UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Are the homeless hopeless? : an exploration of the policy implications of different definitions of homelessness Chung, Janet Lai Chun


This thesis explores why the commonly used broad definition of homelessness endorsed by many analysts and academics in the contemporary literature is not useful in devising effective housing policy to alleviate the most urgent needs of those who are without safe, healthy, permanent and affordable shelter. The broad definition views homelessness as the absence of permanent home over which inhabitants have personal control and which provides shelter, privacy, security at an affordable cost together with ready access to social, economic and cultural public services. It is often contrasted with a narrow definition of homelessness. While the narrow definition only focus on the needs of the absolute homeless (i.e., people without a roof over their head), the broad definition employs a comprehensive perspective to take into consideration the needs of the at risk homeless (i.e., people who are at the risk of losing their home) as well. Housing analysts who endorse the broad definition of homelessness believe that by framing the issue in its wider context they may be able to induce public policy change to tackle homelessness broadly in the public agenda. However, contrary to this well-intended motive, this study finds that the broad definition may actually hinder policy decision making to respond effectively and efficiently to those who are most in need. It does so for five reasons: 1) its broadness is inconsistent with the ideological and political realities in a homeownership dominant housing system; 2) it contains an inadequately formulated category of "at risk homeless" which ignores or dismisses the housing difficulties (e.g., affordability, suitability and adequacy) of the at risk homeowners; 3) it fails to establish precise boundaries of the broadly defined homeless population mainly due to technical and political ramifications; 4) it is weak in coalescing inter-agency, community and individual support and advocacy; and 5) the broader the definition the bigger the social problem and the more the public resources required to address the issue broadly which in turn undermines the concept's utility in generating welfare consensus to mobilize resources in assisting the weakest members in the community. In order to redirect housing policy decision making to be responsive to the neediest, this thesis proposes that: 1) the potential utility of Housing Dimension of Homelessness must be distinguished from the "general" broad conception of homelessness so that policy specific focus can be given to each individual dimension of homelessness to facilitate immediate actions and solutions to aid each target group (e.g., housing dimension of homelessness focuses mainly on housing aspect of homelessness therefore the concept has the highest utility for investigating housing problems and formulating housing solutions for people with severe basic shelter need. The general broad view of homelessness focuses on all contributing factors of homelessness equally therefore the concept has the highest utility in investigating broader social issues such as social inequality); 2) homeless should be recategorized into five subgroups: at risk renters, at risk homeowners, street homeless, shelter homeless and by-choice homeless in order to increase the concepts' utility for prioritizing needs and allocating public resources to aid the neediest; and 3) policies and programs for the homeless must be targeted at "shelter homeless" and "street homeless" instead of "homeless" as a general broad category to ascertain that the most vulnerable members in the community will receive the highest priority assistance in Canada's housing system.

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