Social Work Homelessness Outside the United States
Thomas Byrne, Yin-Ling Irene Wong
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0178


Homelessness is a social problem that is not confined to a single country, or even region, of the globe. Nations throughout the world are affected by homelessness, although it takes different forms depending on political, social, economic, and cultural settings. In most developed countries, homelessness is defined as a literal lack of a stable housing arrangement. In many developing nations, however, the line between those living in substandard or inadequate housing and those who are considered homeless is sometimes less clear. Sparse data on homelessness and different operational definitions of homelessness makes it difficult both to estimate the prevalence of homelessness across the globe and to make meaningful cross-national comparisons of the experience of homelessness. Nonetheless, studies conducted in a number of countries have consistently found elevated rates of psychiatric disorders and other disabilities in samples of homeless persons. In addition, homelessness among “street children” is a major problem in the developing world, although youth homelessness looks different and presents a different type of challenge in developed nations. These and other subgroups of the homeless population are sometimes targeted to receive specific types of assistance, but responses to homelessness differ substantially across countries and are often shaped by broader social welfare and housing policies. This article presents an overview on homelessness outside the United States based on a systematic search of the academic and service literature by topics of interest and by region across the globe. The search strategy involved queries of a number of databases (Medline, PsycINFO, Google Scholar, ISI Web of Science) using several different keyword combinations (e.g., “homeless and international,” “homeless and Europe”). The contents of books, monographs, and journals known to publish relevant studies were also scanned, and references were harvested from studies identified through the database searches. By only including works written in English, however, this review may have excluded key studies published in other languages.

Introductory Works

There are a number of works that are useful for placing the problem of homelessness in an international context and providing an overview of the problem in different national and cross-national settings. Glasser 1994 touches on the causes, consequences, and responses to homelessness in every region of the world. Fitzpatrick, et al. 2012; O’Sullivan, et al. 2010; and special issues from three journals (Christian and Anderson 2003, Flick 2007, Toro 2007) offer a comprehensive overview of many pertinent dimensions of homelessness in developed countries. In contrast, a special issue from a fourth journal (Cross, et al. 2010) and Tipple and Speak 2009 are valuable resources for understanding the nature and of the problem of homelessness and responses to it in developing countries.

  • Christian, Julie, and Isobel Anderson, eds. 2003. Special issue: Homelessness: Integrating international perspectives. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 13.2.

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    The eight articles in this special issue provide contrasting perspectives on homelessness from the United States and United Kingdom. Articles examine theoretical and definitional issues that are necessary to untangle for understanding homelessness, causal mechanisms of homelessness, and policy responses to homelessness.

  • Cross, Catherine, John R. Seager, et al. 2010. Special issue: Street people in South Africa: Studies towards understanding the homeless. Development Southern Africa 27.1.

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    This special issue is a compendium of ten articles covering multiple aspects of street homelessness in South Africa. Topics covered include the historical origins of homelessness; similarities and differences between South Africa and other countries; the demographic profile of the street homeless population; the multiple risks associated with homelessness; and children on the street and their special needs.

  • Fitzpatrick, Suzanne, Sarah Johnsen, and Beth Watts. 2012. International homelessness policy review: A report to inform the review of homelessness legislation in Wales. Cardiff, UK: Cardiff University, School of City and Regional Planning.

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    This report reviews homelessness policy in developed countries and highlights promising approaches to address homelessness. Articles are organized in eight core themes, including legal rights; “staircase,” “housing first,” and “normalizing” approaches; access to housing for homeless people; homeless prevention; family homelessness, single homelessness and rough sleeping; governance and the role of NGOs; policy implementation, evaluation, and monitoring; and costs and benefits.

  • Flick, Uwe, ed. 2007. Special issue: Homelessness and health: Challenges for health psychology. Journal of Health Psychology 12.5.

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    Articles in this special issue examine critical challenges presented by homelessness from medical health and mental health perspectives. Countries covered are the United States, Canada, England, Germany, and Ghana. Topics include health risk factors related to homelessness, health service utilization by homeless persons, and interventions to promote positive health outcomes for homeless persons.

  • Glasser, Irene. 1994. Homelessness in global perspective. New York: G. K. Hall.

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    This book draws on published research and reports on homelessness collected from countries located in every region of the globe. Chapters examine the causes and consequences of, and policy responses to, homelessness for specific subpopulations including men, women, children, and families. Issues related to the enumeration of the homeless population are addressed.

  • O’Sullivan, Eoin, Volker Busch-Geertsema, Deborah Quilgars, and Nicholas Pleace, eds. 2010. Homelessness research in Europe: Festschrift for Bill Edgar and Joe Doherty. Brussels: FEANTSA.

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    This book provides an overview of issues related to homelessness and subpopulations of persons experiencing homelessness in Europe. Topics include defining and measuring homelessness; the relationship between homelessness and welfare states; interventions and policies targeted toward homeless persons; a human rights approach to homelessness; and homelessness among immigrants, youth, and women.

  • Tipple, Graham, and Suzanne Speak. 2009. The hidden millions: Homelessness in developing countries. New York: Routledge.

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    This book offers a portrait of homelessness in the developing world. It draws on both quantitative and qualitative data to estimate the scope and nature of homelessness, and discusses the challenges of differentiating between homeless people and those who are inadequately housed. It explores the definition and causes of homelessness, as well as strategies to address homelessness.

  • Toro, Paul A., ed. 2007. Special issue: Toward an international understanding of homelessness. Journal of Social Issues 63.3.

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    This special issue provides useful information for understanding homelessness in an international context. It includes review articles that synthesize literature from multiple countries and empirical articles that present findings from comparative studies of homelessness, as well as analyses of homelessness policies, primarily in western Europe.

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