What is homelessness?

What is homelessness?

This is an important 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, daily harassment by passers by, 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” (Dolbeare, 1996).

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) - working in collaboration with national, regional and local stakeholders - has developed a Canadian Definition of Homelessness.  This common definition provides all levels of government, community groups and researchers with a framework for understanding and describing homelessness, and a means for identifying goals, strategies and interventions, as well as measuring outcomes and progress.

Homelessness as a problem

It is important to distinguish the individual and personal experiences of those who lose their housing, from homelessness as a broader societal problem.

The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion refers to the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and support are in place so that all people, even in crisis situations, have access to housing. The goal of ending homelessness is to ensure housing stability, which means people have a fixed address and housing that is appropriate (affordable, safe, adequately maintained, accessible and suitable in size), and includes required services as needed (supportive), in addition to income and supports. (CHRN, 2012: 1)

This distinction is important because while individuals and families will undoubtedly continue to experience crises that result in their becoming homeless, the problem of homelessness is something that we, as a society, can address. Canada has long been home to people experiencing poverty, and homeless people have always needed charitable services such as emergency shelters and soup kitchens. Yet, homelessness as a social ‘problem’ has emerged only in the last two decades. Changes in our economy and housing market, as well as significant shifts in policies addressing poverty, have contributed to the homelessness crisis across the country. 

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 and 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, 2008Falvo, 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, (2014), Backgrounder: “What is homelessness?”, York University