Definitions and Theories of Homelessness

A widely used conceptualization of homelessness developed by Peter Rossi (Rossi, Wright, Fisher, & Willis, 1987) distinguishes between the literally homeless (persons who obviously have no access to a conventional dwelling and who would be considered homeless by any conceivable definition of the term) and the precariously or marginally housed (persons with tenuous or very temporary claims to a more or less conventional dwelling or housing). This distinction can be used in studies of the visibly homeless (those in homeless shelters and living on the streets, in encampments, in abandoned buildings, and in places such as subway stations) and the precariously housed (those doubled-up temporarily with other, usually poor, families, or those paying daily or weekly for inexpensive lodging). How widely one casts the "homeless net" has a tremendous impact on the numbers and characteristics of the people included in the definition of homelessness.

Anthropologists try to use the self-appellation of the group under study. However, there are many individuals without permanent housing who would not necessarily define themselves as "homeless," a term which suggests the stereotype of an elderly man or woman, alone in the streets, with their shopping carts and wearing layers of clothing. In addition, cultures have different words for the concept homeless, each with different and sometimes subtle connotations.

Industrialized nations tend to view homelessness as a result of personal problems (chronic alcoholism or drug misuse), or as a result of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, in concert with the gentrification of urban housing and decreased government support for social housing and welfare (Glasser, 1994). Developing countries view the etiology of squatter settlements as rural-to-urban migration. In India, for example, the term for people living outside without shelter is roofless, a term that does not imply the social pathology so often associated with the word home-less. On the other hand, for many years in Finland the word for homeless was puliukko, which implies alcoholic.

One way to confront the problem of defining homelessness is to think of homelessness as the opposite of having adequate housing—shelter that is physically adequate and affordable, where people are free from forced eviction, with protection from the elements, potable water in or close to the house, provision for the removal of household and human wastes, site drainage, emergency life-saving services, easy access to health care, and within easy reach of social and economic opportunities (the Limuru Declaration cited in Turner, 1988).

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