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(Re)defining Homelessness

As November is National Homeless Awareness Month, the UPholdings team thought it’d be a good idea to take a closer look at what ‘homelessness’ means. At a fundamental level, homeless means not having a home, but that simple definition becomes more nuanced the more we examine it. What should we consider a ‘home’? A car, a relative’s couch, an emergency shelter? If someone’s home is under threat, should that person be considered homeless? Are there differentiations within the ‘homeless’ population that are worth making, especially in the context of housing programs?

In our work with government agencies, advocacy groups, service providers, and funding entities, we come across quite a few different definitions of ‘homeless’ and ‘homelessness’. According to HUD’s final rule on the definition of ‘homeless’, published in 2011, the term can be defined as follows:

i. Individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and includes a subset for an individual who resided in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided;

ii. Individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence;

iii. Unaccompanied youth and families with children and youth who are defined as homeless under other federal statutes who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this definition; and

iv. Individuals and families who are fleeing, or are attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.

HUD’s definition of homelessness is one of the broadest in the industry. It includes, for example, persons at risk of becoming homeless, as well as allows for broad definitions of terms such as ‘adequate nighttime residence’ and ‘place[s] not meant for human habitation’. While most agencies and public entities follow HUD’s definition in some form, it is fairly common practice for such entities to add clarifications and qualifications that narrow that definition somewhat.

For example, California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (‘HCD’) clarifies that an inadequate nighttime residence includes places such as ‘a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground’. HCD also establishes that the risk of imminent loss of residence must mean that such residence will be lost within 14 days (as of the date of a financial application), with no subsequent residence identified.

While these clarifications may result in narrower definitions of the term, they may not be necessarily intended as a limitation on who counts as ‘homeless’ and who doesn’t. The adoption of a more specific definition can be the result of an effort to better monitor the compliance of housing projects funded through one of HCD’s programs, or to remove ambiguity for property managers and referral agencies during the lease up process. At the same time, some programs may deliberately seek to restrict the definition of ‘homeless’ so as to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals are being prioritized. In its Permanent Supportive Housing Framework, the Ohio Interagency Council on Homelessness and Affordable Housing notes that:

“At-risk of homelessness is defined as a household at risk of losing its housing when no appropriate subsequent housing options have been identified AND the household lacks the financial resources and support networks needed to obtain immediate housing. The source of this definition is modified from HUD’s Homeless Prevention Rapid Re-housing Program; Program Notice, 6/8/09 (It was noted that the HPRP threshold is low intentionally to allow for intervention but there was concern voiced that using this might lead to less needy people being selected for PSH over more needy individuals).”

The note on HUD’s definition including an intentionally low threshold makes sense from a project perspective – our developments are often subject to a number of overlapping restrictions regarding tenant selection; HUD’s definition being broad allows for other funders and partners to impose stricter definitions that are more closely tailored to the locality, or to the specific goals of the project.

Speaking to the variation that exists among housing initiatives in terms of what they are trying to achieve, related terms are sometimes used to target either narrower or broader populations than those described by HUD’s definition of ‘homeless’. ‘Chronic homelessness’ is a term frequently used to describe persons who are both homeless and living with a disability, and who have been experienced homeless for an extended period of time. ‘At-risk of homelessness’, as we have seen above, can allow for a broader definition, where a ‘preventive’ framework is used to target those persons who, but for the intervention of a housing initiative, would end up homeless in the near term.

In conclusion, ‘homeless’ is by no means an easily defined word, and as housing initiatives and interventions become more nuances, these definitions grow in importance. By using the right definition, a housing provider, funding agency or regulatory body can ensure that the most vulnerable folks are being assisted, that no one is unnecessarily being left out of a critical housing program, and that scarce housing resources are being applied efficiently.

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