Here’s What You Need to Know about HUD’s New Chronic Homelessness Definition

written by Jayme Day
December 16, 2015

After years of trying to nail down a definition of chronic homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finally released a new definition earlier this month. The new definition incorporates comments submitted over the years by a wide variety of stakeholders, including the Alliance.

Now that HUD’s definition is finalized, communities will need to make adjustments to their homeless systems in order to implement the new definition and use it to help end homelessness. We think the new definition will lead to improvements. But to understand fully why it’s good for ending homelessness, you need to first understand what the new definition changes.

First, let’s look at the traditional definition. Chronic homelessness has been defined as a single individual (or head of household) with a disabling condition who has either:

  • Experienced homelessness for longer than a year, during which time the individual may have lived in a shelter, Safe Haven, or a place not meant for human habitation.
  • Or experienced homelessness four or more times in the last three years. 

Now here’s what’s different in the new definition:  

  • First, in terms of length of homelessness, the four episodes now have to add up to 12 months. Before this new definition, an individual could technically be homeless four different days over a three-year period and be classified as chronically homeless.
  • Second, previously people who exited institutional care facilities after spending fewer than 90 days there would not have that period counted toward their homelessness. Now, it will be.
  • Third, the time between periods of homelessness has now been defined as seven days in order for the period of homelessness to constitute an “episode. “
  • Finally, HUD has clarified the ways in which service providers should verify whether an individual’s homelessness experience meets the definition of chronic homelessness.

Those are the basics when it comes to time periods of homelessness, but of course many providers may have some remaining questions and concerns. Here’s a quick look.

1. Why change the definition? – First, many permanent supportive housing programs (PSH) are targeted solely to chronically homeless people because this intervention is effective for ending homelessness and improving other outcomes for this group. PSH is a scarce resource and should be targeted to those most in need. The definition change is meant to ensure that disabled persons with the longest histories of homelessness can access housing.  Second, due to many ambiguities in the original definition, communities across the U.S. were interpreting it differently.

2. Will people have to wait longer to be eligible for PSH? – Yes and No. PSH is intended for people who are already chronically homeless according to the new definition. So while it’s true that some people won’t qualify, there are already plenty of people out there who do, and they need our help.  The sooner we end chronic homelessness, the sooner we can work our way upstream to prevent and end homelessness for all people.

3. Will the documentation be onerous? It could be. Clarity helps, though, and HUD has provided a lot more in terms of details for verifying chronic homelessness. The definition goes into place Jan. 15, 2016 right before the January 2016 point-in-time (PIT) count. Providers should be ready to collect additional information during the count. However, you’re not required to verify their status during the count; that can come later.

4. What about people who are already in PSH? The new definition will only apply going forward. It’s not retroactive, i.e. people aren’t going to be kicked out of PSH because of it. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to do a better job targeting our scare PSH resources.  Providers should  explore “move-up” vouchers for people in PSH who still need subsidized housing but not the intensive services, freeing up space for others in need.

5. Will the new definition help to end homelessness? – Yes. Currently, communities are using PSH for populations that may not need that intensive of an intervention. Given its cost and scarcity, we must be extremely deliberate in how we use this resource. Targeting PSH to those who are chronically homeless according to this new definition will free up emergency services for those in crisis and will take many people off the streets who desperately need help. 

Graphic from the "2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.