The concept of homelessness covers many diverse situations. On the one hand it deals with individuals without a roof over their heads. On the other, it is concerned with individuals living in precarious situations, whose accommodation is insecure, who risk being evicted or live in buildings under demolition order. The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements has proposed that individuals are considered"houseless" if they are sleeping rough, which means in the street, in public places or in other places not meant for human habitation, or in shelters provided by welfare or other institutions.
Homelessness is also the absence or attenuation of the affiliative bonds that link settled persons to a network of interconnected social structures, typified by the absence of any form of permanent accommodation. Often, alongside the loss of housing, the homeless develop an incapacity to live independently. In this way, homelessness must be considered more a condition that a sudden event. It is much more than just losing a roof over your head; it become part of a much wider process of marginalization, which involves not just housing or financial inadequacy but an inability to participate in and avail of the quality of life and opportunities enjoyed by the rest of society.
Homeless people or families may live in cars (in developed countries), or squat, or sleep in public places (such as railway stations) or in the streets. Homelessness is a matter of degree, ranging from a temporary condition (whilst establishing a new base), through a periodical one (in the case of migrant labourers, for example), to a permanent condition. In the latter case, the people may be self-supporting (gypsies, carnival performers) or dependent on society (beggars and vagrants). (Houselessness has been advocated as a more sensitive term that recognizes that a home is the space to which a person can lay some claim, even if it is constitutes the most minimal of shelters.) The risk of becoming homeless is increased by a lack of access to helping resources, whether finances, the support of friends and family, or public or voluntary support services. The supply of housing is also a critical factor. When housing supply is inadequate, either because of an absolute shortage or an insufficiency of a range of accommodation types, the risk of homelessness increases out of proportion to the prevalence of economic and social problems.
Homeless people, at least in industrialized countries, have quite a specific demographic profile compared to the population in general. They tend, on average, either to have never married (particularly men) or to be separated or divorced (particularly women). They are also relatively young. Their health is poorer and their average educational and work experience lower than the population norm. They are also more likely to have spent some time in an institution. Male and female homelessness, at least in developed countries, are qualitatively different phenomena. The male route to homelessness is typically more public that that of women. Men are usually made homeless by material difficulties, such as lack of money, no access to housing or lack of employment. Men are more likely to seek and receive accommodation from the available services or else to be more visible on the streets. Women, in contrast, become homeless because of relationship difficulties within the family. They often have responsibility for children. They are also more likely than men to seek a "private" solution to their homelessness, by for example getting temporary accommodation from a friend or family member.
There are 100 million homeless in the world today. In the EEC/EU in 1992, single people have a four times greater risk of being homeless, and lone parents a 17 times greater risk. In Denmark, 50% of the women who received assistance as homeless persons in 1989 were accompanied by children, compared with 1% of the men. Over 70% of Europe's homeless persons are under 40 years of age, and there has been a trend towards a fall in the average age of homeless persons over 20 years. Immigrants have a higher risk of being homeless, with illegal immigrants having particular difficulties. Poor health (physical, mental or both) is a common characteristic of people who are homeless. Between 30 and 50% of "rough sleepers" in England and Wales have a history of mental illness. In one London Borough, one in eight former patients of mental hospitals does not have a fixed place of abode. In the Wallonia region of Belgium, 15% of the homeless men and 5% of the homeless women had spent time in a psychiatric institution and 21% of the men and 2% of the women had spent time in prison. The average age of deceased homeless persons in London was 47 years compared with a population norm of between 73 and 79 years. People sleeping on the streets in London have a 150 times greater chance of dying violence, a 34 times greater chance of death by suicide, are 8 times more likely to die in an accident and three times more likely to die of pneumonia or hypothermia than the rest of the population. In Germany, homeless people have a ten year lower life expectancy compared with the settled population and 80% of those in shelters had not progressed beyond primary level schooling. Over 70% of the homeless in Spain have only basic reading and writing skills. Homeless have poor employment records -- temporary, low paid work with frequent interruption is the norm. In Germany, over three-quarters are from a working-class background, but 35% had worked in skilled employment at some stage during the three years prior to 1991. A significant proportion of homeless people who have work experience have worked in the black or shadow economy.
In the UK in 1990, it was estimated that the level of homelessness had doubled to over 300,000 people (126,000 households) in 11 years. One contributing factor is the shortage of cheap rental flats and single rooms. Between 1982 and 1989, the number of households in temporary accommodation quadrupled. Such figures only cover those who apply to local authorities and do not include those not having a priority need. In 1993 it was estimated that there were some 10,000 homeless in France and some 150,000 in Germany. At a minimum, in 1991/92 there were at least two and a half million known homeless persons in the EC (7.5 persons per 1,000 inhabitants). A realistic figure is more likely at least 5 million people. In the majority of EEC/EU member states, 80% of the services being provided for homeless meet basic needs; 60% provide information on rights and possibilities for housing or service; but services designed for long-term reintegration (through work, housing, psychological counselling and general support) are much less available; finally activities such as lobbying and research are few and far behind. EC countries with important gaps in services provided for the homeless are Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece (although, except for Greece, these are countries which also have the lower recorded levels of homelessness. Apart from France and Denmark, there is no official policy for the homeless), essentially due to a lack of partnership with the voluntary sector. Two thirds of the initiatives designed for the homeless come from the private sector (religious or local communities).
In 1987, in the USA it was estimated that there were 2 million homeless, more than at any time since the Great Depression. The Urban Institute and 1990 Census sets a more realistic estimate of at least 300,000, possibly as high as 500,000. According to the USA Conference of Mayors, 56% of the homeless in the USA are single men, 15% are single women, 28% are families, mostly single parent. One-third to one-half of the homeless men are military veterans. Most are under 40 years of age. Nearly one-third are severely mentally ill; in 1991 it was estimated there were twice as many schizophrenics living in public shelters and on the streets as there were in state hospitals. One-third to one-half of the homeless are chronic alcoholics and drug addicts. In the USA it is estimated that 500,000 young Americans live in the streets throughout the year. Almost all have been sexually or physically abused. Most cannot write well enough to fill out a job application and would not know how to go to work if they obtained a job. Many will die in the streets or in prison, in some cases after killing others.
[Developing countries] Natural disasters account for millions of homeless. In August 1988, 25 million people were left homeless in Bangladesh due to flooding. More than a million people were left homeless in Khartoum, Sudan after flooding.