Understanding the Different Types of Homelessness

homeless family

A city street. A sleeping bag. A cart full of clothes. A sign asking for help. A cup or bucket for collections. Sadness on the side of the road.

These are the images we often correlate with homelessness. They are not wrong. Sadly, they are quite an accurate depiction of many rough sleepers, but homelessness runs deeper still. It takes on many forms. You might know a homeless person and not realize it. You might even be a homeless person and not know.

Perhaps you’re familiar with some of the buzzwords. You know the difference between sheltered and unsheltered, between chronically homeless and transitionally homeless. But do you know where homeless people really live? The answer might come as a surprise.

Unsheltered Variation 1: Sleeping on the Street

Some homeless people dwell on street corners with very little shelter. They are known as the unsheltered homeless and are the most widely promoted picture of homelessness. However, in the US, rough sleepers account for less than a quarter of the entire homeless population. In some regions, such as the West Coast, a vast majority of homeless people are categorized as unsheltered, but it’s important to note that this description is not limited to merely sleeping on the street. Other variations of rough sleeping are also included in the category of unsheltered homelessness.

Common Reasons People Sleep on the Street. There are multiple factors to be considered, but some of the most common reasons homeless people sleep on the streets are as follows:

  • Untrusting of shelters
  • Previous bad experiences at shelters
  • Shelters are full
  • This is where they feel safest due to high or low visibility
  • No other option

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sleeping Outside on the Street

  • Vulnerability to physical or verbal assaults
  • Vulnerability to harsh weather conditions
  • Escalated chances of police harassment
  • Increased possibility of theft

Unsheltered Variation 2: Sleeping in a Car

Many unsheltered homeless people are on the street but in a different way. They reside in a car or another type of motor vehicle. Just because you don’t see them on the city street doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Common Reasons People Sleep in Cars. For some homeless people, their car could be the only material item they’ve managed to save. Cars can be vital assets for homeless people because a lack of public transportation can cause transitional homelessness to become chronic. Cars also provide a form of shelter from harsh weather. Family members who don’t wish to be divided by shelter regulations might opt to stay in their cars while holding out for better options.

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sleeping in a Car

  • Lack of space
  • Limited parking
  • Needing gas money
  • Getting parking tickets that lead to citations
  • Getting cited or arrested just for sleeping in the car
  • Still somewhat vulnerable to outdoor elements including inclement weather and physical altercations

Unsheltered Variation 3: Sleeping in Uninhabitable Houses Such As Abandoned Buildings

Homeless teens tend to flock to these environments because they are a bit more obscure. An abandoned building can easily hide 10 or 20 runaways or homeless youngsters. Vacant, uninhabitable structures also serve as magnets for addiction, prostitution, and other types of criminal activity. It’s worth pointing out that homeless people in abandoned buildings don’t have to be addicts or prostitutes themselves, but will likely have to tolerate that sort of environment in exchange for a place to stay.

Common Reasons People Sleep in Abandoned Buildings. Abandoned buildings serve a false sense of security since they are technically houses, however dilapidated they might appear. Reasons some homeless people choose to live in them are:

  • Returning to their former home (people who lost their house to foreclosure might move back in if the building is left abandoned because it feels familiar)
  • Sense of community
  • Sense of having a home

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sleeping in an Uninhabitable House

  • Health risks from possible contaminants
  • Structural damage (broken glass, busted windows and doors, etc.)
  • Exposure to criminal activity
  • Some exposure to harsh weather if the house lacks electricity, running water, and heating and cooling systems (most abandoned buildings do)

Unsheltered Variation 4: Sleeping in Tents

A sidewalk full of tents is probably the second most common image of homelessness. This is because tent cities are increasingly becoming a more sought-after option amongst the homeless population. Tent encampments might be sanctioned or unsanctioned, but they are still a form of unsheltered homelessness either way.

