V anderbilt u niversity Center for Community Studies


Definitions of Homelessness



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Definitions of Homelessness

Perhaps due to the diverse causes, contexts, and results of homelessness, there are a variety of available definitions. According to the original McKinney Act, a person is homeless if they lack, “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” or sleep in, “a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings," as well as those sleeping in shelters for the homeless (quoted in Burt, 2003). Although this definition captures the essence of homelessness, government agencies needed a more specific definition that was easier to operationalize in order to categorize people for services. Therefore, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness defined chronic homelessness as "an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years" (2003).

Although narrowing the scope of homelessness to chronic homelessness makes operationalizing the definition easier, it obscures many people on the streets and denies purely economic homelessness. This problematic definition leaves out at least half of the homeless population and de-emphasizes families, youth, and children. The 2003 U.S. Conference of Mayors’ survey determined that 40 % of the homeless population is made up of families with children and that 5% of the urban homeless population are unaccompanied minors (Mayor's Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness , 2004). According to the Metropolitan Health Department of Nashville and Davidson County (1998) report on homelessness, 60% of respondents were experiencing homelessness for the first time and 20% were experiencing homelessness for the second time. Unless these periods are especially long (over one year), the majority of Nashville's homeless do not meet the definition for chronically homeless. Additionally, people that are homeless purely due to economic hardship would not qualify for this definition as they have no “disabling condition.”




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