Defining Homelessness

Although defining the word ‘homeless’ appears at first to be a simple task, there is an underlying complexity in terms of who counts and who doesn’t.  That is, being homeless simply means to be without a home, but there are many ways that this is lived out within a Canadian context.  So how you define the phenomenon will determine the statistics that you obtain on it.  Although there is no disagreement that someone sleeping in a park, under a bridge, or in an alley is homeless (sometimes referred to as absolute homelessness, or sleeping rough), the following scenarios are less clear-cut: living in a shelter for homeless persons; living in a building not considered a home, such as a shed or abandoned building; living temporarily in someone else’s abode for which one may or may not be paying a rent (sometimes referred to as couch-surfing, relative homelessness, or proto-homelessness); living in a halfway house or substance treatment centre; or living in an apartment or house that one owns or pays rent for, but does not meet the minimal codes for an inhabitable shelter.

Another level of complexity is how quickly and how often these housing statuses can change over time, which is why many services also include those considered to be ‘at risk of’ homelessness’ within their scope.  This status-over-time dimension is why the Canadian Library of Parliament chooses three labels of ‘chronically homeless’, ‘cyclically homeless’, and ‘temporarily homeless’ to refine their definition of homelessness.  However, it seems somewhat disconcerting to label a person based on their past housing history in such a way that presumes what their future will be, such as cyclically versus temporarily homeless.

Defining homelessness can be a very political act, as how one defines the phenomenon will thus determine its scope.  And, it is often the quantitative scope of a problem that is used as the primary indicator of whether a reaction is necessary, rather than the qualitative nature of the experience.  Thus, if one wants to make an argument for the requirement of more services, one simply uses a broader definition, and vice versa.  A striking example of this was when Statistics Canada in their Census 2001 found that at the time of the census 14,145 persons were living in shelter.  However, this was a telephone survey of service providers, only covers those persons living in shelter, and only provides a figure for a single moment in time.  In contrast to this number, in the following year it was found that 31,985 people stayed in shelter at least once in the city of Toronto.  With Toronto representing 16% of the Canadian population at the time, and with only one of the living situations considered, one can begin to understand how the statistics can vary drastically both based on definition and methods of data collection.

For my own purposes, I use a definition of homelessness that includes both those who are absolutely homeless and those who are couch-surfing, in shelter, or any other situation that does not include owning or renting a place to live.

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