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Can You Define Homelessness? The Four Types of Homelessness

by Maryellen Hess Cameron 1 min read

Can You Define Homelessness?

Is your client homeless? How do you define homelessness? In human services  It’s not a simple yes or no answer. Instead it’s multiple choice. There are four categories of homelessness used for federal housing programs.

Then it gets complicated, but we’ll break it down. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides the bulk of financial support for housing programs. Some HUD programs are dedicated for one category of homelessness only. Others are for multiple categories of homelessness. Some programs can differ at the state or local level. It’s a great big puzzle. (After you look at the puzzle pieces you might be inclined to call it something more colorful.) 

This article can explain the four types of homelessness that are set by HUD. Other federal agencies and many states use these definitions as well This article reviews some of the available resources for people who fit one or more of the definitions. By the end of this article you will understand the terms you will hear when you investigate housing programs. It introduces you to resources to investigate to stabilize your client’s housing.

Category 1: Literal Homelessness

Category 1 defines homelessness as people  who are literally homeless. HUD’s verbatim explanation for a household follows:

Individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, meaning:

  1. Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation; or
  2. Is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (including congregate shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state and local government programs); or
  3. Is exiting an institution where (s)he has resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution.

Public or private spaces captures locations such as tents, cars, or abandoned buildings. In my years as a director of an agency serving homeless people we saw people get creative. One gentleman liked to sleep in our front garden; another slept under our large, outdoor utility box. (It gave them one advantage: they could enter our drop in center the minute we opened our doors.) 

If your client has been in an institution such as jail, hospital, or intermediate care facility for less than 90 days, and goes there from the street or shelter they retain their homeless status. In other words, there has been no break in homelessness. If they went to a temporary, but legitimate housing situation (consider a family member’s home who took them in until they healed) they lose their homeless status. 

You should also understand the term chronic homeless status. This definition is the most restrictive. Households must:

  • Have a documented disability, and
  • They have been homeless continuously for one year, or have had at least episodes in the last four years that add up to 12 months. 

When you are aware that your client is literally homeless, record each homeless episode in your case management software. If you document a single incident in a month HUD counts it for the entire month. 

There’s one more term on Category 1 to keep in mind if you are trying to document chronic status that adds up to 12 months. A “break” in homelessness  is considered to be seven or more nights. For example, John has been in an emergency shelter for 30 days. He slept on a friend’s couch for six nights and then returned to the shelter for 30 days. He’s been homeless for 67 days continuously.  

Suppose John spent 30 days in a shelter, slept on a friend’s couch for eight nights and returned to the shelter for 30 days. He had two incidents of homelessness that add up to 60 days.

See HUD’s flow chart to document chronic homelessness here.

Category 2: Imminent Risk of Homelessness

Category 2 is broader than Category 1. This means it’s easier to qualify for this definition. On the flip side, people at imminent risk are not eligible for all homeless assistance programs.  

An individual or family who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence, provided that:

  1. Residence will be lost within 14 days of the date of application for homeless assistance, including housing they own, rent, share with others, or do not pay rent;
  2. No subsequent residence has been identified; and
  3. The individual or family lacks the resources or support networks needed to obtain other permanent housing.

The household must have income that is below 30 percent of median family income for the area, as determined by HUD. Median family income is also called Area Median Income. You can look up your county’s HUD income limits on the Income Limits Documentation System

HUD adds more detail to this category that helps you document it in your case management records. You can find it at the end of this article. 

Category 3: Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes

This category refers to unaccompanied youth under 25 years of age, or families with children who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this definition, but who:

  1. Are defined as homeless under the other listed federal statutes;
  2. Have not had a lease, ownership interest in permanent housing during the 60 days prior to the homeless assistance application;
  3. Have experienced persistent instability as measured by two moves or more during in the preceding 60 days; and
  4. Can be expected to continue in such status for an extended period of time due to special needs or barriers.

More detail you can use in your case management records is here.

