What is in a definition? Leading policy makers, service providers and researchers from across the country have long lamented the fact that Canada has no national definition of homelessness. The feeling has been that there is a need for an agreed upon definition of homelessness in order to provide all levels of government and community groups with a framework for understanding and describing homelessness, and a means of identifying goals, strategies and interventions, as well as measuring outcomes and progress.

This week, the Canadian Homelessness Research Network at York University officially launches the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. This definition, created through a collaborative community process, has now been endorsed by communities, researchers and governments across the country.

You might think, “What’s the big deal? Do we really need a definition? Isn’t it obvious what homelessness is? Well, at a certain level, I think we can all agree that people sleeping in parks or under bridges are homeless. However, you don’t have to move too far beyond that for things to get complicated. Is a young person who is sleeping on a friend’s couch because they were kicked out of their home, ‘homeless’? Is someone who is staying in a mental health facility, but who has no home to go to upon release homeless? These are important issues for policy makers and practitioners. In fact, the breadth and complexity of the issues underlying homelessness create a sense that the issue is unbounded, and difficult to get a handle on, particularly because many people suffer from similar individual and structural problems, but never become homeless. This can also create the ‘illusion’ that it is therefore difficult to solve.

A case can be made that addressing any complex problem cannot be done without first having a thorough understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. After all, you cannot measure the scope of the problem without first knowing who is and is not affected. This notion is precisely the challenge that faces all strategic initiatives aimed at addressing homelessness, and our lack of clarity about what counts and what does not gets in the way of creating comprehensive strategies to address homelessness, evaluate outcomes and progress, and share effective practices.

Check out the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Click here and you will find:

  • The Canadian Definition of Homelessness in both official languages;
  • A one-pager that includes an easy to use table;
  • “Making the case for the Canadian Definition of Homelessness”, which presents the utility of the definition; and
  • A background document that brings together the Canadian and international research on definitions of homelessness.

On this page, you will see a list of the many national, regional and local organizations that have officially endorsed the definition.

Finally, Canada joins other jurisdictions, including the United States, the European Union, and Australia in having a national definition to assist in developing effective solutions to homelessness.

Stephen GaetzProfessor & Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless HubYork University