What is homelessness?
Living in a world of increasing inequality, we’ve come to accept the sight of BMWs idling next to panhandlers as normal. Most have learned to drive by unaffected, assuming the money that passes out the window will go to drugs and alcohol. This is the widespread view of homelessness, though as it turns out, it’s quite narrow.
So what is homelessness? Debra Devignes of Homeless Veterans of America Fund (HVAF) defines being homeless as “having no fixed permanent residence.” This umbrella category serves as a good platform from which to launch a greater question.
What does homelessness look like? Director of Development, Mike Elliott of Outreach Indiana explains homelessness as a spectrum, along which there are four major classifications.
1. Chronic – living “on the streets” without shelter, Elliott says that this is more of the stereotypical idea of homelessness. “You wouldn’t even need to go and see it because you can imagine it,” Elliot said, “You might even call them survivalists, because for some of them, that’s what they want to do.”
2. Sheltered – living in or in between shelters. Communications and Events Manager, Kara Hanley of Outreach Indiana explains the struggle with shelter life, “In a homeless shelter, especially when winter contingency happens, everybody is kind of shoved in there, there’s not a lot room, [and] there’s not a lot of space.”
3. Couch surfing – taking temporary shelter with friends and family members. “You can have more control, you may be with someone you kind of know, so you don’t feel like you’re in a homeless world,” Elliott said.
4. Transitional housing – Taking temporary residence in federally funded or grant sponsored housing. “The criteria [for section 8 housing] is such a difficult one… because as soon as you start making some money then you lose that, the gap between owning your own [housing] and the transitional is very wide,” Elliott said.
Classically, only the first type, though often the second type, was widely considered homelessness. This rides on the assumption that not having a home makes you homeless. On the contrary, “homelessness is less about someone having a roof over their head, and more about the stability of the roof,” Elliott said.
Posed as a question, how easily could you study for tests, focus in school or at work, or carry on your daily routine if you were busy thinking about where you or your children could sleep safely that night?
Therefore, I suggest that more completely, homelessness is the condition of an unstable residence, such that immediate needs go unmet or daily routines are inhibited.