 Category 2:

(ii) Does not have sufficient resources or support networks, e.g., family, friends, faith-based or other social networks, immediately available to prevent them from moving to an  emergency shelter or another place described in paragraph (1) of the “homeless” definition in this section. (Available means in the possession of or reasonably obtainable by the seller or lessor at the time of the disclosure.) 

(iii) Meets one of the following conditions:

(A) Has moved because of economic reasons two or more times during the 60 days immediately preceding the application for homelessness prevention assistance;

(B) Is living in the home of another because of economic hardship;

(C) Has been notified in writing that their right to occupy their current housing or living situation will be terminated within 21 days after the date of application for assistance;

(D) Lives in a hotel or motel and the cost of the hotel or motel stay is not paid by charitable organizations or by Federal, State, or local government programs for low-income individuals;

(E) Lives in a single-room occupancy or efficiency apartment unit in which there reside more than two persons or lives in a larger housing unit in which there reside more than 1.5 persons reside per room, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau;

(F) Is exiting a publicly funded institution, or system of care (such as a health-care facility, a mental health facility, foster care or other youth facility, or correction program or institution); or

(G) Otherwise lives in housing that has characteristics associated with instability and an increased risk of homelessness, as identified in the recipient's approved  consolidated plan;

 2- HUD went to the trouble to exclude the Category 3 households from eligibility for CoC funds. Nevertheless, individuals and families that qualify as homeless under Category 3 may be served by the ESG program if they meet required eligibility criteria for certain ESG components.

Category 4: Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was created to acknowledge and address crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA established resources specific to the needs of victims. Although it says women in the law’s title it applies to any person no matter what their gender identity is. In fact, the law was updated in 2022 to add language about LGBTQ+ people’s rights. The many new protections are summarized here. The updated law mandates that victims will have certain protections from housing discrimination based on their victim status. 

The term “domestic violence” includes other forms of abuse: dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, and other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or family member that either takes place in, or him or her afraid to return to, their primary nighttime residence. 

  1. Is fleeing, or is attempting to flee, domestic violence;
  2. Has no other residence; and
  3. Lacks the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing

VAWA does not have funds to pay for housing. However, the law allows housing providers to set preferences for victims of domestic violence (DV.) The 2023 call for CoC grants provided bonus funds for serving victims. Agencies serving victims can check whether their CoC applied for these funds.

Getting Started: How a Case Worker Can Help a Homeless Client

Nonprofit agencies and public housing authorities (PHA) operate most housing programs. Eligibility based on a client’s category of homelessness depends on the resources they have. It gets complicated to know which agency to contact, not mention you may have to talk to different staff to learn about different housing opportunities.

There is a shortcut through this in most communities. If you are serving a household struggling with housing start your service with a call to your state or community Coordinated Entry system. You can get the contact number you need on this HUD search tool


ii) Have not had a lease, ownership interest, or occupancy agreement in permanent housing at any time during the 60 days immediately preceding the date of application for  homeless assistance;
(iii) Have experienced persistent instability as measured by two moves or more during the 60-day period immediately preceding the date of applying for homeless assistance; and
(iv) Can be expected to continue in such status for an extended period of time because of chronic disabilities, chronic physical health or mental health conditions, substance addiction, histories of domestic violence or childhood abuse (including neglect), the presence of a child or youth with a disability, or two or more barriers to employment, which include the lack of a high school degree or General Education Development (GED), illiteracy, low English proficiency, a history of incarceration or detention for criminal activity, and a history of unstable employment.

Coordinated Entry is essentially a single point of entry into housing programs. You or your client start with a call to the program agency that operates Coordinated Entry. The staff person will walk you through a series of questions that assess your client’s situation. Factors such as income, history of DV victimization, disabilities, history of homeless episodes and veteran status will sort out what your client’s category of homelessness is and what programs might serve them.

