What is Homelessness?

Homeless Hub Backgrounder on what is homelessness.

Backgrounder: What is Homelessness?

What is homelessness?  This is an important to question to consider.  Many of us are quick to condemn people who are homeless for their personal failures and inadequacies.  Some of us continue to believe that people choose to be homeless and prefer the lifestyle of the ‘vagrant’.  However, the experience of constant hunger, the enhanced risk of illness or injury, and the constant threat of violence make these assumptions questionable.  Any attempt to address the problem of homelessness requires that we understand what it is.

Defining homelessness is both complex, and simple at the same time.   On the one hand, the term homelessness draws our attention to a complex array of social and economic issues that produce poverty and unstable housing, including an inadequate affordable housing supply, tenant insecurity, inadequate income, individual crises, health problems, mental health challenges, addictions, trauma, veterans issues, child abuse and involvement with the justice system. 

On the other hand, as David Hulchanski has argued again and again, the definition of homelessness is actually much more simple.  It is, he suggests, about inadequate housing, inadequate income and a lack of appropriate social supports (Hulchanski, et al., 2009).  Lack of housing is of course central to this definition.  Hulchanski often quotes U.S. housing researcher and activist Cushing Dolbeare to drive this point home.  She wrote:
“Homelessness may not be only a housing problem, but it is always a housing problem; housing is necessary, although sometimes not sufficient, to solve the problem of homelessness” (Dolbear, 1996).

The Homeless Hub defines homelessness as an extreme form of poverty characterized by the instability of housing and the inadequacy of income, health care supports and social supports (Homeless Hub, 2009) . This definition includes people who are absolutely homeless (those living on the streets, sometimes referred to as "rough sleepers"); shelter dwellers (people staying temporarily in emergency shelters or hostels); the "hidden homeless" (people staying temporarily with friends or family), and others who are described as under housed or "at risk" of homelessness.

When people lose their housing, they often move in temporarily with friends or family, a practice known as "couch surfing". If the option of moving in with friends and/or family is not (or is no longer) available because of weak social capital or a lack of steady income, many people will stay in temporary emergency shelters, or end up absolutely homeless. Emergency shelters exist in medium- and large-sized urban centres, but are not generally available in rural areas and small towns.

When people who experience homelessness are able to generate money (and contrary to what one might think, many ARE employed (Laird, 2007; Gaetz & O’Grady, 2002), they may rent motel rooms, move into rooming houses, or with friends, temporarily. Others will sleep "rough" in parks, along alleyways, on rooftops, or under bridges. Most people who are homeless move through a variety of temporary and unstable living situations, which makes generating income, maintaining health, keeping safe, nurturing healthy relationships and obtaining permanent housing extremely challenging.

Many people will say that homelessness has been with us forever, and that the problem is not really new.  While it is undoubtedly true that throughout history and in different societies, there have often been people who are homeless, this is not the same thing as saying that homelessness has been around forever.  Many researchers now recognize that our current homelessness problem really accelerated in the latter part of the 20th century (Hulchanski, et al. 2009).   And this was not because more people decided to become homeless.  It was a direct result of increasing levels of poverty resulting from the restructuring of our economy coupled with profound changes in government policy (Snow, 2008; Falvo, 2009).  This has led to growing numbers of people ending up on the streets or in emergency shelters because they lacked access to safe, affordable housing.

Homelessness, then, is not defined strictly by an absolute lack of shelter (though this is the most obvious manifestation of it), but rather by the intersection of a range of social exclusionary factors that exacerbate poverty, limit opportunities and create barriers to full participation in society. Real political solutions to homelessness rest not only in addressing the inadequate supply of affordable housing in Canada, but also in improving income security, equitable access to health care supports (including mental health and addictions) and justice, for example.

Stephen Gaetz, (2009)
Backgrounder:  “What is homelessness?”
Homeless Hub – Educational Resources.  
York University

Additional Reading:
To explore first hand accounts of the lives of people who have experienced homelessness, visit the Homeless Hub's Experiences section

For more information on the following subjects, check out these Homeless Hub Topics:
-    Homelessness
-    Causes of homelessness
-    Definitions, Estimates and Report Cards
-    Demography and Characteristics of Homelessness
-    Social Exclusion
-    Discrimination

Publication Date: