Who is Homeless?

When it comes to who is or is not homeless, who gets the final say in the matter? If you’re an American, the answer to this query is clear: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is not you nor is it your neighbor; only the enlightened philosopher-kings of Washington, D.C., know the answers to such problems. And the philosopher-kings have decreed that there is to be a single definition of what homelessness is and who should get the most assistance in getting off the streets. How does their decree play out in everyday life?

The Problem of Definition

According to HUD, a homeless person is someone who resides in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven, or in an emergency shelter. But to get assistance from a social services non-profit or agency, being homeless may not be enough. You may need to be extra homeless, or what HUD calls chronically homeless, in order to get certain types of assistance. The definition of chronic homelessness, and associated commentary upon it, takes up nearly 16 pages (see citation). The short version is this: you must be homeless cumulatively or continuously for at least 12 months, with the cumulative 12 months occurring in a minimum of 4 periods over the course of 3 years, and you must have a disabling condition (75792).

Why make up such a definition? To focus on who needs the most help based on need (75792), and to make sure that all non-profits and agencies use a consistent definition if they use HUD funds (75798). Sounds innocent and altruistic enough. But the reality is that such arbitrary definitions only harm clients and service providers alike. HUD’s definitions attempt to use empiricism (75797) to back up their ruling, but this is nothing more than the pretense of knowledge. Allow Friedrich Hayek to elaborate upon my objection (46):

…but I believe also generally in the sciences of man, what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific, and, beyond this, that in these fields there are definite limits to what we can expect science to achieve. This means that to entrust to science—or to deliberate control according to scientific principles— more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects.

To this end, I have chosen three facets of the problem to bring it around the problems of people’s everyday lives: the reality of using the definition, the problem of need, and uselessness of needing a disability.

Using the Definition

The desire to use a single, consistent definition of homelessness is a reasonable one. But let’s think about how individual each person’s housing situation really is. According to the above definition, a person who is couch surfing is not homeless. Let’s say a man loses his job and his home, and has a friend or a family member take him in. He sleeps on a couch until he can get a job and save money. According to HUD, this man does not merit any assistance slated for the homeless. HUD, apparently, wants people to rely on the state (and therefore the taxpayer) in times of need rather than friends or family. Consider some other cases. Imagine a woman on the streets for 9 months. This woman is homeless but not chronically homeless, and therefore would be able to receive services but may not quality for the full amount of services offered. Instead, she needs to wait for 3 additional months at the expense of everyone else who pays taxes. Let’s look at one more situation. A man has been homeless for years straight, goes to jail for 4 months, and then is released to the streets. He is homeless but not chronically homeless; his time in jail exceeded 3 months (which means that he was not homeless according to HUD) and now requires 3 additional breaks of homelessness (75792) to be considered such. He is homeless and now living on the streets, but he doesn’t merit the same services as a man who was homeless for 12 months straight in a shelter.

How does this end up influencing the lives of clients and workers? Thanks to HUD mandates (read more here here), service providers have shifted their attention to “ending” chronic homelessness. This means, necessarily, that non-chronically homeless people do not have the same service provider resources at their disposable. Those people who would be chronically homeless, but stay with a family member for a week, lose their status and lose access to resources. One result of this is that social workers end up trying to game the system. A social worker may “know” that a person is chronically homeless, and will find ways to “prove” that a person is chronically homeless according to the official ruling. In real life, this takes the form of social workers “discovering” periods of homelessness and non-homelessness (staying at a motel, staying with friends, etc.) to make sure the official ruling is adhered to. Perhaps instead of needing to game the system, the system should be allowed to wither away so that we can help each other without arbitrary rulings.

