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What Does Homelessness Look Like?

When you think about what homelessness looks like, what do you see? Is it someone sleeping on a city sidewalk or asking for change on a street corner? Maybe you see someone in worn-out clothing walking around with a shopping cart or a bag full of their belongings?

Such stereotypes often congregate what we think those experiencing homelessness should look like, but they’re not always correct. Homelessness can present itself in a variety of ways depending on an individual or family’s experience.

In the broadest sense, there are three types of homelessness: Chronic, Transitional, and Episodic. And those who are considered “street homeless” can technically fall into any of these categories depending on where they are in their journey.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, unsheltered individuals accounted for 37% of the U.S. homeless population in 2020. This population doesn’t usually have a home or any form of permanent shelter and is often found in highly populated cities.

To be chronically homeless means to experience the shelter system as long-term housing rather than for emergency needs. This population makes up 27% of the homeless population, often suffers from disabilities, poor chronic health and/or substance use disorders, and is likely to be older.

Those who are transitionally homeless usually enter the shelter system for a temporary period before finding stable housing. This population is typically on the younger side and is only recently unhoused.

Episodic homelessness involves those who frequently come in and out of homelessness and shelters. This population is also likely to be on the younger side, chronically unemployed, and endures health and/or substance use problems.

Anyone, no matter if they’re chronically, transitionally, or episodically homeless, can present themselves in a variety of ways.

An individual can fulfill the stereotypical appearance of street homelessness before they’re accepted into a shelter. But while in the shelter, where they have a safe space to sleep, shower and wash their clothes, they might look totally different. They’re still experiencing homelessness; however, to the outside world, their appearance might say otherwise. This scenario might also be known as hidden homelessness, meaning no one can outwardly tell that an individual is unhoused from their appearance or everyday interactions.

Homelessness is more than meets the eye, as are those who experience it. The more we start to understand this, the better prepared we’ll be to end the negative stigma surrounding it.


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