Homelessness Definition

Homelessness may be defined as the condition of people who lack regular legal access to adequate housing.


Homelessness has been recognized as a significant social problem in the United States since the early 1980s, when a rapid increase in the number of homeless people was caused by a weak economy and cuts in federal aid for housing and income assistance. Other periods of increased homelessness also have occurred many times in history, including during the colonial era. Most other industrialized societies also have experienced increases in homeless populations in recent decades.

The Homeless Population

The number of homeless people in the United States has been a matter of considerable dispute. Advocates for the homeless claim that there are several million homeless people; however, recent studies suggest that the homeless number from 600,000 to 700,000. Precise numbers are impossible to collect because researchers define homelessness in different ways and because the homeless are transitory. The number of people predicted to become homeless in any given year is estimated to be three to five times the number of people who are homeless at any given moment. The U.S. Census Bureau attempted to count homeless people in the 1990 census. However, most analysts regard this attempt as a failure.

The homeless population is largely made up of adult men, but the proportion of women, children, and youth has steadily increased. This group now comprises more than 40 percent of the total homeless population. Most homeless people are also extremely poor and estranged from their families and other social networks. About one-third of the adult homeless are chronically mentally ill, and about half are alcoholic or abuse drugs. During the 1950s, most homeless people were older, white, alcoholic men associated with the rundown sections of cities known as skid rows. Today’s homeless, however, are mostly non-white; relatively young, with an average age in the middle 30s; and include a large number of women and children. About one-third of homeless men are veterans.

In addition to the homeless population, even larger numbers are considered marginally housed; they are in danger of becoming homeless because of poverty or inadequate housing. About half the nation’s poor households spend 70 percent or more of their monthly income on housing, which puts them at risk of becoming homeless if faced with an economic problem. Because the number of people living in poverty numbers some 37 million, the marginally housed would amount to nearly 20 million people, thus creating the potential for a vast increase in the size of the homeless population. Those who are housed only because they have been able to stay with family or friends are known as the hidden homeless.


Many reasons have been advanced to explain the dramatic increase in the number of homeless people in the 1980s and 1990s. The total poverty rate tended to increase throughout this period, and this was especially true in the inner city areas where most homeless people live. At the same time, the supply of low-income housing declined precipitously in some cities. Waiting lists for public housing are often many years long and increases in welfare payments have not kept pace with inflation. Among other factors implicated in the trend are changes in the treatment of the chronically mentally ill, drug use, the inability of some families to support dependent adult members, and an increasing rate of violence against women.

Programs for the Homeless in the United States

Nationwide, about three-quarters of help for the homeless comes from the private sector, principally from churches that run soup kitchens, operate shelters, and distribute free clothing. The main federal programs for the homeless are those established by the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. The McKinney Act established a nationwide network of health clinics for the homeless.

Among other things, the act also established adult education programs for the homeless, provided emergency homelessness prevention funds, and created a number of transitional housing programs. These programs have made the lives of many homeless people more tolerable, but they do not address the low-income housing crisis. Many analysts believe that the problem will be solved only by a renewed government commitment to construction of low-income housing.

Source: “Homelessness”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia

Homelessness Contents

Topics in the encyclopedia about Homelessness include:

