 6 years for each metropolitan survey, conducting 14 per year

Size, composition, and state of housing stock Survey returns to the same address for each wave, even if the household has changed
Current Population Survey (CPS)
(Conducted by Census Bureau)
National area probability 60,000 households, 130,000+ people

Data collected on all household members


Households in survey for 4 months, out 8, in 4, and then dropped

Latinos (March sample of each year) Initial Interview In-person

In-person or CATI for followups

Labor force participation Supplemental questions regularly added:
  • March: Annual demographic survey
  • Housing vacancy survey
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
(Conducted by Nat. Center for Health Statistics)
National area probability 5,000 people Annually Low-income Whites, Adolescents, Persons 60+, Blacks, and Latinos In-person

Additional medical exams at a mobile exam center

Health, Nutrition Data combined and released in 2-year waves
National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)
(Sponsored by Nat. Center for Health Statistics)
National area probability (includes group quarters) 43,000 households, 106,000 people

Data collected on all household members

Annually Blacks and Latinos In-person Health and illness, Disability Topical supplemental modules regularly included
National Household Education Survey (NHES) (Conducted by National Center for Education Statistics) National RDD '2003 - 32,000 Households

Limited household data, more on selected adults and children

Biannually Blacks and Latinos CATI Various educational activities of adults and/or children  
National Immunization Survey (NIS)
(Sponsored by National Center for Health Statistics)
National RDD

Screen 1 million households to find families with children 19 to 35 months

35,000 households, 94,000+ people

Data collected on family, sample adult, and sample child, if available

Annually None CATI Immunization  
National Survey of America's Families (NSAF)
(Conducted by Urban Institute)
National RDD supplemented with area probability in poorer neighborhoods Three cohorts:
1997 - 45,000 households
1999 - 46,000 households
2002 - 40,000 households

Data collected on adults and one child if available

Three separate cohorts

No future surveys scheduled at this time

Oversampled in 13 large states


CATI (majority)

In-person for households w/o phones

Social services
Financial services
National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
(formerly National Household Survey on Drug Abuse)
(Sponsored by SAMHSA)
Area probability sample by state (to provide valid state estimates)

Includes group quarters (e.g., shelters, rooming houses)

70,000 people

Randomly selected persons per household

Annually Not currently (earlier oversampling of Blacks and Latinos stopped when the sample size was increased) In-person

(including audio computer assisted self-interviewing ACASI)

Cigarette use
Illicit drug use
Alcohol use
Mental illness
Mental health treatment
NSDUH notes that the sample sizes for group quarters are too small to provide valid estimates

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.

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