It is easier to understand "homelessness" by taking a minute to define "home."
Most of us associate "home" with these essential things:
We have a space of our own that is considered to belong to us. We may
not have a whole house or a whole apartment or even a whole room, but we
have our own space.
It is secure: we know where we are going to sleep tonight; we know that
"home" is going to be there when we get there.
It is safe. Although no safety is perfect, we have a way to lock our
home, to control who comes in when we are there and when we aren't. We can
leave our belongings at home and have a reasonable expectation of finding
them safe when we get back.
We are sheltered from rain and cold. We have means to warm ourselves.
We have a bed.
We have a way to store and prepare food.
We have hot and cold running water, a toilet, and a shower or bathtub
to wash ourselves.
We can come and go at our own choice.
What is homelessness?
Someone is "homeless" when they do not have a place to live that is like
what we just described as "home."
The obvious "homeless people" are those who are sleeping on the street, in
doorways and alleys, on park benches or behind bushes.
Camping out by choice is not "homelessness" because you have a place to live,
you just choose not to use it -- temporarily or long term.
Someone staying in a homeless shelter, a tent, an abandoned building, or
a friend's unfinished basement is still homeless. This is called "substandard
Even "couch surfing," or staying with a series of friends or family, may
qualify as homelessness if you have no choice, no privacy, no place that is
"yours", or you're uncertain how long each couch is available.
Federal Definition of "homeless":
The official definition of "Homeless person, child or youth" includes,
but is not limited to, any of the following:
An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime place
An individual who has a primary nighttime place of abode that is:
a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide
temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate
shelters, and transitional housing);
an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals
intended to be institutionalized; or
a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as
a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.
The Hidden Definitions
There are other elements of homelessness not covered in these definitiions.
Your existence is ignored in droves.
You are cut off from most social activities of housed people
Implied age regression
Many of the people you have to deal with to get out of homelessness treat
you as a child, and probably a rather slow child