Definitions and Rates of Homelessness


Homelessness is a serious deprivation of housing, as well as access to social, economic and cultural rights. However, this definition of homelessness is not enough to capture the full experience of homeless people, who have also experienced a loss of social connection, and may be experiencing discrimination and other forms of social exclusion.

A number of international agencies, governments, researchers or civil society have adopted a variety of definitions of homelessness. These differ according to the language used, socioeconomic conditions, cultural norms, the groups affected and the purpose for which homelessness is being defined.

The United States defines homelessness as the lack of a permanent, stable place to live. This includes those who have no fixed, regular place to stay, such as those sleeping in streets, cars or canyons; individuals living in shelters, hotels, and “couch surfers” (people temporarily staying with friends or family); and families whose housing has become unaffordable or unsafe.

In addition, the United States recognizes the right to housing as a basic human right, which must be protected and upheld by government. As a result, the State must provide adequate housing and other forms of social assistance to ensure that everyone within its jurisdiction is able to enjoy this right.

Counts and Rates of Homelessness

Each year, cities across the nation conduct point-in-time counts, which are an unduplicated count of all individuals in a community on a single night. These numbers are used by many organizations that receive federal funding to assist the homeless.

While these numbers can be a rough approximation, they do give a good idea of the number of homeless individuals in a given area at any one time. They are useful for identifying trends and comparing regions.

These numbers can help communities identify which services are most effective at reducing homelessness. In addition, they can be used to locate the areas that are experiencing the most significant challenges and to direct additional attention – including new resources – towards them.

A growing public awareness of homelessness has led to a shift in the way the homeless population is identified. While formerly, homeless individuals were almost always visible on streets, the number of people who are now “hidden” has also increased significantly. This population is often young people who have experienced a sudden catastrophic life change, trauma or challenges.

This group, called “hidden homeless,” typically doesn’t have the same access to services as those who are a part of the mainstream homeless population. In addition, they are often more likely to be harassed or discriminated against when seeking assistance and are often more difficult to track.

Special Populations

Historically, policymakers and practitioners at every level of government have focused special attention on certain populations and subpopulations of homeless people. These populations include veterans, chronically homeless people, children, and people with disabilities. Although the number of people who are homeless in each of these subpopulations is generally small, these groups continue to suffer high rates of homelessness and are among the most vulnerable in the country.