Homeless teen on street

The Different Types of Homelessness

Jun 22, 2020

Homelessness typically refers to a person who does not have a place to stay overnight. But that definition doesn’t break down the myriad of ways that homelessness actually presents in our communities. In fact, there are different categories of homelessness that can help us better understand what it actually is.

How is Homelessness Defined?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development keeps a list of definitions of homelessness to help those who work with homeless populations find the proper resources for clients. 

Literally Homeless. A person who is literally homeless does not have a fixed nighttime residence and instead might sleep overnight in a temporary shelter or place not meant for human habitation. 

Imminent Risk of Homelessness. A person at imminent risk of homelessness will soon lose their primary nighttime residence, doesn’t have another place to go, and doesn’t have the resources to get another residence.

Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes. These individuals include youth or families with youth who haven’t had permanent housing in the last two months, have unstable housing, and have needs or barriers that will prevent them from accessing housing.

Fleeing or Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence. A person fleeing domestic violence who has no other residence and doesn’t have resources to obtain permanent housing.

These definitions help workers document and determine the care needed for homeless clients.

What are the Categories of Homelessness?

Homelessness definitions can be further broken down into categories based on the amount of time an individual has been homeless. 

Chronic Homelessness. A person who has been homeless for more than a year or has had frequent episodes of homelessness within the last couple of years. Most frequently they suffer from long-term health conditions such as mental illness, substance use disorders, disabilities, or medical conditions. Lack of healthcare access can make these conditions worse. 

Episodic Homelessness. A person who has on-and-off periods of homelessness in their life or has been homeless three times or more within the last year. Like chronic homelessness, many who are episodically homeless struggle with medical issues, mental illness, or substance use disorders. 

Transitional Homelessness. A person who is homeless for a short time because of a crisis or unforeseen event. They often enter shelters or temporary housing for a single stay. This is the most common type of homelessness.

What Causes People to Become Homeless?

Homelessness isn’t a choice. And, it isn’t caused by just one thing. In fact, people might find themselves homeless due to multiple circumstances, that when combined, result in the loss of housing. Low paying jobs, financial troubles, childhood trauma, world events, personal crises, and domestic violence are just some of the things that can push a person towards homelessness.

At a macroscopic level, homelessness is a structural problem caused by poverty and lack of affordable housing. This explanation, while simple, glosses over the myriad of nuances in this conversation. From racism to societal judgment of those with mental illness, homelessness isn’t just about not being able to afford or secure housing. 

While extreme poverty is often what people think of as the primary reason people are homeless, another is a lack of housing resources. The available housing options and services are far fewer than the number of individuals in need. People with low incomes often find that it is hard to secure housing because of the long waitlists and excessive requirements associated with affordable housing. While there is a definite gap between those who need services and those who get them, programs like Guild continue to work hard to ensure that individuals and families in need have options.

How Can I Help?

Homelessness is a complex issue with many intersecting issues. One way to get involved is by volunteering or donating to Guild. Our housing services help people find, get, and keep housing. You can learn more about our housing services here.



Homelessness in America, National Coalition for the Homeless. 

The Many Forms of Homelessness, JOIN. 

Homelessness Definition, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

HUD’s Definition of Homelessness: Resources and Guidance, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The New Homelessness Revisited, Annual Review of Sociology. 

Chronically Homeless, National Alliance to End Homelessness.