Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new 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 (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.
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 on a given day has declined by 30 percent from 2007 to 2014. The chronically homeless population, 83,170 individuals, accounted for 15 percent of all persons experiencing homelessness on a given night in 2015, according to Part 1 of HUD’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
While people experiencing chronic homelessness make up a small number of the overall homeless population, they are among the most vulnerable. They tend to have high rates of behavioral health problems, including severe mental illness and substance use 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.
How Can We End Chronic Homelessness?
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.