Why is it important to know what we mean by the word “homeless”? Who do we mean when we say, “homeless people”?

It’s important so that we can count how many people are experiencing these unfair conditions, so that we know how many people need help. It’s important that people know if they are considered homeless because that can mean the difference between getting help or not. And it’s important that services offering help all have the same idea of who is homeless so when people go around to use homeless services, they aren’t told that they’re “not homeless enough”.

Here’s the Canadian definition of homelessness, developed by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, which maintains the Homeless Hub website.

“The Homeless Hub defines homelessness as an extreme form of poverty characterized by the instability of housing and the inadequacy of income, health care supports and social supports (Homeless Hub, 2009) . This definition includes people who are absolutely homeless (those living on the streets, sometimes referred to as “rough sleepers”); shelter dwellers (people staying temporarily in emergency shelters or hostels); the “hidden homeless” (people staying temporarily with friends or family), and others who are described as under housed or “at risk” of homelessness.”

So, we can think of homelessness as being made up of a number of different situations. 

Under-housed/At-risk—describes someone who isn’t homeless yet, but whose financial and or housing situation is precarious (we mean “unstable” or dependant on something, for example. A ladder that’s stacked on a pile of books is unstable and dependant on the books, it’s precariously placed). At-risk also describes people who are staying in unsafe conditions where the house itself is falling down, or where the other people are dangerous / abusive.

The ‘Hidden Homeless’—describes people who are staying somewhere temporarily, without a way to guarantee long-term security. It doesn’t matter who you’re staying with, if it ain’t permanent, then you’re homeless. This includes couch surfing.

Emergency Shelter—describes people who are staying in the shelters that we often see downtown. Of course, there are others, like shelters for entire families, or abused women, or just women and children, some cities even have shelters that are just for LGBTQ2S+. In Ottawa, we also have shelters that are just for youth.

Unsheltered—or “street level homelessness”, which describes someone who is absolutely without shelter and living on the streets or in places that are not meant for humans to be sleeping, like storage lockers.

People often move in and out of these different ‘types’ of homelessness, so they may be in a shelter for a few days, then be on the street, then be couch surfing, then maybe find a rooming house to rent for a few months, then get kicked out and be on the streets again.