  • Suburban Homelessness
  • Hidden Homelessness
  • History of Images of Homelessness in Narrative Film
  • Housing and Homelessness in Developing Nations
  • Contemporary Homeless Autobiography and Memoir
  • International Perspectives on Homelessness
  • Patterns of Homelessness
  • Homeless Assistance Services and Networks
  • Impact of Homelessness on Children
  • Images of Homelessness in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American Literature
  • Research on Homelessness: Overview
  • Causes of Homelessness: Overview
  • Prevention of Homelessness: Overview
  • Images of Homelessness in the Media
  • Rural Homelessness
  • Course of Homelessness
  • Homeless Court Program
  • Definitions and Estimates of Homelessness
  • National Resource Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness
  • Images of Homelessness in Contemporary Documentary Film
  • American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty
  • Homeless Populations
  • Literature on Homelessness
  • Urban Homelessness
  • History of Homelessness
  • National Alliance to End Homelessness
  • National Center on Family Homelessness
  • National Coalition for the Homeless
  • Causes of Homelessness
  • Populations of Homelessness
  • Health Issues of Homelessness
  • Organizations of Homelessness
  • Legal Issues, Advocacy, and Policy of Homelessness
  • Housing Issues of Homelessness
  • Service Systems and Settings of Homelessness
  • Lifestyle Issues of Homelessness
  • Vagrancy
  • Legal Advocacy
  • Food Programs
  • Disorders and Health Problems: Overview
  • Netherlands
  • Spain
  • Deindustrialization
  • Skid Row Culture and History
  • Great Depression
  • Hobo and Tramp Literature
  • Paris
  • Child Care
  • Cost-effectiveness Analysis
  • Public Opinion
  • Foster Care
  • Hiv and Aids
  • Nigeria
  • Transitional Housing
  • Tokyo
  • Homeless Organizing
  • Assertive Community Treatment (act)
  • Service Integration
  • Poorhouses
  • Photography
  • Child Support
  • Denmark
  • Japan
  • Chicago Skid Row
  • Sweden
  • African-americans
  • Houston
  • Survival Strategies
  • Indonesia
  • Germany
  • Gentrification
  • Mental Health System
  • Health Care
  • Women
  • Criminal Activity and Policing
  • Libraries: Issues in Serving the Homeless
  • Social Support
  • “housing First” Approach
  • Harm Reduction
  • Alcohol and Drugs
  • Marginality
  • Canada
  • Families
  • Service Utilization Research
  • Mobility
  • Stressful Life Events
  • Case Management
  • Family Separations and Reunifications
  • Fair Housing Laws
  • Homeless Youth
  • Latino(a)s
  • Street Newspapers
  • Trauma and Victimization
  • Ethnography
  • Parenting
  • Street Youth and Violence
  • Veterans
  • Program Evaluation Research
  • Zimbabwe
  • Single-room Occupancy Hotels
  • Housing Interventions
  • Prostitution
  • Hunger and Nutrition
  • Affordable Housing
  • Cuba
  • London
  • United Kingdom
  • Municipal Lodging Houses
  • Copenhagen
  • Montreal
  • Sydney
  • Australia
  • Deinstitutionalization
  • The Bowery
  • Russia
  • Bangladesh
  • Epidemiology
  • Mental Illness and Health
  • Social Welfare Policy and Income Maintenance
  • Egypt
  • Toronto
  • New York City
  • Rural United Kingdom
  • Clinical Interventions
  • Self-help Housing
  • Safe Havens
  • Low-income Housing
  • France
  • Brazil
  • Continuum of Care
  • Boston
  • Shelters
  • St. Louis
  • Mumbai (bombay)
  • Minneapolis and St. Paul
  • Education of Children
  • Calcutta
  • Dallas
  • Older Homeless Persons
  • U.s. Federal Legislation, Programs, and Policies
  • Italy
  • Washington, D.c.
  • Urban Encampments
  • Workhouses
  • Corporation for Supportive Housing
  • South Africa
  • Outreach
  • Soup Kitchens
  • Work on the Streets
  • Nairobi
  • Philadelphia
  • Abeyance Theory
  • Los Angeles
  • Liminality
  • Panhandling
  • Poverty
  • Associations and Organizations
  • Cinema
  • Media
  • Religion
  • Housing
  • Missions
  • Asia
  • Men
  • Latin America
  • Children
  • Africa
  • Street Life
  • Almshouses
  • Association of Gospel Rescue Missions
  • European Network for Housing Research
  • Goodwill Industries International
  • Homeless International
  • International Network of Street Newspapers
  • International Union of Tenants
  • Wilder Research Center
  • Bombay
  • Feantsa
  • Salvation Army
  • Un-habitat
  • Urban Institute

See Also

Social Policy
Housing Legislation

Hierarchical Display of Homelessness

Social Questions > Social affairs > Social problem
Economics > National accounts > Income > Distribution of income > Poverty
Law > Rights and freedoms > Social rights > Right to housing
Social Questions > Social protection > Welfare > Social facilities


Concept of Homelessness

See the dictionary definition of Homelessness.

Characteristics of Homelessness

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Translation of Homelessness

Thesaurus of Homelessness

Social Questions > Social affairs > Social problem > Homelessness
Economics > National accounts > Income > Distribution of income > Poverty > Homelessness
Law > Rights and freedoms > Social rights > Right to housing > Homelessness
Social Questions > Social protection > Welfare > Social facilities > Homelessness

See also

  • No fixed abode
  • Vagrancy
  • Without fixed abode