What Is Homelessness?

What Is Homelessness?

by Rudy Mitchell, Senior Researcher

Life can be destabilizing for those who don’t have a permanent place to live.

To address local homelessness, we need a clear picture of whom we seek to help. You may be surprised by who qualifies as part of the homeless population. What follows is an overview of how homelessness is defined in the U.S.

Pine Street Inn , New England's largest homeless shelter in Boston

Pine Street Inn, New England's largest homeless shelter in Boston

Who Defines Homelessness in the US?

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Definitions of homelessness vary due to differing political and program purposes:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a somewhat narrow and precise definition aimed at determining eligibility for housing assistance.

  • Advocates for homeless programs often have broader definitions to access more care resources.

  • People and programs seeking to prevent homelessness among at-risk people include in their definition people who are in unstable or irregular housing. For example, some definitions include families who are doubled up or people sleeping on couches, both of whom are without permanent housing.

  • Health centers most often use the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) definition in providing health services.


Homelessness in Detail

For a quick look at the practical realities, observe the precise way HUD defines a state of homelessness. The HUD definition includes four qualifying situations: 

  1. “An individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (including people who are sleeping in a car, a park, abandoned building, station, or who are sleeping in a shelter, transitional housing, or motel paid for by government or charitable organization).

  2. “An individual or family imminently (within 14 days) losing (being evicted from) their primary nighttime residence with no subsequent residence identified and the household lacks the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.”

  3. “People, including unaccompanied youth or families with children and youth, with persistent housing instability evidenced by several characteristics.”

  4. “Any individual or family who is fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other life-threatening conditions, and has no other residence or resources to obtain other permanent housing.”


Not all Homelessness is created equal

The experience of homelessness follows many paths and forms, and each person has a unique story. But Kuhn et al. have identified three main types of experiences in the US.

Shelter Guests by Life Situation

Data from Kuhn, R. and D.P. Culhane, Applying Cluster Analysis to Test a Typology of Homelessness by Pattern of Shelter Utilization: Results from the Analysis of Administrative Data. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1998. 26(2): p. 207-32.
  1. Transitional Homelessness — an individual spends a short time in a shelter before transitioning into permanent housing 

  2. Episodic Homelessness — an individual who is frequently in and out of shelters and stays for a short time

  3. Chronic Homelessness — an individual who has been homeless for 12 consecutive months or has had four or more episodes of homelessness totaling 12 months over three years and has a disability. In Boston, chronic shelter guests are even lower, only about 6%.  But the chronic homeless typically use half of all shelter days over the course of a year.


Take Action to End Homelessness

According to U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, ending homelessness is achieved when individuals who fall into homelessness experience it as a brief crisis and quickly move forward on a path to housing.

"We believe that better cooperation amongst churches and community organizations could better serve the current need," writes Rev. Cynthia Hymes-Bell of EGC's Starlight Ministry. "Our vision is that every church and Christian group in Greater Boston who wants to engage people affected by homelessness will be equipped to do so wisely."