What is homelessness?

York University
January 12, 2015
Categories: Topics

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 Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) - 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.

This post is part of our new Monday - Topics in Homelessness blog series. Every Monday we will be featuring a new topic.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.