When you hear the word "homeless," what do you think of? Crazy Homeless People? Someone who is a hobo or vagrant Walking the Earth? Someone or some group of people, who, through some sort of disaster or tragedy, are suddenly (but usually, in Hollywood portrayals, temporarily) without a home? Real homelessness encompasses those people and more, and this page exists to enlighten about what homelessness is and what its different forms are, who homeless people are aside from stereotypes, and to dispel some of the worst myths about homelessness. It isn't going to be very heavy on statistics about homelessness.
So who are "the homeless?"
First, get the idea that "the homeless" are some sort of monolithic entity of pain and suffering (or alternately, "laziness and craziness") out of your mind. There are not "the homeless," but varied groups of homeless (or houseless, as in they may have "homes" that are just not their own or not legal - such as tents or squats or their vehicle) people, some of which associate with each other out of need or commonality, but others which don't associate with other "homeless" at all or even within their own grouping.
The following list of groups of different people is not meant to be exhaustive. It's simply here to give an example of the variance of homeless/houseless people.
The unwillingly and temporarily homeless/houseless
What happens if your home burns down/gets knocked down in a quake/gets flooded/gets torn to pieces by a tornado and you don't have insurance/it's not paying you yet (or an Uncle Pennybags who steps in and starts signing checks that don't bounce)? What happens if your bank or mortgage company or landlord decides to take your money and your property? What happens if you or someone else made an absolutely bad decision regarding a roommate? What if you lost your job and can't get another fast? What if you're a minor, and your parents disown you and kick you out of the house (because of your sexuality, or for disobedience or bad grades, or refusing an Arranged Marriage, or losing your virginity before marriage), and you have no friends or relatives that are willing or able to provide you with a place to live? What if you live in a country that doesn't have socialized medicine, and your insurance company won't pay for your medications or treatment, or you don't have insurance but you (or a family member) are dealing/have recently dealt with a serious illness or injury? What if you were living with a spouse or significant other, and things ended very badly, leaving you with nowhere to go? What if your landlord decides he or she would rather have a vacation rental than long-term tenants (because Money, Dear Boy) and evicts you for a BS reason (or no reason at all)? What if you got sent to Prison, did your time, and got out, but in the meantime, you lost the home or apartment you were living in, and no one will rent to you or offer you a home loan because of your criminal record?
For these and many other reasons, you may end up as this, and anyone can in much of the world, especially in places where getting a new place takes high deposits, lots of money, a golden credit score and property record, references, and more. What defines this type of homelessness is that the person seeks a place to live, they usually have the ability to pay- except they lack credit, or are living paycheck to paycheck for example -and while they may move frequently (due to roommates moving out, getting married or divorced, whatever gave them their home situation changing) and therefore seem "unstable," they want a place to live, can reasonably keep it up and do what it takes to live in a place without destroying it, and are socialized as people for whom having a stable address and place to live is important. For many of them, homelessness is a deeply personal tragedy and occasionally a shameful one - that they wish to hide and cover for and not be "associated" with.
- Where do these homeless/houseless people live?: In their homes, when and if they have them. Otherwise, if they're lucky, "doubling up" with friends and/or family until their situation improves (the next paycheck comes, the insurance finally pays up, they find new roommates or a place that will let them move in.) If they have enough money, the No-Tell Motel or other very low standards properties are an option, as are various sorts of vehicles. Squats, homeless shelters, and camping are generally the last-ditch options, along with "creative indooring" such as staying in 24 hour establishments like cafes and college libraries and similar (and doing their best to seem fairly normal in doing so). They might occasionally spend a night or day outdoors or on public transit or such, but it's rare and almost always only done when no other option is available.
- Level of hygiene: Generally pretty good. The culture within this group is that staying at least somewhat clean and not visibly homeless is important - hence, people in it will do their best to try to find proper toilets and showers and use laundromats, and keep their bodies and clothes relatively clean and well-maintained. There may be a day or two that's a temporary exception (e.g. the campground showers were closed, the money for laundry had to go to something else) but generally this is the group with the best hygiene - and some people may even be Super OCD about hygiene because they fear being seen as "homeless."
- Are these Crazy Homeless People?: No. Not in the least. Emotional adjustment to homelessness may be difficult and they may act upset or offended at being considered "homeless" or treated like it, and they may have some mental illness issues, but these are people who do understand (possibly more than a lot of richer people who take "home" for granted) how important a home is, who generally don't have massive, uncontrolled alcohol and substance issues, and who generally don't need massive rehabilitation/care to rejoin society to some extent (or at all).
- How common is this group?: Very, very common. Some reports claim that this is the highest percentage of the "homeless/unhoused," especially if people doubling up with family and friends, in illegal squats or illegal rooms such as garages or closets, and living in weekly rental motels or other "single residency options" are counted.
The willingly and temporarily homeless/houseless
Maybe they wanted to go on a vacation and not pay rent/a mortgage while traveling, and just get a new place where they decide to settle. Maybe they just haven't found a place to settle yet. Maybe they're working on assignment or traveling on tour and either can't afford or don't want a "home base" they have to pay for. Maybe they are believers in the "location independent lifestyle" or devoted travelers/tourists. Hippie hitch-hikers and the like may also fit in this category or the next one, and during the rest of time they are either normal or temporarily homeless. These people generally have money - they just don't want to spend it on a permanent location for the time being.
