What is the Actual Definition of Homeless?

SARA lives in a single residence occupancy motel in downtown San Francsico. Read her story here.

SARA lives in a single residence occupancy motel in downtown San Francsico. Read her story here.

In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States. Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, and 362,163 are individuals. About 15 percent of the homeless population – 84,291 - are considered "chronically homeless” individuals, and about 9 percent of homeless people- 49,933 - are veterans.  [source]

What does it mean to be homeless - living in a shelter? Sleeping on a friends couch? A family living in supportive housing? Often government and local organizations have varying definitions of what homelessness is, which impacts how they structure their program funding. This includes when someone is literally sleeping on the street to someone who might be one paycheck away from losing their home, to someone who is fleeing from a domestic violence situation. [source].

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for creating strong, sustainable, inclusive communities, fair housing opportunities and quality affordable homes for everyone. They have an expanded definition of homelessness that spans individuals to families and youth:

  • A person who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence which includes sleeping in a public place, a car, a camp ground

  • A person or family living in a shelter supported by governmental or  charitable programs - also includes hotels.

  • A person or family who is officially losing their home and have no permanent place to go, they are considered at-risk and homeless.

  • For unaccompanied youth and families, when there is consistent instability in where they are sleeping at night.

You can read the full definitions here.

Without a permanent home, you are considered to be experiencing homelessness which includes couchsurfing, staying in a hotel or shelter, or sleeping in your car. For some organizations they consider those ‘doubling up’, or multiple families living in one space highly at-risk of becoming homeless.

Homelessness is a different experience for everyone, from where it begins to where it ends. It also means that people need different kinds of help. From the National Alliance of Ending Homelessness, they define four groups of homelessness to better understand the needs:

  • Families: One financial crisis - a medical emergency or death in the family - can force a family into homelessness. Most homeless families are able to bounce back quickly with relatively little public assistance. Usually, homeless families require rent assistance, housing placement services, job assistance, and other short-term, one-time services before being able to return to independence and stability.

  • Youth: Young people often become homeless due to family conflict, including divorce, neglect, or abuse. For many youth identifying LGBTQ are unable to stay in their homes once they express their identity. There is little firm data on this group as youth generally don’t enter into standard assistance programs. It also means service providers need to innovate on how they can access help.

  • Veterans: Veterans often become homeless due to war-related disabilities and find readjusting to civilian life difficult because of things like physical disability, mental anguish, post-traumatic stress. Difficulties readjusting can lead to dangerous behaviors, including addiction, abuse, and violence - all which can lead to homelessness. Preventive measures, including job placement services, medical services, housing assistance, can mitigate the risk of veterans becoming homeless.

  • Chronic Homelessness: This is often what you picture in your head when you think about homelessness. "Chronic" means either long-term and/or repeated bouts of homelessness coupled with disability (physical or mental). People experiencing chronic homelessness often end up living in shelters and need supportive assistance to stay stable.

Ready for a myth buster? People believe that this chronic group represents most of our homeless population, but really those experiencing chronic homelessness are less than 15% of the entire homeless population.

You may pass by others in your community every day without realizing they are experiencing a form of homelessness. Understanding what being homeless means is the first step toward having compassion for our neighbors in need. You can help someone experiencing homeless right now on HandUp.org by donating directly toward their basic needs.

More Reading