In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homelessness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Overviews by Geographers
  • Reference Resources
  • Health
  • Geographies of Homelessness and Health
  • Reconceptualizing Geographies of Need
  • Ethnographies
  • Stigma and Identity
  • Revanchism and Resistance
  • Technology and Homelessness: E-mail, SMS Texting, and Social Media

Geography Homelessness
Lois M. Takahashi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0108


Homelessness has been defined along a spectrum of insufficient and inadequate shelter, from literal street sleeping to sleeping in temporary shelters to overcrowded housing circumstances; along a spectrum of time, from continuous to sporadic homeless episodes; and along a spectrum of space, from limited mobility to movement within and across geographic areas. In the United States and the Western industrialized world, homelessness was often framed as a crisis in the 1980s but has since become part of a larger narrative concerning entrenched poverty and income inequality. Research in the 1980s, primarily in sociology, psychology, social work, public policy, urban planning, public health, and geography, focused on defining homelessness, identifying the multiple and intersecting causes of homelessness, clarifying mental health issues faced by homeless persons, and recommending strategies, including emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent housing with and without social services, and housing with and without prerequisites. Early-21st-century research on homelessness has deepened scholarly and policy understanding of the variety of homeless subpopulations and their specific needs and survival strategies and increasingly has framed homelessness as a particular aspect of the larger structural issues defining poverty and inequality in industrialized countries. Geographers in particular have emphasized the spatial dimensions of homelessness and have provided a countervailing explanation (usually based in social structures such as poverty and social exclusion) to the popular notion that homelessness is the result of individual counterproductive behavior or vulnerabilities. This review article includes both conceptual and empirical research, endeavoring to cover the myriad of conceptual frameworks explaining homelessness and the varied approaches researchers have tested to ameliorate homelessness. The article also summarizes resistant threads of scholarship on homelessness, from theories of revanchism to feminism, and includes both work in the United States and other industrialized countries (in particular, Canada and the United Kingdom). The article is organized into the following sections, which highlight in particular the contributions made by geographers and those with spatial lenses. First, two overview sections summarize publications that have led the field in conceptualizing homelessness for scholars and policymakers; one of the sections highlights specific geographical contributions. A section on reference resources, especially online, follows that and focuses on advocacy organizations. The next few sections show how scholars have described the needs and challenges faced by varying groups of homeless persons, centering on health, mental health, and substance abuse. Geographers and others have worked to reconceptualize homelessness, from descriptions of need and individual deficits to a focus on systems and politics; one section highlights these innovative works. The final four sections summarize alternatives to the population descriptions that comprise the mainstay of homelessness research to focus on stigma and identity, revanchism and resistance, and conceptual and empirical discussions of policies and programs that should be, and have been, developed and delivered to address homelessness. I thank Nathaniel Barlow for expert research assistance, and the editorial team and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. All errors or omissions remain my responsibility.

General Overviews

The 1980s and 1990s saw a burst of research on homelessness. Much of the early research focused on methods to estimate the size and location of the homeless population and risk factors for homelessness (e.g., Caton, et al. 2005; Lee and Price-Spratlen 2004; Link, et al. 1994; Susser, et al. 1993). Alternative rubrics were put forth to explain the rapid rise in homelessness across North American cities in the 1980s. Many researchers focused on mental disability/illness and deinstitutionalization, where the closure of large mental health institutions in the United States and the lack of creation of community-based mental health-care settings (which were argued to be superior to large institutional settings but were not sufficiently provided) led to former patients being released into communities with little or no services and housing. Bachrach 1992 explains, in an accessible piece, how mental disability/illness and homelessness are linked. Some researchers focused on individual vulnerabilities, even framing them as deficits, such as substance abuse and mental health issues (stemming from child abuse, domestic violence, military experience, and other sources). Baum and Burnes 1993 and Jencks 1995 in particular argue that substance abuse along with other factors resulted in individual homelessness. O’Flaherty 1995 provides a rare housing-markets-centered economic explanation of homelessness. Outside the United States, Fitzpatrick 2005 offers an alternative explanation of homelessness in the United Kingdom, on the basis of a realist philosophical perspective.

  • Bachrach, Leona L. “What We Know about Homelessness among Mentally Ill Persons: An Analytical Review and Commentary.” Hospital & Community Psychiatry 43.5 (1992): 453–464.

