Ending Chronic Homelessness - This Is the Year!

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Federal Policy Brief | May 21, 2014

Files: Ending Chronic Homelessness - This Is the Year! (PDF | 126 KB | 1 PAGE)

With recent focus in the media about inequality, and talk by members of both parties about addressing poverty, one place to begin on these issues is with a group of Americans who are at the bottom – people with disabilities (usually mental illnesses) who live on the streets or in homeless shelters for long periods of time, sometimes years on end. This “chronically homeless” population is cause for frustration for many Americans, especially since a real, cost-effective solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is at hand but has not been fully implemented.

As of early 2013, approximately 93,000 individual Americans were chronically homeless on any given night. Mental illness is common among this group, as are other kinds of disabilities. Victimization is common, as is injury and death. Many are unable to make any kind of positive change, due to their disabilities and the need to focus on immediate needs of warmth and food.

Chronic homelessness is bad for the communities where they live as well. Taxpayers end up paying for mental health crisis treatment, for emergency room treatment of injuries and diseases exacerbated by outdoor living, for repeated jailings for minor crimes, and for homeless shelters. In many ways the spirit of a community is torn down by the presence on the streets of people with no other place to live.

For the past 15 years, there has been movement to solve this problem. Research has demonstrated that there is an intervention that works. Known as “permanent supportive housing,” it involves rent subsidies along with mental health and other medical treatment and support services to stabilize individuals’ existence. Permanent supportive housing gets people off the streets and keeps them off.

Permanent supportive housing also saves taxpayers money, if properly targeted to the most vulnerable people. Once housed, chronically homeless people stop going to jail. They stop going to emergency rooms and crisis mental health centers nearly as often, and they leave sooner when they do. They stop going to homeless shelters. Numerous studies show savings that exceed the cost of the permanent supportive housing.

With a cost-saving solution available to these highly vulnerable people, it should be no surprise that both political parties have supported implementation of permanent supportive housing. Business leaders, mayors, law enforcement officials, and clergy have led local efforts. Because of increased investments by Congress since 2004, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness has declined steadily since then. The solution is working, for everyone.

Which begs the question – Why aren’t we finishing the job? In fact, due to the growing momentum and the support from all quarters, we are in a position to do just that, but only if the money is invested by Congress to provide for the additional housing. The HUD budget request for FY 2015 includes an increase of $301 million for HUD’s Homeless Assistance account, targeted toward housing an additional 37,000 chronically homeless people. Combined with HUD’s work to reallocate already-existing resources to permanent supportive housing, this would be enough to house everyone experiencing chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.

HUD needs to have sufficient funds in order to implement this investment. This is the year: the momentum and bipartisan support are in place to make it happen now, and the budget situation only gets worse in the future. This proposal would make a big difference for the individuals involved, and the communities where they live. An intervention that vastly improves the lives of the most vulnerable Americans, saves taxpayers money, and has strong bipartisan support should not be ignored.