Lesson 1, Topic 2
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Definition of homelessness

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What do we mean by 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 (Source: Canadian Definition of Homelessness).

Canadian Definition of Homelessness

Unsheltered homelessness is sometimes referred to as street-involved or absolute homelessness.

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Read the Canadian Definition of Homelessness in full and learn how it was developed.

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The definition means:

  • Acknowledging that people who live in substandard or unsafe conditions do not have permanent, stable housing.  
  • Recognizing that people living with the threat of violence, abuse or harassment are not securely housed. 
  • Identifying young people who are at risk of homelessness as a result of their involvement in child welfare or foster care.
  • Identifying people leaving public institutions who do not have safe and secure housing.
  • Acknowledging that people who choose encampments over emergency shelters do so because they feel unsafe or are unable to have their specific needs met. 

The definition provides a shared understanding of homelessness. It gives people working in the sector, researchers, advocates, public policy makers and people with lived expertise a common language for talking about the issue.  Overall, the definition helps to:

  • Measure progress and evaluate the outcomes of programs.
  • Adopt new ways of thinking about how to address homelessness.
  • Make system improvements through stronger policy responses.

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. 

Unlike the common colonialist definition of homelessness, Indigenous homelessness is not defined as lacking a structure of habitation; rather, it is more fully described and understood through a composite lens of Indigenous worldviews. These include: individuals, families and communities isolated from their relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, languages and identities.

Indigenous Definition of Homelessness

12 Dimensions of Indigenous Homelessness

Historical Displacement Homelessness

Contemporary Geographic Homelessness

Spiritual Disconnection Homelessness

Mental Disruption and Imbalance Homelessness

Cultural Disintegration and Loss Homelessness

Overcrowding Homelessness

Relocation and Mobility Homelessness

Going Home

Nowhere to Go Homelessness

Escaping or Evading Harm Homelessness

Emergency Crisis Homelessness

Climatic Refugee

There are other ways to think about experiences of homelessness. It can be helpful to think about aspects of duration and frequency.

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. 

People experiencing chronic homeless (long-term) or episodic homeless (moving in and out of homelessness), form a smaller percentage of the overall homeless population, However, the impact of these experiences is often more severe (Homeless Hub,  n.d.). All experiences of homelessness are harmful, however, 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. 

For these reasons, people experiencing chronic or episodic homelessness account for high service use. 

Experiences of homelessness are unique. They may look different based on length of time or  frequency but also living situation. 


Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. (n.d.). How many people are homeless in Canada? Homeless Hub. Accessed June 1, 2022 from https://www.homelesshub.ca/about-homelessness/homelessness-101/how-many-people-are-homeless-canada

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.

Gaetz, S., Donaldson, J., Richter, T. & Gulliver, T. (2016) The State of Homelessness in Canada – 2016. Canadian Homelessness Research Network / Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. 

Thistle, J. (2017.) Indigenous Definition of Homelessness in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.