Fact Sheet: Chronic Homelessness

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Fact Sheets | May 13, 2015

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What is chronic homelessness?

A chronically homeless individual is someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years (must be a cumulative of 12 months), and has a disability. A family with an adult member who meets this description would also be considered chronically homeless.

How many people experience chronic homelessness in America?

On a single night in January 2015, communities across the country counted 83, 170 chronically homeless individuals in the point-in-time counts. This represents 15 percent of the total homeless population. ii

What are the typical demographics of chronically homelessness individuals?

A commonly-accepted typology of the homeless population shows that people experiencing chronic homelessness are likely to be older than the general homeless population, male, non-white, and long-term unemployed.iii These individuals often live in places not meant for human habitation—such as on the street or in an abandoned building—and use emergency shelter frequently and for extended periods of time. They tend to have high rates of criminal justice involvement, social service use, and emergency healthcare use.iv

Why do people experience chronic homelessness?

By definition, people experiencing chronic homelessness have at least one diagnosable disorder. Many have multiple, complex disorders. These disorders often are barriers to maintaining stable housing and employment and, when these individuals are not adequately supported, can result in frequent and/or lengthy episodes of homelessness.v Additionally, many people who are chronically homeless lack strong social networks, which means they must rely on an over-taxed social service system for support.vi The most frequently self-reported reasons for homelessness by those experiencing chronic homelessness include: unemployment; insufficient income support; and lack of affordable, accessible housing.vii

What programs end homelessness for chronically homeless individuals?

Permanent supportive housing—subsidized housing paired with supportive services—has emerged as the most effective intervention to end homelessness for chronically homeless individuals. The most successful models utilize a Housing First approach, which values individual choice in housing and removes barriers to housing by placing persons into housing without prerequisites such as sobriety or psychiatric treatment.viii These units can be located in a single building (“congregate” housing) or in multiple locations in the community (“scattered-site” housing).

Research has shown a direct correlation between permanent supportive housing and chronic homelessness: the more permanent supportive housing units added to a community, the greater the decreases in chronic homelessness.ix Additionally, permanent supportive housing is cost effective. It decreases shelter use, healthcare services use, and incarceration.x

Permanent supportive housing is most frequently provided in the form of a rent subsidy, such as Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers or a subsidy through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance program. However, the supportive services component can be difficult to fund. An emerging funding strategy for providing supportive services for permanent supportive housing is through Medicaid, as those who are chronically homeless tend to have substantial physical and/or mental healthcare needs.xi

Homeless veterans are uniquely eligible for a HUD-VASH, a permanent supportive housing program that is a joint program between U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). This program combines Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers with case management and supportive services at VA medical centers. Evaluation of the HUD-VASH program has found a number of positive outcomes for participants, including an increase in employment and income, the number of days housed, and social networks.xii

Are we ending chronic homelessness?

In 2001, the Bush Administration announced a goal of ending chronic homelessness in the United States in ten years. In 2010, the Obama Administration reaffirmed this goal. These federal commitments have resulted in increased resources dedicated to this population, particularly permanent supportive housing. The number of permanent supportive housing units has grown by 59 percent nationally since 2007.xiii In the same time period, the number of chronically homeless individuals has decreased by 30 percent.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness’ Fact Sheets answer common and frequently asked questions about homelessness policy and research. This series draws on the best expertise, data, and research available. For more information about homelessness, please visit www.endhomelessness.org


i U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH): CoC Program Interim Rule. July 2012.

ii National Alliance to End Homelessness. The State of Homelessness in America. 2015.

iii Kuhn, R. & Culhane, D. Applying Cluster Analysis to Test a Typology of Homelessness by Pattern of Shelter Utilization: Results for Analysis of Administrative Data. 1998.

iv Byrne, T., Fargo, J.D., Montgomery, A.E., Munley, E. & Culhane, P. The Relationship between Community Investment in Permanent Supportive Housing and Chronic Homelessness. 2014.

v Culhane, D. & Metraux, S. Rearranging the Deck Chairs or Reallocating the Lifeboats?: Homelessness Assistance and Its Alternatives. 2008.

viCaton, C., Wilkins, C., & Anderson, J. People Who Experience Long-Term Homelessness: Characteristics and Interventions. 2007.

vii Mojtabai, R. Perceived Reasons for Loss of Housing and Continued Homelessness among Homeless Persons with Mental Illness. 2005.

viii Tsemberis, S. & Eisenberg, R. Pathways to Housing: Supported Housing for Street-Dwelling Homeless Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities. 2000.

ix Byrne, T., Fargo, J.D., Montgomery, A.E., Munley, E. & Culhane, P. The Relationship between Community Investment in Permanent Supportive Housing and Chronic Homelessness. 2014.

x Caton, C., Wilkins, C., & Anderson, J. People Who Experience Long-Term Homelessness: Characteristics and Interventions. 2007.

xi Thiele, D. & Bailey, P. Creating a Medicaid Supportive Housing Services Benefit: A Framework for Washington and Other States.

xiiNational Alliance to End Homelessness. HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Policy Brief.

xiiiNational Alliance to End Homelessness. The State of Homelessness in America. 2015.