    Accessible review of the literature on homelessness, focused on mental disability. The article highlights how homeless populations are counted, the variations within and between homeless subpopulations (including mobility and migration patterns), whether and how deinstitutionalization is linked to the expansion of homeless populations, and recommendations about planning services to meet the needs of homeless persons with mental health-care needs.

  • Baum, Alice S., and Donald W. Burnes. A Nation in Denial: The Truth about Homelessness. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

    Argues that the rise in homelessness was due primarily to individual deficits and vulnerabilities, especially substance abuse and mental disability, along with the failure of public policies directed toward homelessness, including deinstitutionalization, decriminalizing alcohol abuse, and gentrification of central-city skid row areas. Controversial in its focus on individual deficits for explaining homelessness.

  • Caton, Carol L. M., Boanerges Dominguez, Bella Schanzer, et al. “Risk Factors for Long-Term Homelessness: Findings from a Longitudinal Study of First-Time Homeless Single Adults.” American Journal of Public Health 95.10 (2005): 1753–1759.

    DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2005.063321

    Longitudinal interview study of 377 newly homeless single adults who entered New York City homeless shelters in 2001 and 2002, who were reinterviewed every six months for eighteen months. The most commonly reported reason for homelessness was “interpersonal problems.” Longer duration of homelessness was associated with less family support, less coping capacity, a history of substance abuse treatment, and arrest histories.

  • Fitzpatrick, Suzanne. “Explaining Homelessness: A Critical Realist Perspective.” Housing, Theory and Society 22.1 (2005): 1–17.

    DOI: 10.1080/14036090510034563

    Challenges structural and individual conceptualizations of homelessness, advocating instead a realist-based explanation of homelessness in the United Kingdom.

  • Jencks, Christopher. The Homeless. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    Attributes the rise in homelessness in the United States to crack cocaine, male unemployment, lower marriage rates, deinstitutionalization, reductions in welfare benefits, and redevelopment of skid rows. Argues that housing-market changes were not at the core of expanding homelessness in the 1980s. Controversial in its focus on individual deficits and vulnerabilities.

  • Lee, Barrett A., and Townsand Price-Spratlen. “The Geography of Homelessness in American Communities: Concentration or Dispersion?” City & Community 3.1 (2004): 3–27.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1535-6841.2004.00064.x

    Accessible overview of arguments on dispersion and concentration, and a detailed critique of the United States (US) Census S-night data collection. Analyzes 1990 US Census S-night and 2000 US Census data. The “visible” homeless population (living in shelters and on the streets) is most numerous in urban metropolitan areas. See also Barrett A. Lee, Townsand Price-Spratlen, and James W. Kanan, “Determinants of Homelessness in Metropolitan Areas,” Journal of Urban Affairs 25, no. 3 (2003): 335–356; and Barret A. Lee, Kimberly A. Tyler, and James D. Wright, “The New Homelessness Revisited,” Annual Review of Sociology 36 (2010): 501–521.

  • Link, Bruce G., Ezra Susser, Ann Stueve, Joe Phelan, Robert E. Moore, and Elmer Struening. “Lifetime and Five-Year Prevalence of Homelessness in the United States.” American Journal of Public Health 84.12 (1994): 1907–1912.

    DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.84.12.1907

    Though dated, provides a useful examination of the challenges of estimating the size of the homeless population in the United States.

  • O’Flaherty, Brendan. “An Economic Theory of Homelessness and Housing.” Journal of Housing Economics 4.1 (1995): 13–49.

    DOI: 10.1006/jhec.1995.1002

    Theory of homelessness based on the notion that housing “filters,” or that lower-income households (with homeless persons having the lowest incomes) are able to purchase (buy or rent) housing as housing quality deteriorates over time. Focuses solely on housing-market dynamics and not on individual vulnerabilities for explaining homelessness. Also see O’Flaherty’s 1998 book, Making Room: The Economics of Homelessness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • Susser, Ezra, Robert Moore, and Bruce Link. “Risk Factors for Homelessness.” American Journal of Epidemiology 15.2 (1993): 546–556.

    Critical analysis of definitions of homelessness. Compares studies in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Homeless populations are mostly men and mostly persons of color, although with more women and more individuals younger than sixty-five years of age than in the 1960s. Presents a developmental model of homelessness that includes demographic characteristics, childhood experiences, assets and challenges during young adulthood, and structural and individual factors during later adulthood.

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