I had just finished delivering the keynote address at the Hesburgh Public Policy Colloquium on “Housing and Homelessness” at the University of Notre Dame, and the questioning had begun. After a number of questions of the kind that every audience asks—and rightfully so—about my experiences posing as a homeless man, someone asked the question. Now the question can focus on a number of specific issues about homelessness, but it is always asked in a manner that pits the information I have just given the audience against some part of the homeless activists’ propaganda. In this case the question was about homeless families.

Barry Zigas, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, raised his hand, got my attention, and said: “Professor McMurry, in your talk you seemed to characterize almost all the homeless as being disabled by one or more serious personal pathologies—alcoholism, mental illness, ex-prisoners. How do you respond to the news that about 40 percent of the homeless are families and that they are the most rapidly increasing group?”

I reached into my jacket pocket and retrieved the notes that I had made earlier that afternoon while being given a tour of the Center for the Homeless in downtown South Bend.

I had been very impressed by the way the Center had organized its program. Holy smokes, I thought when I walked into the shelter, they’re having a party! The homeless people were wandering around wearing name tags—color-coded at that. Naturally, the first question I asked was about the tags. “Well,” said Rayeann, the social worker giving us the tour, “the color indicates what part of the program the person is working in and also what their major problem is. Blue means that the person is actively looking for work, green means they have a mental or emotional problem and are seeing a mental health counselor, and yellow means they are part of a family. Orange tags, which you don’t see because they are not allowed in here during the day, indicate that the person has ‘just copped out’ and doesn’t want to sign up for any help. So they can come in for supper, a cot, and breakfast and then have to leave.”

Clearly, this easily-installed effort at organization is a great improvement over the laissez-faire approach of most shelters I had visited. Other shelters usually have plenty of resources and an adequate staff, but they allow the clients to just wander around, rarely getting hooked up with what they need. “And, in addition,” Rayeann said, “we can tell at a glance who just came in, who’s ‘visiting,’ and who needs what.”

One of the questions I always ask at the shelters is about families. As we continued our tour through a room where children were playing and through the spotless kitchen, I asked it: “Where do families stay?” And here Rayeann’s answer was like all the others. “Well, here is the family section. The single women sleep here, and the women with children are in these rooms,” she said, pointing to a row of closed doors, “where there is more privacy.”

And as usual, I asked, “How about the husband-wife families?” There were no provisions for husbands in the shelter. I asked why not. “Let’s see,” she said as she paused and looked quizzical for a moment, “we’ve had only one or two couples since the shelter opened in August.” Not families, “couples.” In South Bend, Indiana, a city of over one hundred thousand, in a county of almost one-quarter of a million, an hour and a half from Chicago, with any number of services for the homeless, there were no homeless families.

This came as no surprise to me; in fact, I rather expected it. I had been looking for families among the homeless for several years and was unable to find any except for the extremely rare couple usually brought to my attention by the press. But surely homeless families must be everywhere, because the popular media, in their continuous coverage of the homeless, have over and over said—and on TV showed—that homeless families are numerous and increasing rapidly.

During the early 80’s, the terms the “new poor” and the “new homeless” were used to indicate to the reader that these “families” made up the bulk of these unfortunate groups. As agencies were formed to absorb the large amount of money becoming available to aid the homeless, the term the “new homeless” soon came to stand for homelessness in general. Thus, the concerned public’s notion of who the homeless were was formed by these agencies putting (for obvious reasons) the best face possible on their homeless clients. And the best face possible for them was the rare—or nonexistent—homeless family.

My own search for homeless families as a part of my study had consumed much of my time and energy but had been nearly fruitless. In addition to interviewing shelter operators, agency workers, volunteers. Salvation Army officers, and many others, I had spent 18 months posing as a homeless man. I wandered across the country, eating, sleeping, and waiting on the streets and in shelters in big cities and small communities. This investigation over a number of years turned up almost no “families as couples.” Thus it was always a shock to see so much publicity about homeless families and for them to loom so large in our national deliberations. Jonathan Kozol’s Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America is an excellent case in point.

Kozol’s story of women and their children in welfare hotels in New York City focused the spotlight on the multitude of stories and journal articles on “homeless families” being produced at the time. But the reality is that these fragments of relationships are not families, that they do not reflect the sort of kinship arrangements most people think of when they hear or use the word “family.” Kozol’s title shows how the confusion is created: he found only Rachels—with or without children, and he subtitled them “America’s homeless families.”

Advocates and shelter operators use the word “family” in a variety of ways. In fact, they use it to indicate almost any arrangement where a homeless person is with someone else. Recently I asked a Salvation Army worker how many families were staying in their “Family Shelter.” She said, “Oh, there aren’t any here. There was a fire Sunday night and we had to place our women in other shelters, hotels, and places.” I asked what she had done with the husbands. “We don’t allow any men in the shelter,” she said.

In the same town, Nashville, Tennessee, there is a “Family Life Center” where men are also barred. And, believe it or not, there is a shelter that is allowed by metro space regulations to house one and a half families. Nashville has a population of nearly one-half million and about nine hundred homeless people, typical, I believe, of the homeless population in most big cities. After contacting every shelter that serves families and each agency that I thought would have information about homeless families in Nashville, I was able to count eight man-woman couples, who may or may not have been husband and wife.

