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The Law and Homelessness: Definition

What are the legal issues surrounding homelessness?


According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Social Work, homelessness is formally defined by the United States government as when a person “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and if they sleep in a shelter designated for temporary living accommodations or in places not designated for human habitation.” Use the following sources to learn more about homelessness and the political, legal, and social issues surrounding it.

Multiple definitions:


Homelessness Factors:

When you tease out the standard definition there are outliers. Here are some considerations that make homelessness more pervasive than you may have considered:

  • Lacks housing or lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence - This is a standard understanding of homelessness. Lacking housing or a fixed nighttime residence. Is a tent a "fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence"?
  • “Doubled up” – couch surfing, staying with friends - Consider those who are staying with family or friends but who are not on the lease or don't own a home. These are also known as the hidden or at risk population. 
  • At-Risk: Households in which members would become homeless in less than three months if they suddenly lost their primary source of income. Also called “precariously housed,” these people are three monthly paychecks away from homelessness.
  • Hidden Homeless: Households in which more than one family share accommodations. These households include families that are doubled up (two or more families or groups of persons who are related by birth, marriage or adoption) and those that are sharing (two or more families or groups whose members are not related by birth, marriage, or adoption).