UNDERSTANDING HOMELESSNESS: DEFINING TERMS by Andy Wiggins

When it comes to defining what it means to be homeless, this seems like a no-brainer. The truth is it is not that easy. From top to bottom, those who work regularly with the homeless and those who study homelessness struggle to determine what makes someone homeless. Case in point: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as:

“People who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or exiting an institution where they temporarily resided,”

The Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) states their definition as:

“An individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

The definitions share similarities, but the disparities are there. One department states that anyone without a permanent residence is homeless and one states that as long as a person is in a place, even if that is a night-to-night shelter, that person is not homeless. The Department of Education defines homelessness differently than either of those two departments.


The trouble with this inconsistency in definitions is it leads to eschew numbers in counting the homeless and understanding where the homelessness problems are located in the United States. It also causes problems in understanding how those numbers look now compared to last year. When the department that oversees the provision of shelters for those experiencing homelessness and the development of affordable housing (HUD) defines homelessness in broader terms than the department that is charged with health and human welfare (HHS), there can be a lot of problems. Add to that, the Department of Education using yet another definition, when the fastest growing demographic of those becoming homeless or in imminent danger of homelessness are those under the age of eighteen.

While the final authority on that definition lies with HUD, there is an incongruent understanding of what homelessness looks like in the United States today. The homeless population is notoriously difficult to track no matter what definition we use. Many of them, by nature, are transient and then there is the problem that we face here in Obion County of what is known as the “hidden homeless”. As we have already shared, most of us, when picturing someone who is homeless, picture someone who lives under an overpass, doesn’t bathe too often, if at all, and is probably begging for something with a sign on the side of the road. But the “hidden homeless” don’t look like this. Counting this group is challenging since most of these people find a place to stay for the night or for a short amount of time. The fact of the matter is these people who are couch-surfing to get by are often just as chronically homeless as those you picture when you hear the word “homeless.” They are just less visible.


We have already shared with you that homelessness happens at the same rate in rural areas as it does in urban areas, it just doesn’t present itself in the same ways. If we are defining homelessness in terms of living on the street or in a car, we will never understand rural homelessness. When we don’t understand the problem, we choose to remain ignorant of the problem. We can make an effort when it comes to homelessness in Obion County, but we have to understand what it means to be homeless and what the real problems are and how we can help and that more times than not, the easy answer (such as a hand out) isn’t the right answer.

(Andy Wiggins is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Obion County, Tennessee.  He is also a facilitator for Project HOPE which is a juvenile delinquency prevention program sponsored by The Bridge.)

Next week:  “Homeless in Obion County:  Real Stories”

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