Examining the Complexities of Homelessness Definitions
Many people find themselves having to move back in with parents or other family members due to financial hardship or other difficulties. This can lead to the question of whether living in such a dependent situation would be considered a form of homelessness. The answers are often complex, highlighting gaps between legal definitions, assistance programs, and the genuine instability those without independent housing face.
HUD Definition of Homelessness
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses a narrow definition of homelessness that determines eligibility for many assistance programs. By this definition, people are considered homeless if they:
- Are living in a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter
- Are in transitional housing for those moving out of homelessness
- Have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for regular sleeping accommodation
Simply living with family would not cause someone to be considered homeless under HUD’s definition. While it may not feel like an ideal living situation, HUD rules require “an individual or family to lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” to qualify as homeless.
Implications for Assistance Programs
Since HUD definitions determine eligibility for resources like Emergency Shelter Grants and Continuum of Care programs, people living with family members are often ineligible for governmental assistance aimed at the homeless population.
This can make it difficult for those dependent on family housing to get back on their feet. Without access to transitional programs, they can remain stuck in unstable situations without a clear path to establishing their own independent housing.
Instability of Doubling Up
Researchers make an important distinction between literal homelessness and people who are precariously housed or “doubling up” with others.
Though living with family or friends spares people from literal homelessness (living on the streets or in shelters), it is often an unstable situation without guarantees of continued housing. Host families can ask doubled-up people to leave anytime.
Risks of Doubled-Up Situations
Without tenure protections that come with formal lease agreements, people living with family members face risks including:
- Possible overcrowding – Family homes may not readily accommodate additional occupants, forcing people to sleep in temporary or public areas
- Lack of privacy/independence – Doubling up limits personal space and ability to make independent decisions
- Other instabilities – Family volatility, problems with addiction/violence, or sudden loss of housing can force people back into literal homelessness
Though living with family may technically comply with HUD’s narrow homelessness definition, the instability inherent in doubling up dynamics means such situations capture people at risk of homelessness.
A Spectrum of Housing Instability
Rather than a binary category of “homeless” vs “housed”, experts increasingly recognize a spectrum of housing precarity and instability. Those living with family members unable to establish fully independent households would fall somewhere in the middle.
Key factors that determine where someone falls on the spectrum include:
Security and Predictability
- Formal lease/ownership – Provides legal protections and predictable access to maintain housing
- Informal dependence – Relies on continued hospitality from hosts without guarantees
Privacy and Autonomy
- Private unit – Allows personal space and decision-making autonomy
- Shared space – Requires negotiating needs/preferences with other occupants
- Adequate room – Reasonably accommodates occupants and belongings
- Overcrowded – Too many occupants or belongings for the space
Housing Quality and Stability
- Good condition – Maintained livable standards for occupants
- Substandard/deteriorating – Lacking critical amenities or allowing environmental hazards
- Within budget – Housing costs align with reliable income
- Unaffordable – High housing costs destabilize household budgets
By these metrics, simply having a roof over one’s head does not guarantee truly stable housing situations. And frameworks like HUD definitions fail to capture people facing precarious realities along the housing instability spectrum.
Subjective Feelings of Homelessness
Beyond technical definitions, it is important to recognize that living in situations of dependency—whether with family members or others—can generate real psychological feelings of homelessness.
Without security, autonomy, and control over one’s housing, people often feel:
- A lack of agency in life decisions
- That housing depends on meeting someone else’s demands
- Uncertainty about the future
These dynamics and emotions align with stereotypical notions of homelessness—feelings of powerlessness and impermanence—even if living doubled-up spares people literal lack of housing.
Expanding narrow conceptions of homelessness to recognize a spectrum of housing instability can help identify more people in precarious situations before they reach crisis levels.
Ideally assistance programs would recognize that doubling up with family is often a temporary patch lacking real long-term stability. Policy and resource allocation should reflect that nuance.
In the meantime, people living with family but feeling trapped in dependent situations do have options, even if government assistance remains limited. Seeking help from nonprofit organizations, social workers, financial counselors, tenant unions, or community groups can provide alternative guidance.
With compassion and understanding from loved ones, establishing open communication and concrete plans to regain independence can also help stabilize difficult housed-but-precarious situations.
The path forward rests on broadening definitions, recalibrating assistance, and reframing solutions to meet people struggling all along the spectrum of housing instability.