Determining Need

If we recall, this definition is meant to target those with the highest level of need (75796). One thing we should ask ourselves now is how need is calculated. Indeed, can need itself be calculated? Of course, the proponents of scientism would like to claim that everything real can be known through the empirical method and then proceed to devise ways of measuring it. Typically this takes the form of assessments, which use a mix of worker observation and client declaration as evidence of vulnerability or need. Interested readers may look up the SPDAT (a morbidity assessment) as one example of such an assessment. It nearly goes without saying that such assessments, regardless of design features, may be gamed by social workers who want their clients to get the highest scores possible. I wish for the reader to pause and consider the query: if need is inherently subjective, how can the state reasonably expect to target people with the most need by merely mandating it so? It has been my first-hand experience that the state does not; the responsibility falls upon cities and individual non-profits to pick assessments ad hoc in order to do so, and whether or not empirical methods can determine subjective factors such as need.

Everyone is Disabled

We’ve already discussed the foolishness of HUD’s time requirements for chronicity, as well as the equally foolish notion of using empirically-based assessments to provide physical evidence for something that is inherently intangible. But there is another piece of the puzzle to consider: evidence of disability. According to HUD’s ruling, one must have a disabling condition (75793) to be considered chronically homeless. These conditions can include chronic health conditions, mental illnesses, physical disabilities, and developmental disabilities. Right about now the altruistic reader is probably surprised that such a provision could be harmful. Surely the disabled need help! But my question for you is this: who is disabled? What if I told you this answer: everyone. You may believe me to be in jest, but allow me to explain.

Imagine you’re on the streets. You’re hungry and sleep on a box. You use the pond in the Boston Common as a toilet. You’ve been homeless for 13 months and you’ve been spotted by outreach workers who have documented your length of homelessness. You also happen to be able-bodied without mental illness or addiction of any kind. Unfortunately, you’re not suitable for assistance for housing. Why is this? You aren’t deemed to have enough need due to your health.

What are solutions to this? For one, you could see a clinical social worker and begin getting case management. When asked if you suffer from mental illness, you could claim depression. After a brief discussion with a licensed clinical social worker, you are diagnosed with a depressive disorder of some sort. Congratulations, you’re now needy enough for government assistance! There is another option as well: use drugs. If you use them regularly, you’ll be diagnosed as having “substance abuse disorder” or even “polysubstance abuse disorder” if you use more than one drug at a time. With definitions like this, the needy disabled chronically-homeless person may be a young, able-bodied man who does heroin and has slept outside for at least 12 months. Truly anyone could be considered disabled. A person with a medical condition, like a slipped disc, suddenly becomes disabled. A person with anxiety or PTSD is now disabled. And who are you to say otherwise, if you do not belong to the political class or the intelligentsia?

The Root of the Problem

Possible solutions may be found in the root of the problem. Again, from Hayek (54):

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the over-confident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights. But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims.

The arrogance of the political class that constitutes HUD would do well to heed these words. HUD does not have the knowledge, nor can it, to truly “end homelessness”. Their operations are not governed by the price mechanism, forcing them to rely on rules and regulations rather than exchange. Their operations cannot be said to satisfy consumer demand, so they must rely on the research of the intelligentsia to find out how to help the homeless. HUD can only respond to statistical information, input from “experts”, and regulations, and therefore cannot act in a manner that any one of us would call common sense; they lack the knowledge that is found in actually interacting with the homeless and experiencing the conditions that relate to it.

Even if HUD wanted to change the definition drastically, they could not do so. Ultimately HUD is bound to abide by the definitions of homelessness found in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law meant to help the homeless. Indeed, the grants that so many non-profits crave come from the provisions of this very law. Even if HUD wanted to alter or do away with this definition, it is highly unlikely such an effort would be possible.


With this in mind, two solutions come to mind instantly. The first is simple enough: non-profits need to wean themselves off government funding and then use their own standards of homelessness that actually conform to reality. We should allow private charity and market forces to address the phenomenon of homelessness rather than expect bureaucracy to do it for us (and at our expense). The second solution, a more long term one, would be to do away with all of these oppressive government agencies and the paper laws they operate upon. Until this happens, men who consider themselves to be our lords will continue to dictate how we try to help one another.


Federal Register /Vol. 80, No. 233 / Friday, December 4, 2015 /Rules and Regulations. 75791-75806.

Hayek, Friedrich A. Von, and Friedrich A. Von Hayek. A Free-market Monetary System. Auburn, AL: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2008. Print.