- Where do these homeless/houseless people live?: Those with more money live in hotels, motels, upmarket sublets and temporary rentals, really well made R Vs and tour buses and the like. Those with less money prefer the No-Tell Motel or something just slightly better, their van/camper/rundown travel trailer or RV. They are more "addressless" than truly "homeless/houseless," because they have a certain place to sleep every night - even if it's temporary or incredibly subpar.
- Level of hygiene?: Normal to average. They may not worry so much about what they look like (because they may have no reason to care what people think about them) but they don't neglect themselves to any kind of obviously extreme degree. They almost always have access to showers and sinks and toilets, and for the rich "location independent lifestylers" or travelers, often far better than most "stably housed" people do.
- Are these Crazy Homeless People?: Definitely not. Their homelessness is chosen, pragmatic, planned for - again, it's that they chose to live without a "stable" home, but unlike Crazy Homeless People, had an alternative situation that provided, for them, more than a more stablized home option would, or had other reasons to travel without a solid "home base" for the time being.
- How common is this group?: Generally relatively small, and often, obviously, does not show up as "homeless," despite being technically so, because only the very low end of it might actually might seek poverty help or homeless services - while the higher end is upper middle class to rich.
The willingly and culturally homeless/houseless/temporarily housed
This is where nomadic cultures from the Travellers to the Romani (and various other cultures labeled as "gypsies" or "travelers") would fall, as well as hobos, traveling punks, festival travelers who travel between events like Burning Man and Rainbow Gathering and such, Slab City residents, and various similar groups. For those in these groups, mobility and not being tied to one place is an intrinsic part of culture and society.
- Where do these homeless/houseless/temporarily housed people live?: Some have "home bases" with friends or non-traveling/not-currently-traveling family or supporters, or use RV parks and campgrounds and similar for mobile housing and vehicles - this is more common with nomadic cultures. Traveling punks tend to couchsurf or "crash" at squats, rented No-Tell Motel rooms, friends' places, and occasionally sleep outdoors or camp. Hobos, where they still exist, tend to sleep on trains or camp out.
- Level of hygiene?: Varies dependent on group. Travellers and nomadic culture residents generally tend to be average, because they usually travel in caravans with access to showers/toilets/the like. Festival travelers can have this if they're on the higher end of money, but can be low-hygiene too, especially after a long event. Traveling punks and hobos can swing wildly between absolutely abominable hygiene to being relatively clean - depending on their personal interest in doing so and their access to bathroom and shower facilities.
- Are these Crazy Homeless People?: Maybe some hobos and some of the more burned-out/ill festival crowd. Everyone else in this grouping is definitely not, and Walking the Earth is the applicable trope regardless of financial status.
- How common is this group?: Relatively small, and relatively static because it's one that not many people join or fall into, and those who do so are almost always born/married/otherwise brought into the culture in question, or choose to join it willingly after intense deliberation.
The chronically homeless
Generally defined as people who have been homeless (not simply addressless or houseless) for six months or more and who have not had or sought even temporary dwellings (aside from homeless shelters or tents) within those six months. Generally, people who fit into any of the above groups do not fall into this one - to be a part of this group, one needs to not be homeless for cultural reasons (e.g. not a Traveller or Romani or other nomad), not be homeless due to an emergency and seeking rehousing or living in someone else's home/on someone else's property, and not have viable plans to get even temporary housing.
- Where do these homeless people live?: The streets, illegal campouts, occasionally squats, and homeless shelters. Occasionally those with better hygiene and some money may go for 24 hour buildings if they can be/pass for legitimate occupants/get someone to excuse their presence.
- Level of hygiene?: Those who are not severely mentally ill or incredibly financially compromised will try to find toilets and showers and/or do laundry whenever possible. Those who are severely mentally ill or heavily drug-addicted or financially compromised and absolutely unable to get any money at all may not be able to use showers or even toilets or sinks anywhere, may not even care for the state of their bodies or clothes or similar, etcetera. Hygiene can range from best possible but subpar (e.g. the person looks a little dirty) to absolute Nightmare Fuel levels of filth.
- This is the group that contains the stereotypical Crazy Homeless People, simply because it is where they tend to fall in due to their addictions and illnesses and lack of hygiene and healthcare and similar - but not even everyone in it is that. Some of the people within this group are definitely not Crazy Homeless People - they may have been long-time homeless but their situation is exclusively financial, and/or they simply lack family and friends who could double up with them and are homeless too long (and known as such) to establish trust with roommates or similar, or they have a substance addiction such as alcoholism or opiate addiction but would be a Functional Addict if housed.
- On that note, it can be argued that even many addicts even in this group actually aren't "crazy," because substance use is itself a coping mechanism, albeit a very bad and short-sighted one, and that the sociopersonal skills needed to acquire substances such as finding a connection for drugs or successfully panhandling for alcohol and the social context of usage such as drinking with buddies or shooting up with a boyfriend are things that people truly and permanently detached from reality and incapable of intelligent action, planning function, or thought cannot accomplish. In other words, if someone is capable of begging for cash and convincing people it's needed and not getting arrested while doing so, finding and going to a bar or liquor store that doesn't kick them out for being obviously "trouble" or seeking out a drug dealer who isn't a cop, and then drinking or using drugs with other people - all of that requires at least some level of base sanity and coherence.
- How common is this group?: They are said to make up anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the homeless population. They are the "static" homeless population, using the "train analogy": they are the ones staying on the train from first stop to last stop, whereas the other groups here hop on and hop off and hop back on again.