Understanding the Definition of “Homelessness”

by Phil York

Days ago, Oxford Dictionary accepted the popular term, “selfie” into the canon of the English language. Selfie (the act of extending your own smart phone ahead of you to take a self-portrait) is now part of our daily lexicon and day-to-day reality.

Definitions are important. They allow us to grasp our reality, place labels on items, and understand our world. This blog post will explore some of the definitions of homelessness. If we are to be informed citizens about homelessness laws, programs, and funding we need to understand how this important issue is defined.

Merriam-Webster defines homelessness as “having no place to live”. This simple description probably accurately reflects our common understanding of the issue, but it does not capture the variety of ways a person or family may experience homelessness. If we are going to work toward effective solutions, we need a more in depth understanding.

For example, in 2009, The City of Waco, along with a coalition of nonprofits and civic-minded leaders took steps to define and understand the long-term impact of one particular kind of homelessness, called “chronic homelessness. ” Chronic homelessness tends to be the kind of homelessness that is the most visible on our streets. Between 2008 and 2009, this group developed a report called “Opening Doors, Unlocking Potential: The Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” As the basis of this work, they used the federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness which, at that time, was the following: “an unaccompanied individual who has been homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, and who may be disabled by addiction, mental illness or other disabilities.” (Note: In that report, the City estimated the cost of the chronically homeless to be $39,000 per year, per individual).

Chronic homelessness, while probably the most visible and the most expensive form of homelessness, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle. It represents only a small percentage of all the individuals who are defined as “homeless” in our community. The United States Congress in conjunction with a few federal agencies collectively have different, and often overlapping, definitions for homelessness that are quite broad and may include populations we may not immediately recognize as homeless. For example, some people are considered homeless even though they technically have a roof over their head at night, if that roof is only temporary. In 2008 the US Congress defined a homeless person as “an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a temporary accommodation for not more than 90 days in the residence of another individual.” This definition includes coach surfers and others who may be housed by friends and family for a period of time.

The definition of homelessness used by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes four main categories:

  • Individuals and families that do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation”.
  • Individuals and families who are on the verge of losing their primary nighttime residence.
  • Unaccompanied youth.
  • Individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence or other dangerous life-threatening conditions.

Children are defined by several federal agencies as homeless if they:

  • Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations.
  • Live in emergency or transitional shelters.
  • Await foster care placement.
  • Live in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations or similar settings.
homelessness by age chart

Source: http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/faqs#youth

All these definitions can make it a challenge to pin down the demographics of homelessness, but according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 46% of the nation’s homeless are younger than the age of 30; 22% are under the age of 18. This large percentage may be why our federal leadership moved to include children as a separate homeless category. Homeless children are a particular concern in Waco. According to recent estimates 1,500 children in WISD are considered homeless. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a child to concentrate on school work while couch surfing or living in a shelter or camping out at a park.

Homelessness affects our social and economic fabric on the national, state and local scale. You may have been surprised to learn how broadly homelessness is defined in our country and that it includes individuals who are technically living under roofs, foster children, substandard housing residents, couch surfers, shelter attendees and those fleeing domestic assault. These definitions become significant on the local level as nonprofits, churches and private organizations work with federal, state and local programs to qualify individuals for homeless programs and services.

Hopefully a more in depth understanding of the definition of homelessness will help you have a little context for what you hear about homelessness on the news or the radio. It’s important for all of us to understand these definitions as we participate as citizens in discussions about budget amendments and policy changes, and especially as we cast our ballots. If you were to take a selfie now, you would capture a more informed Wacoan. I hope to build on our collective knowledge with each blog post.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to [email protected].  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email [email protected].


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