What is homelessness?

Yesterday afternoon I noticed a poster on the wall outside my college’s health clinic. It advertised a research project sponsored by the college regarding homelessness and food insecurity among the student body. It encouraged students who’ve experienced either condition to be interviewed.

The poster struck a chord with me. I don’t have experience with either homelessness or food insecurity, fortunately, but I often forget about those that do. Not those begging on the roadside (I see that all the time), but those who might not be so public about their plight—those for whom homelessness probably more dangerous.

I took note of the poster, though, because of what it implied about homelessness. I’m not sure how the author of this particular project is defining homelessness, but it seems odd to me that someone can be simultaneously homeless and enrolled in a college with a $9,000+ estimated cost of attendance.

Many students finance this cost with loans, of course. It’s possible they have no money of their own, and find themselves hard-pressed for cash at times—perhaps without enough to pay rent or buy dinner. But if a student continues to re-enroll in school despite occasional “homelessness,” should really consider them homeless? Should we pity them the same way we pity old men and women begging on the streets?

I don’t think so. Homelessness is about options. Truly homeless people have no possible home—no willing friends or families with room to spare, no changes left to make that might loosen their financial noose. Most “homeless” college students have options. They may have no home while at school, but a cozy bed awaits them at mom’s house. Tuition may be expensive, but college isn’t mandated.

This same catch applies to poverty in general. How many people are truly poor? Do government statistics differentiate between an old man with no job, no cash and no family and a 25 year-old girl with no job, no cash, and millionaire parents willing to help out? One is quite different than the other.

Again, it’s all about options. Poverty, like homelessness, can be voluntary.

Posted by Nick Freiling

Founder/Director of PeopleFish. I write on technology, market research and economics. Bylines at Startup Grind, FEE, the American Enterprise Institute and the Mises Institute.

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