Ideally the Coordinated Entry process will also create a type of universal application that you or your client can submit to all housing programs for which they seem to be eligible. This reduces paperwork, which can be significant for clients who qualify for multiple programs. The application will require copies of some attachments that could include the client’s ID card, social security card, disability diagnosis or others.

Resources By Homeless Category

Continuum of Care (CoC)

HUD has been spending substantial sums to house people who experience literal homelessness through a program called the Continuum of Care (CoC.). Contact your local administrative office for the CoC If you think your client has met any part of the Category 1 definition. All CoC funds are restricted to people who meet the Category 1 definition. Go to HUD’s CoC search tool to find your community or statewide CoC. 

Agencies with CoC programs may own and operate apartment buildings or provide rent subsidies that clients use to reduce the amount of rent they have to pay out of pocket. There are several types of subsidies that may restrict clients to rent only in certain buildings or that can be used in buildings they choose, with some parameters regarding safety, livability and rent limits.

Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG)

The ESG provides short- or medium-term rent subsidies and stabilization services to house people quickly or prevent their loss of housing. Local organizations may set preferences or restrictions for their programs. 

  • Rapid Re-Housing is for the client who is literally homeless. It can serve people who meet Category 1. It can also serve people in Category 4 but they must be literally homeless. 
  • Homeless Prevention assistance will help a household retain their current housing. Funds can be used to pay rent arrearages, subsidize future rent payments for a limited time, pay utility arrearages and provide services. People may qualify under Categories 2, 3 and 4.
Youth Homeless Demonstration Program

HUD has a program with limited allocations for planning and services to address the crisis in homelessness among people under the age of 25. Your CoC contact should be able to answer questions about whether there is any local funding for this population.

Rapid Re-Housing funds can be used for helping homeless youth if the agency administering the funds added this population to its plan. 

Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH)

VASH is a rent subsidy program that public housing authorities administer in partnership with VA service providers. Check with your local CoC or contact a VA medical center for information. Contact information is listed here

Public Housing Authority (PHA) Every county has a PHA, either individually or as part of multiple counties served by one PHA. It receives the most funding from HUD of any housing program. If you are not familiar with the PHA serving your area you can find contact information here.  PHAs own and operate multifamily properties. They also offer Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV), formerly known as Section 8 vouchers. They do not require that clients be homeless under any definition. It is an income-driven program. 

PHA wait lists can be quite long. PHAs are allowed to set preferences for people in one or more of the categories. It's worth noting that PHAs may have CoC grants also, and those programs must follow CoC definitions for homelessness. You can check with your CoC or your PHA to ask if any preferences are set. This means your client could move up the waiting list more quickly.

Office of Native American Programs (ONAP)  If you serve Native Americans you can check for whether any agencies administer the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) program with contact information at https://www.hud.gov/codetalk. This program 

is the single largest source of Indian housing assistance. This is primarily based on income limits but local authorities may set additional restrictions.

A final note: this article is only an overview of federal homeless programs. Assistance providers will give you with more specifics. Your state or local government may have its own programs for rent assistance. You can check with local and state offices of community development to learn about these.

The most important thing you can do in serving people struggling with housing stability is to document every incident of literal homelessness, stays in shelters, and intermittent housing episodes. Housing program administrators can use this to identify all of the programs for which they are eligible.  

Building a history of housing instability can be critical to meeting eligibility guidelines, including programs that require people to qualify for any of the four types of homelessness. Case management software helps you to document any of these events. When you need the information you can run a report to give to your local housing providers. It will help them qualify your client for any programs that are available. 

Demand for affordable housing is rising. Information like this article is not a shortcut, but it can help you qualify your client for assistance. Remember that housing program staff are following rules they don’t control. Whatever you can do to show your client’s needs fit the rules the better off you will be. Then maybe housing programs will seem less like a puzzle and more like a solution.

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Maryellen Hess Cameron
Maryellen Hess Cameron spent over 25 years as the Executive Director of non-profit agencies in the social