Dennis Duggan, who is now director of the South Bend Center for the Homeless, served as director of a shelter in San Antonio for three and a half years. His records indicate that on average 22 “families” came to his shelter every day. Of these, he said 19 were single women, nine of whom were teenagers with a baby, leaving three women with “either a boyfriend or a husband.” Dennis said that shelter operators engaged in fund-raising use the term “family” very loosely “to perpetuate the myth of the homeless, hard-working, man-wife family and to appeal to the culture of those who have money.”

The mission in my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in its quarterly report for January-March 1990, listed 195 “total nights of shelter.” I asked the director, who cooks supper for these people so he should know, how many of these were families. He said, “Oh, about four, I imagine.” And these are transient families at that, because the rules of the mission do not allow local families (but do allow local single men) to stay at the mission. Thus, the information I have collected about homeless families, from South Bend to San Antonio and beyond, indicates that a man and a woman calling themselves a family is the rarest arrangement on the streets.

Turning to the work of others, what do we find about homeless families? The data in an excellent new book, Martha Burt and Barbara Cohen’s America’s Homeless (published by the Urban Institute, 1989), are based on the “first nationally representative survey of homeless people and providers in large cities in America.” Of all homeless adults in the survey, 79 percent were single men, 10 percent were single women, and 9 percent were women with children. “The remainder,” the authors report, “about 2,000 or 1 percent, were men with children.” That’s it, “the remainder.” No manwoman pairs, no couples, no husbands with wives. Not a mention of spouses. In short, no word of families as we generally think of the term. Further, Burt and Cohen use “families” in quotation marks in the early discussion but discard this qualification of the term and use families unadorned throughout the remainder of the book. Their figure of 10 percent of the homeless being “families,” they say, is lower than most of the reported figures. But they claim it is consistent with the 9 percent given by the only other study of homeless persons that included a national but non-random sample, J.D. Wright and E. Weber’s Homelessness and Health (1987).

The source of the most reliable statistical information about the presence of families among the homeless, however, is very likely Peter Rossi’s Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness, published last year. The value of Rossi’s book derives, in part, from his use of the results of 40 other surveys of homeless people (other, that is, than his own classic and controversial study of the homeless in Chicago). Having the scholarly virtues of objectivity and reliable numbers, the book is well-liked even by conservatives, especially—or perhaps only—the first six chapters. Rossi’s diagnosis is right on; his therapy, beginning at chapter seven, is way off.

Homeless families are as scarce in Rossi’s study as they are in the other reliable ones, which is to say they are missing. He writes, “The homeless have failed in the marriage market about to the same extent as they have failed in the labor market,” and that “homelessness is almost identical with spouselessness.” And he says this for good reason.

From the Chicago study, he analyzed all those homeless adults who were with relatives and found that only two were with spouses. Ninety-one percent were alone, with a relatively large number of homeless women with children, a very few homeless persons with some other relative, and merely two pairs of husbands and wives.

Of the persons who acknowledged having relatives living in the Chicago area, Ross asked two questions. First: “Assuming that they would want to and have the room, would you be opposed to or in favor of going to live with them?” He then asked his subjects if they believed their Chicago relatives would be opposed to or in favor of their moving in. The results are as significant as they are totally ignored by the homeless advocates. “It is clear,” Rossi writes, “that they themselves believe they are not wanted as housemates [and] it is obvious that they would not want to live with their relatives. . . . Many of the homeless must also be persons with whom it is difficult and perhaps painful to maintain a pleasant relationship. . . . Whatever the process, the outcome is that many of the homeless are completely isolated, and most have only very superficial ties to others.”

Fractured lives and ruptured ties—these are the reasons for the “new poor” and “homeless families.” These individuals are not families at all; indeed, they are the antithesis of family. Commitment and support are the forces that prevent homelessness; they are the “ties that bind.” Family values are what in the past provided these defenseless women and children, and children with children, a place to call home. Only in recent decades, as the traditional institutions of family, church, and community have come under increasing assault, have family ties frayed to the point of breaking. Women now are besieged by the same misfortunes men are, and families can or will no longer protect them from these forces.

What are usually called “homeless families” can best be considered 1990 female versions of the bum, wino, and tramp of earlier times. Then he couldn’t tolerate the oppressive daily grind. She can’t now. He wouldn’t stop drinking. She can’t quit crack. He found friends who would accept him as he was. She has them now. He had a place to go. She has one now. Then families were expected to nurture and support—at the very least, to tolerate—the wild teen girl, the retarded child, the rebellious daughter. Lately the American family has dissolved, and for the first time its parts are scattered to the streets. The female remnants are much like the male ones, except she has a baby or two and now is called “a family.”

In answer to Zigas’s question, I told him of my visit to the shelter and Rayeann’s statement that there had been only one or two couples there since August of 1989. “It is nearly impossible to find homeless families, that is husband-wife families, to count,” I told him. To my extreme right a hand shot up. I recognized a middle-aged former labor organizer, recently ordained as an Episcopal priest. He said, “Yeah, but that’s here in South Bend. With all our economic problems, no homeless families come here. They go somewhere else.” The myth of the homeless families, like all myths, dies hard.