Who counts as homeless? And is it time to educate the public about the expansive definition of homelessness?
Homelessness means more than just the state of not having a home. It is a nuanced condition that can take many forms depending on its cause.
Homelessness or houselessness is the absence of housing that is safe, reliable and sufficient for basic human needs. Depending on where you are in the country, or the entity defining this population, people can be determined as homeless if they are visibly living in areas that are not designated for human occupancy, lacking a permanent address, couch surfing and relying on the mercy of others for shelter.
Some definitions might include individuals who are hoping between housing facilities that do not offer a reliable right to occupancy, escaping unsafe living conditions, and even those escaping harmful prosecution and threats.
Homelessness can have primary, secondary, and tertiary categorizations. When we rely on primary definitions, we depend solely on what we can see…in fact what is obvious. But what we know about homelessness is that it transcends what is visible.
Children, single adults, families, employed people, and many facing complex health conditions occupy all categorizations. In order to have a fuller view of who is homeless, we need not determine homelessness from the perspective of the help we can offer them. If we choose to see homelessness for what it is, we can attract more people to reach out for solutions that will not have implications on their status in society.
To this end, broad solutions such as fruit bearing trees, full bathrooms at key public locations, filtered water fountains at parks, and occasional free transit rides to medical facilities can open the door to many people who might be experiencing homelessness.
This approach could catch students who are enrolled but struggling to pin down a place to stay. Adults who are in between jobs and trying to settle down would benefit from assistance without having to fall further into despair before they are recognized as being homeless.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homeless as including “a person who has no place to go, no resources to obtain housing”. The entity places timelines such as evicted within a week, being discharged within a week from an institution and having no place to go or fleeing abuse and violence in their primary residence.
Our ability to expand definitions allows us to see homeless as it plays out in the dorn world.
Few things are black and white when it comes to housing and access to it. The quality, state, and permanence play a significant role in how we make sense of housing and offer help. What is also important is educating the public about the varying levels of housing that they should look out for.
Many people wallow in pain and shame over housing instability. They blame themselves and do not believe they are worthy of help until they have lost everything and are visibly homeless and anyone who is bothered to look. But with the right information, they can apply for help to the right institutions and collaborate with existing structures in their lives to get back on their feet and find a pathway to secure housing.
In the true sense of the phrase, the more you know…the better you’ll do!
We have emphasized in the past that homelessness is gradual, rarely sudden. Along the way, informed individuals can begin identifying signs of instability. With the right information, they can know who to call, what to do, and what solutions are accessible to them. Knowledge can be the power they need to protect themselves and get on an alternative path to stable shelter.
This information is a form of civic education that should be offered to all. Children should learn of these definitions in social studies, public workers across the board should know where to refer members of the public should they identify them as being homeless, and community leaders should feel empowered to apply for the right assistance.
Much like in employment, expanded definitions lets us know who is at increased risk and our solutions can affect people further upstream to stop them from joining those in risky waters down the stream.
Is it more work? Yes
Does it require a significant investment at first? Absolutely
Would it be worth it? No doubt
If the number of homeless adults, children and families are anything to go by, we need a wider lens and easier access to information and resources. Too many people have been casualties of the pandemic, and many were pushed off the edge during the period. They deserve a chance at a stable life that is safe.
Definitions, therefore, are not just words. They are a guideline that we use to apply effort and put resources into action. So, the more we know, the more effective we will be at addressing homelessness.