Lesson 1, Topic 2
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Defining homelessness

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Homelessness means not having a safe, secure and permanent place of your own. It is a lack of housing but also much more than that. Homelessnesss is a severe form of social exclusion. It results from the failure of society to ensure there are adequate resources available so that all people have access to housing and supports, even in times of crisis. Homelessness is experienced by people young and old, of all genders, races and ethnicities. It affects individuals and families in urban centres, small towns and rural communities. It affects newcomers, migrants and refugees. Each of these populations have different experiences and need supports and services that are tailored to them.  Homelessness may be experienced by an individual as a crisis event, but it is an issue that impacts society as a whole. It is often viewed through the lens of personal failure but there are multiple factors that contribute to pathways into homelessness.

Why do we need a definition of homelessness? Here are some reasons why the definition is useful for researchers, practitioners and communities.

1) It gives us a common language for talking about the issue of homelessness.

2) It helps us measure progress and evaluate the outcomes of programs.

3) It gives us new ways of thinking about how to address homelessness.

4) It will lead to stronger policy responses.

The Canadian Definition of Homelessness

Homelessness describes the situation of an individual, family or community without stable, safe, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, unhealthy, unsafe, stressful and distressing (Gaetz et al., 2012, p. 1).

The goal of ending homelessness is to ensure housing stability where people have housing that is appropriate with a key and their name on the lease. Ending homelessness also means that people have adequate income, services and supports to enhance their well-being and reduce the risk that they will ever become homeless. This means focusing both on prevention and on sustainable exits from homelessness.

The definition recognizes that Indigenous Peoples (including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) are overrepresented in Canadian homeless populations as a result of colonization and cultural genocide. The Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada takes into consideration the historical, experiential, and cultural perspectives of Indigenous Peoples. It also recognizes the ongoing experience of colonization and racism as contributing factors to Indigenous homelessness.  

In addition, specific groups such as youth, women, families, people with mental health and/or addictions issues, people impacted by violence, seniors, veterans, immigrants, refugees, ethno-racial and racialized people, and members of LGBTQ2S communities experience homelessness due to a unique constellation of circumstances and as such the appropriateness of community responses has to take into account such diversity.

The definition was developed by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network in consultation with national, regional and local stakeholders. Read the full definition, learn how it was created and the reasons why a clear definition matters.

Read the Canadian Definition of Homelessness on the Homeless Hub.

Homelessness involves a range of physical living situations that people may experience. In addition, for many people, homelessness is a fluid experience where circumstances shift and change with frequency (Gaetz et al., 2012, p. 2).

The Canadian Definition of Homelessness describes four distinct experiences:

1) Unsheltered: living in places that are unsuitable for human habitation.

2) Emergency sheltered: living in overnight shelters intended for crises or those escaping violence.

3) Provisionally accommodated: individuals with temporary accommodation or accommodation that lacks tenancy or security.

4) At risk of homelessness: encompasses those who are not homeless but are in a precarious housing or economic situation.

Experiences of homelessness may also differ by duration. Chronic homelessness refers to individuals who are currently homeless and have been homeless for six months or more in the past year. Episodic homelessness refers to individuals, currently homeless, who have experienced three or more episodes of homelessness in the past year. Transitional homelessness refers to a single experience that is short-term, usually less than a month. 

Less than 20% of the homeless population experience chronic or episodic homelessness, but their experiences are often more severe. All experiences of homelessness are harmful, however, longer durations can have  serious consequences. We know from research that physical and mental health declines the longer a person is homeless. People are exposed to discrimination, violence and trauma. They may have encounters with police and can be put in jail. They may use substances to self-medicate and addictions can worsen. They are often socially isolated which can make it challenging to transition out of homelessness. 

There can be a range of different housing and homelessness circumstances that people experience at different times. They may transition from sleeping rough in cars or parks to sleeping in a shelter, then moving to housing, then staying with a friend and back to shelters.

  • Appropriate and adequate housing with secure tenancy
  • At imminent risk of eviction
  • Unable to pay housing expenses or afford rent or utilities
  • In substandard or overcrowded housing (no water/heat, unsanitary or unsafe)
  • Living with family or friends without paying rent (couch-surfing, doubling up)
  • Living with the threat of violence or abuse
  • Emergency homeless shelters
  • Transitional or supportive housing 
  • Hospital or prison
  • Living in public or private spaces without consent (parks, sheds or garages)
  • Living in places not intended for human habitation (tent or encampment)


Gaetz, S., Barr, C., Friesen, A., Harris, B., Hill, C., Kovacs-Burns, K., Pauly, B., Pearce, B., Turner, A., Marsolais, A. (2012) Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.

Reflection and Discussion Questions

The Canadian definition of homelessness includes the experience of being insecurely housed.

  1. Why should we think about homelessness in this way?  
  2. Does this definition change how you think about homelessness?
  3. What might this mean for solutions to end homelessness? 

Some feel that a more narrow definition helps to focus resources in areas where they are needed the most. Others believe that to develop strategies to prevent homelessness, we need to understand who is potentially at risk of homelessness.

Lesson Summary

  • Homelessness is the lack of stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability to acquire it. 

  • The continuum of housing describes a range of housing types and circumstances, with unsheltered homelessness at one end of the spectrum and secured housed at the other.

  • Homelessness is an extreme form of social exclusion which makes it difficult for people to access their human rights to safety, security and an adequate standard of living.