Chronic Homelessness

Chronic homelessness is defined as long-term or repeated homelessness, often coupled with a disability.

Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition, 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 and has a disability. A family with an adult member who meets this description would also be considered chronically homeless.

Chronically homeless people are among the most vulnerable people in the homeless population. They tend to have high rates of behavioral health problems, including severe mental illness and substance abuse disorders, conditions that may be exacerbated by physical illness, injury or trauma. Consequently, they are frequent users of emergency services, crisis response, and public safety systems.

In the past decade, many communities have collaborated on ending chronic homelessness with the support of federal policies. As a result, the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness has declined by 30 percent since 2007. The chronically homeless population, 84,291 individuals, accounted for 14.5 percent of all experiencing homelessness on a given night in 2014, according to Part 1 of HUD's 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

Research shows that, for chronically homeless individuals, stable housing is  an essential component of successful recovery. The solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is permanent supportive housing, which is housing coupled with supportive services. With appropriate supports, permanent housing can serve as a foundation for rehabilitation, therapy, and improved health.

What's more, it is a cost-effective intervention. Chronically homeless individuals living in permanent supportive housing are far less likely to draw on expensive public services. They are also less likely to end up in homeless shelters, emergency rooms, or jails, none of which are effective interventions for chronic homelessness. Public costs – whether local, state or federal – are therefore reduced.

Permanent supportive housing can produce dramatic results. One study of the 1811 Eastlake program in Seattle, WA, which provides housing to homeless people with the most extensive health problems, found that the program saved nearly $30,000 per tenant per year in publicly-funded services, all while achieving better housing and health outcomes for the tenants.

It’s equally important that we take measures to prevent chronic homelessness before it happens. Targeted prevention policies can connect people who are at risk of becoming homeless, such those who are exiting prisons or psychiatric facilities, with housing that meets their needs and prevents them from becoming homeless in the first place.


Library Resources

Webinar | November 13, 2012
This webinar provides strategic information and recommendations for improving communities’ capacity to solve chronic homelessness by effectively integrating supportive housing and community-based health care delivery.
Best Practice | April 4, 2008
Streets to Homes is a Housing First program in Toronto that targets unsheltered homeless people and provides them with government subsidized permanent housing with follow-up supports. To date, approximately 1,500 people have moved directly from living on the street into permanent housing units, and 87 percent have remained housed.
Solutions Brief | January 19, 2007
This two-page brief highlights three cities - New York, NY, Denver, CO, and Portland, OR - that have done studies of the cost effectiveness of providing supportive housing for homeless people with mental illness and/or addictions. The studies demonstrate that the cost of providing supportive housing is about the same or less than the cost of allowing them to remain homeless.