Doubling Down on Double Up

By Nora Laidman

This past June, The University of Chicago’s UrbanLabs released a startling report on the state of homelessness in Chicago. The number making headlines was a shock: more than 10,000 families currently experiencing homelessness- here. Where were they all? And how had our data been so wrong for so long? A similar study completed in 2017 accounted for just under 6,000 individuals. To reconcile these chasms, it takes a bit of education.

For Chicago Public Schools to identify a child as experiencing homelessness they must “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time place of residence.” Thus, CPS, and the Department of Education as a whole, recognize “doubling up with friends or family” as a form of experiencing homelessness. Previous studies only analyzed data gained by looking at individuals and families that accessed the CoC (Continuum of Care) for services such as food and shelter. The UrbanLabs report combined CoC findings with those of CPS to create a more complete sketch of the population. Also referenced was information provided by the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) on "at-risk" families, as well as families who obtained services not provided by the CoC.

Knowing the extent of students living in a doubled-up situation is critical. For the 2016-17 school year, new data revealed that 57.7% of families accessing CoC services, while experiencing literal homelessness, had reported or been identified by CPS as living doubled-up less than a year earlier. In part, this trend results from families frequently doubling up with an already low-income household. Therefore, a reexamination of the eligibility requirements for public assistance provided to households with unrelated dependent adults is a path that has been advocated by policy makers since the 1990s. Of course, this would also require reframing the general mindset surrounding doubling up.

There are so many different routes that can be taken when providing support systems to any given subset. Marin and Vaccha (1994) succinctly express the current institutional setbacks facing doubled up families and glimpse at future possibilities available when they write, “As long as public assistance programs exclude those people who share their homes with unrelated adults and reduce the allotments of families who share a home, public assistance will be a barrier to doubling up. Instead of considering the practice of living with unrelated adults while on public assistance as a kind of fraud, perhaps we should view it as a way to stretch severely limited resources as a strategy for easing the low-income housing shortage.

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Cited Sources:

Marin, M. V., & Vacha, E. F. (1994). Self-help strategies and resources among people at risk of homelessness: empirical findings and social services policy. Social Work, 39(6), 649+. Retrieved from

Nathalie P. Voorhees Center For Neighborhood and Community Improvement. (n.d.). 2017 Homeless Point in Time Count & Survey Report (Rep.). Retrieved

UChicago Urban Labs. (2018). Ending Family Homelessness Report: Understanding the scale and needs of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago (Rep.). Retrieved from