We hear about homelessness, shelters and housing service many times. We see hobos holding “need help” boards standing on streets many times. We call them homeless people. But what is homelessness exactly?

The formal definition is easy enough to understand: an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual who is either sheltered homeless — using emergency or transitional housing and unsheltered homeless — living on the streets or in parks, abandoned buildings, cars, subway tunnels or other places not meant for human habitation.

Chronic homelessness occurs when people have long or repeated episodes of homelessness, such as living continuously in a shelter for one year or or on at least four separate occasions in the past three years.

An individual may also be considered to be homeless if that person is “doubled up” with friends or relatives or who reside in transient or non-transient motels and hotels. Many of these people experience literal homelessness temporarily. In addition, previously homeless individuals who are to be released from a prison or a hospital may be considered homeless if they do not have a stable housing situation to which they can return. A recognition of the instability of an individual’s living arrangements is critical to the definition of homelessness.

The HEARTH Act defined the homeless as “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including not only the sheltered and unsheltered homeless, but also those who will “imminently lose their housing,” have no subsequent residence identified, and lack the resources or support network to obtain permanent housing. The HEARTH Act, which also included an expanded definition of homelessness for unaccompanied youth and families with children and youth, called for federal agencies to examine the feasibility of adopting a unified definition of homelessness.

We Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness (MCAH)  is a Michigan nonprofit organization formed as an association of emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, nonprofit housing and service programs, government programs and concerned citizens from across the state. Our goal is to be the leading advocate for homeless people in Michigan and the agencies who serve them.

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