What Are the Different Types of Homelessness?

Poor homeless man or refugee sleeping on the wooden bench on the

What’s the difference between sheltered and unsheltered homelessness? What is the most common form of homelessness? Is couch surfing considered homelessness? Each of these questions is critical to understanding what we mean when we say a person is “experiencing homelessness.”

What Is Considered Homelessness?

Imagine for a moment that you had nowhere to sleep tonight. What would you do? Where would you go?

While most Americans will never have to face these questions, far too many still do. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that on any given day in 2021, more than 326,000 individuals experienced sheltered homelessness. When considering unsheltered people as well, HUD’s estimations rise to over half a million.*

As the reports above suggest, there are several ways that HUD—and health- and human-service organizations across the nation—classify homelessness. In fact, homelessness comes in many shapes and sizes. 

Someone with unstable housing, transitional housing, or regular shelter attendance is still considered homeless, but their needs are likely different from an individual sleeping in an inhabitable location. By categorizing types of homelessness, social services and agencies like HUD can add granularity to their analysis, better assess risk, and craft more personalized assistance for individuals. 

Keep reading below to learn more about the types of homelessness and how health- and human-service organizations can better address each category. 

*Due to the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, HUD waived requirements to count unsheltered individuals in their 2021 homelessness reports. The most recent report on all types of homelessness in the USA is from 2020. 

Types of Homelessness

While individual agencies may have their own definitions regarding types of homelessness, there is a general consensus among the social-services community in identifying four types of homelessness:

  • Chronic homelessness
  • Episodic homelessness
  • Tertiary homelessness
  • Transitional homelessness

Each type carries with it unique challenges and needs. The good news? By addressing homelessness with a more crafted response, it helps agencies and organizations meet individuals “where they’re at.” Doing so can better utilize resources and even help prevent people from transitioning into an even more difficult situation of homelessness.

Chronic Homelessness

Chronic homelessness is the type most people associate with homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness defines chronic homelessness as “people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year—or repeatedly—while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.”

Chronic homelessness is true to its name: chronic. This type is often the most difficult to address because it’s almost always accompanied by adverse social determinants of health. However, experts consider effective case management as one of the critical tools for responding to this type of homelessness.

Episodic Homelessness

An individual who experiences homelessness at least three times in a given year—but not for an entire year—is categorized as living in episodic homelessness. 

Think of episodic homelessness as someone who may find a place to live but is forced onto the streets after being unable to pay rent. They may spend a few days (or weeks) in a shelter before finding somewhere else to live more permanently.

It’s important to identify episodic homelessness because it is usually a precursor to chronic homelessness. Thankfully, episodic homelessness is easier to address than chronic homelessness, so stopping homelessness in this stage could make all the difference in an individual’s life. 

Tertiary Homelessness

As mentioned earlier, there is a difference between unsheltered and sheltered homelessness. As the names suggest, sheltered homelessness refers to having a roof overhead and a bed to sleep in but no private or personal residence. This type of homelessness is often referred to as tertiary homelessness.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states that tertiary homelessness “refer[s] to people who live in boarding houses on [a] medium to long-term basis”.

Tertiary homelessness is usually a transitionary period for people working on moving out of chronic or episodic homelessness. Shelters, short-term housing programs, and transition homes are all examples of tertiary homelessness. 

Transitional Homelessness

Transitional homelessness is actually the most common type of homelessness in the United States. It refers to people who have undergone a major life event or catastrophic change and as such are forced into homelessness.

Examples of these major life events include:

  • Job loss
  • Domestic violence
  • Adverse health conditions
  • Mental health challenges
  • Divorce
  • Personal or family crisis
  • Assault
  • Addiction

When an individual experiences one of these events, they may be forced into homelessness. Many are still able to hold down jobs and otherwise continue their livelihoods, but must sleep in their car, rest in a shelter, or find some other form of tertiary housing.

Is Couch Surfing Considered Homelessness?

Couch surfing—the act of “crashing” on someone’s couch for a temporary or extended period of time—is known as “hidden homelessness.” It gets this name because many people experiencing homelessness are hidden from conventional measures of homelessness and usually cannot access critical resources.

Although many homelessness agencies consider couch surfing to be a form of homelessness, the official definitions from HUD state that couch surfing (or “doubling-up”) is not considered a form of homelessness. 

Even still, couch surfing is usually a sign of unstable housing and implies a growing risk of episodic or chronic homelessness.

Youth and young adults are the primary demographics for couch surfing. LGBTQ individuals are also likely to experience couch surfing, particularly as they are sometimes kicked out of their living situations due to conflict surrounding their gender or sexual orientation. 

Making an Impact Through HMIS

If there’s one takeaway from this article, it’s that homelessness is an extremely multidimensional, complicated experience. No two people experience homelessness the same way. The more we understand the types of homelessness, the better we can address the unique needs of these people and maximize the use of available resources.

HMIS software is HUD-compliant case management designed to help homelessness agencies meet the needs of each type of homelessness. ClientTrack has been an industry leader in HMIS case management for over twenty years. If you are a health- and human-service organization looking to improve your HUD-compliant case management system, reach out today to learn more about how ClientTrack can help you reach your goals and best help the people you serve. 

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