The Gap Between Homelessness and Adequate Housing

Photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

The concept of homelessness is complicated and often misunderstood.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has criteria for defining homelessness. Their standards separate homelessness into four categories:

  1. Literally Homeless
  2. Imminent Risk of Homelessness
  3. Homeless under other Federal Statutes
  4. Fleeing or Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence

For the remainder of this overview, we will focus on Category 1: Literally Homeless.

Literally homeless is defined by HUD as an “individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

For many Americans, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing literally homeless is an inner-city street corner with someone holding a sign and begging for money. Those individuals are no doubt in need, but they represent a small segment of the overall population within the definition of ‘literally homeless’.

It helps to unpack the phrase “fixed, regular, and adequate” mentioned above.

  • A “fixed” residence is stationary and permanent. For example, a house or apartment is “fixed,” but a car is not.
  • A “regular” residence is used on a regular and nightly basis. For example, a home your family owns and can stay in for the long term is “regular,” but an emergency shelter is used on a short-term basis and is not “regular.” 
  • An “adequate” residence is one that meets the physical, emotional, and psychological needs that a home typically provides.

It’s within the clarification around ‘adequate’ where the definition of homelessness really opens up. The expectation of physical, emotional, and psychological safety is partially why “homeless” is more fitting than “house-less.” Having a structure to exist for the night is not sufficient.

This is where the United Nations definition of adequate housing provides further clarity and objectivity. The UN defines adequate using the following seven factors:

  • Security of tenure: housing is not adequate if its occupants do not have a degree of tenure security that guarantees legal protection against forced evictions, harassment, and other threats. For example, when people live on land without permission or title of ownership, they are at risk of being removed without cause, recourse, or protection under the law.
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure: housing is not adequate if its occupants do not have safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, energy for cooking, heating, lighting, food storage, or refuse disposal.
  • Affordability: housing is not adequate if its cost threatens or compromises the occupants’ enjoyment of other human rights.
  • Habitability: housing is not adequate if it does not guarantee physical safety or provide adequate space, as well as protection against the cold, dampness, heat, rain, wind, other threats to health and structural hazards. 
  • Accessibility: housing is not adequate if the specific needs of disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not taken into account. 
  • Location: housing is not adequate if it is cut off from employment opportunities, health-care services, schools, childcare centers, and other social facilities, or if located in polluted or dangerous areas.
  • Cultural adequacy: housing is not adequate if it does not respect and take into account the expression of cultural identity. For example, latrines (outhouse style restrooms) are common and acceptable in rural Haiti but would not be sufficient in rural Mexico. The cultural standards and differences must be accommodated.

“Inadequate shelter” is part of the criteria for “homeless.” It’s not one or the other. If I have inadequate housing, I am homeless.

Throughout the world, there are varying degrees of housing quality. Some individuals may have living conditions that are comparatively worse than others, but it’s difficult (if not impossible) to pass judgment on who is truly worse off.

For example, is it worse to have dirt floors in Haiti or walls without mortar in Mexico?!

Is it worse to be a single male sleeping in a tent under a bridge in San Francisco or a family of 5 sharing a twin-sized bed in El Salvador while a hurricane pushes a river through their living room?

The comparison is confusing and unconstructive. It reminds me of an analogy I heard from a friend, “If we are trying to jump over the Grand Canyon, there is no point in arguing about who can jump further. Neither of us will get there, and we both suffer the same fate.”

Safe, adequate shelter is a human right. In each situation above, the individuals above lack a safe, stable home. They are one disaster away from irreparable physical harm or death.

Our mental picture of homelessness needs to evolve. I hope the information above provides a helpful step in that direction.




CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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Morgan J. Lopes

Morgan J. Lopes

CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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