Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Debate about Homelessness

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Debate about Homelessness

Article excerpt


There has been a long debate about the definition of homelessness in Western countries (e.g. Neil & Fopp 1992; House of Representatives 1995; Avramov 1995; Hopper 1997). This is more than a mere academic issue, as the lack of agreement over definition makes it difficult to enumerate the homeless population and to urge governments to meet the needs of homeless people.

It is usually accepted that those who sleep in public places or squat in derelict buildings are homeless, but the following questions are often raised. How should we classify people who have no accommodation of their own, but who are staying temporarily with other households? Are they homeless? How about a person living in a conventional house who is experiencing domestic violence? Is he or she homeless? Are people in institutions `homeless' if they have nowhere to go when they leave? In the literature, these questions have been answered in different ways, depending on the broader perspectives of the authors concerned (e.g. Watson 1986; Rossi 1989; Jencks 1994; Nunan & Johns 1996; National Youth Coalition for Housing 1997).

Some Australian scholars have concluded that it is impossible to define homelessness. For example, when Sackville prepared the report Homeless People and the Law for Professor Henderson's Inquiry into Poverty, he stated that there was `no universally accepted definition of the homeless population' (Commission of Inquiry into Poverty 1976: 5). A decade later, Field (1988: 11) noted: `The questions -- What is homelessness? Who are the homeless? - are I think simply unanswerable.' Another ten years on Burke (1998: 295) echoed the point again: `Homelessness continues to escape precise definition, because of its complexity and increasing diversification.'

Our purpose here is to review three definitions of homelessness which have been influential in Australia. The definitions will be referred to as the literal, the subjectivist and the cultural. The literal definition equates homelessness with `rootlessness'. The subjectivist definition attempts to establish `homelessness' by asking people their opinion on the adequacy of their accommodation. The cultural definition argues that homelessness is an objective category does not depend on people's perceptions.

We begin by explaining the three definitions. Next we examine their usefulness in relation to a large body of data collected at an agency which provides services for homeless people. And we conclude with a theoretical discussion of the relationship between homelessness and poverty.

Three Definitions

The literal definition equates homelessness with `rooflessness', implying that homeless people are literally `under the stars', or illegally occupying deserted premises. This is how many journalists and newspaper editors represent the homeless population. It has been translated into community `knowledge' through two dominant typifications of homeless people in the mass media. First, the image of the elderly, dishevelled man living rough, possibly with a mental health or alcohol problem -- the dominant characterisation of the homeless population in the 1970s and early 1980s (de Hoog 1972; Saunders 1981).

Second, there is the image of `street kids', usually portrayed as sleeping in public places or squatting in derelict buildings. This was the dominant media typification of homeless teenagers for much of the 1990s, following the publication of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1989) report, Our Homeless Children, usually known as the Burdekin Report. Media coverage encapsulated the idea that street kids were literally `on the streets' (Fopp 1989a).

By contrast, the subjectivist definition of homelessness has its origins in a long tradition of social and political thought which argues that sociological concepts should be grounded in the perceptions of actors. In the 1980s, Sophie Watson (1984, 1986) pointed out that homelessness is a socially constructed concept and that what constitutes adequate housing can vary from one period to another. …

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