Common Reasons People Sleep in Tents. As more and more families become homeless, the campsite-like environment of a tent city can be seen as a better alternative than a shelter, where they might be separated. Other reasons include:

  • Sense of community
  • Sense of safety based on community atmosphere
  • Independence
  • Space for storage

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sleeping in Tents

While tent city life can feel a bit like camping, the harsh reality is that this is far from a vacation. Some of the most common challenges in this scenario are:

  • Exposure to harsh weather especially the cold
  • Unexpected sweeps
  • Unannounced shutdowns of encampments that cause homeless people to become displaced yet again
  • Loss of belongings due to weather, sweeps, and more

Sheltered Homelessness: Just Because It’s Shelter Doesn’t Mean It’s Home

Sheltered homeless people bare unique burdens despite the fact that they are rarely portrayed by the media.

Always Remember: Most homeless people, regardless of where they reside, have limited or no access to vital living essentials such as:

  • Healthcare and medication
  • Dental care
  • Vision care
  • Employment
  • Hygiene products and much more

Here are some variations of sheltered homelessness.

Sheltered Variation 1: Sleeping in a Shelter

Many homeless people do find some comfort and community in their local shelters. Today, some shelters (but not all) are even allowing pets to step inside. Like other forms of homelessness, shelter life can vary greatly, depending upon location.

Common Reasons People Sleep in Shelters. Many homeless people will choose a bed in a shelter, if it is an option to them, for the following reasons:

  • Shelter from harsh outdoor elements
  • A bed
  • An address
  • Some social services and wellness programs

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sleeping in a Shelter. Shelters are certainly not for everyone. Many shelters run on a rigorous schedule and residents might be abused by staff in public spaces such as showers. Some of the most common obstacles for people dwelling in shelters include:

  • Family separation
  • Strict routines
  • No guarantee you’ll get in every night
  • Possibility of theft or attack

Sheltered Variation 2: Staying in a Motel or Hotel

While this might not sound like a form of homelessness, any family or individual residing in a hotel or motel because they don’t have a permanent place to live is homeless.

Common Reasons People Sleep in Hotels and Motels. There are many reasons homeless people (especially families) wind up here. Some of the most prevalent are:

  • Insurance covers it sometimes (in the event of displacement due to natural disaster)
  • Newly foreclosed on families with a bit of money left to spare seek safety
  • Not enough money for a down payment on an apartment or house
  • It doesn’t feel like homelessness right away
  • Amenities like showers, soap, beds, and even kitchenettes.

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sleeping in a Hotel or Motel

Many individuals who have lost their homes see hotels or motels as alternatives to homelessness. They might not even realize they are part of the homeless population. At least, not at first. However, as time passes, the following obstacles make the situation clear:

  • No address for job applications
  • Very expensive although it doesn’t cost much money upfront
  • No guarantee you’ll get to keep the same room
  • Downgrading to less and less expensive motels as the lifestyle becomes more expensive

Sheltered Variation 3: Sleeping on a Sofa Someplace Other than Home

Homeless people who stay with friends or family members are often called the “hidden homeless.” These are people you probably see every day but never consider the fact that they have no place of their own. Hidden homelessness is an oft-overlooked dilemma that can cause serious problems.

Common Reasons People Sleep on Sofas. Newly homeless people are quite likely to lean on friends and family in the beginning. Some will even continue to do so for years to come. Some of the most common reasons homeless people choose sofa surfing over alternatives are:

  • Safety
  • Security
  • Familiarity
  • A place that almost feels like their own home

Unique Obstacles Posed by Sofa Surfing

  • Going unnoticed and therefore not having access to the same services as other, more visibly homeless people
  • Lasting strains on family ties
  • Lasting strains on friendships

Homelessness is Close to Home

It’s impossible to empathize with a community if you don’t know who they are. And where we are is a big part of who we are, isn’t it? The next time you drive past a house, a street corner, or even another car, remember that a fellow human might live there, just inches from you, but completely out of your sight. Talk to your state representatives. Ask them what they’re doing to find affordable houses for your neighbors who are living in the shadows of homelessness – wherever that may be.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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