What is homelessness?
There are different ways of thinking about homelessness and there are various ways of defining it that people have used for different situations or points of view. When we stop to think about it we may have an idea in our minds of what homelessness ’looks’ like, but in reality there are many different kinds of homeless people with different kinds of problems. It can be difficult, therefore, to get broad agreement on just what being homeless really is.
Why is it important to define homelessness?
It is important that there is some agreement on what people think of as homelessness because, for one reason, local councils have a responsibility to provide a service to homeless people and they need to be able to decide which people they are going to include. Another reason is because there may be other organisations, Shelter for example, that want to help out homeless people and they also need to know just who it is they are going to offer their support too. A third reason is because when housing providers such as housing associations are trying to decide how they will prioritise who to give housing too, they are more likely to give a home to someone who is legally homeless.
The legal viewpoint of homelessness
In UK law, a person is homeless if they have no home which they are entitled to occupy, or, if they have a home in which to live but it is not considered reasonable for them to live in it. The law recognises an important point here: just because somebody has a home to go to does not mean that it is safe, or appropriate, for them to live there. This is what is often termed ‘hidden homelessness’ and we’ll come back to this shortly.
Another important point to make about the legal definition is that it is ‘subjective’ – it allows the person using it to decide on a person-by-person basis whether their situation can be called homelessness. This is sometimes good because if the law was defined too tightly then it may exclude some people who need help. On the other hand, it can be thought of as a bad thing because somebody, or an organisation, may say that they do not think a person is really homeless and refuse to help them even though they may really need it.
A useful way of thinking about hidden homelessness and the different types of homelessness is by using ETHOS (the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion). In ETHOS there are four types:
- Rooflessness – sleeping without shelter of any kind. This is the general public perception of what it means to be homeless.
- Houselessness – this is where someone has a place to sleep but it is likely to be in a shelter, hostel or institution of some kind.
- Living in insecure housing – this is where a person has an insecure tenancy on a home, is threatened with eviction or domestic violence. They are at risk of soon becoming ‘roofless’ or ‘houseless’.
- Living in inadequate housing – those who are living in caravans on illegal campsites, in unfit housing or extreme overcrowding. For example, in the UK many houses for asylum seekers or European migrant workers are overcrowded with people sharing beds and floor space.
By using these different types of homelessness it can help us to talk about the different ways in which somebody may be living without a home of their own, or to describe the way in which they are at risk of becoming homeless.
How else can we think about homelessness?
As part of a housing career
Some people have argued that we should not think about homelessness as a situation that a person finds themselves stuck in and which remains unchanged over time. It can be more useful to think of it as a housing career or pathway much in the same way that we may think about a career in work. This is because for many people homelessness is only temporary and alternates with periods of time where they are living in a home of some kind.
Whose responsibility? The individual v society
There is an important argument as to what degree being homeless is seen as the fault of the individual person, and how much it is seen as a social problem and the result of larger structural factors. These factors may include poor wages for unskilled labourers, difficulty in getting a mortgage to buy a house, or simply high rates of unemployment. This is a very important argument because different politicians will hold different views on this and it will affect the ways in which homeless people are helped to better their situation.
As a spectrum of housing issues
By using the types of homelessness as discussed above, it is useful in recognising that there are ‘new’ homeless such as women and families, youth, the elderly and migrant and ethnic groups. This can be added to what we already think of as the homeless people who are visible to the general public such as those who populate town centres. Talking about types of homelessness can be more descriptive and recognises the different kinds of problems better than simply using the term ‘hidden homeless’ too – although some people think that it may be more appropriate to talk about people who are in ‘severe housing need’ rather than as homeless.
Homelessness as the cause or the effect of other problems
Homelessness is often associated with a range of other problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, and mental health problems. But do people become homeless because they are already struggling with these problems? Some people have argued that these problems only develop after someone has become homeless. For example, if someone is sleeping rough they may use alcohol or drugs because it makes the experience more tolerable. Also, living on the streets may mean a person encounters people who will take advantage of them and this may make them suspicious and paranoid and unable to have normal relationships with others – a personality disorder may develop because it is adaptive to their environment and circumstances. This goes against the idea that people end up on the streets because they are alcoholics or because they have mental health problems.
General improvements in housing conditions
Over time most people in the UK will have experienced a higher standard of living and may be wealthier than previous generations. We may have higher expectations of what should be available to people and this means that we are less ready to accept poor housing conditions and homelessness.
Similarly, homelessness is perceived differently in different countries, regions and cultures. We have an expectation in the UK that people will be housed in some sort of house, flat or other structural building which requires permanent occupation. In other places, where the way of life is different or where people need to move around a lot more, it may be more acceptable to live in temporary dwellings such as vehicles or tents, without being considered homeless.
This concludes this page on the definitions and ways of thinking about homelessness. It is intended to give the reader an introduction to some of the relevant issues and to unravel some of the complexities and why they are important. If anything relevant been missed, please leave a comment and we’ll get it added on.