Chronically homeless individuals spend years or even decades living on the streets and cycling between emergency shelters, hospitals, jails,and treatment programs.
Chronic homelessness can be ended with permanent supportive housing, and better policies to prevent homelessness among people at high risk.
The public cost of ending chronic homelessness can be considerably offset by the savings of doing so.
Changes to the way communities approach the problem have led to dramatic reductions in chronic homelessness.
What Is Chronic Homelessness?
Chronic homelessness is long-term or repeated homelessness. Virtually all chronically homeless people have a disability. Many chronically homeless people have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, alcohol or drug addiction, and/or chronic physical illness. Most chronically homeless individuals have been in treatment programs, sometimes on dozens of occasions.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies five characteristics associated with chronic homelessness:
1. The near universal presence of disabling conditions involving “serious health conditions, substance abuse, and psychiatric illnesses.”
2. Frequent use of the homeless assistance system and other health and social services.
3. Frequent disconnection from their communities, including limited support systems, and disengagement from traditional treatment systems.
4. Multiple problems such as “frail elders with complex medical conditions, HIV patients with psychiatric and substance abuse issues….”
5. Fragmented service systems that are unable to meet their multiple needs in a comprehensive manner.
Emergency Shelters were originally designed to provide short-term relief for people who had experienced a crisis and who, with some assistance, could move back into a home of their own. Shelters were not designed to address the extensive needs of people with serious mental illness or other disabilities. Without the proper assistance such people tend to stay homeless in shelters for long periods of time, making them chronically homeless, while utilizing a disproportionate amount of shelter resources…
This creates a paradox in which shelter staff struggle to serve people that their programs are ill-equipped to help, while turning away many families and individuals that they could serve well because they lack the space.
Ending Chronic Homelessness Is Cost-Effective
“A landmark study of homeless people with serious mental illness… found that it cost the public the same amount to house a person with serious mental illness as it did to keep that person homeless. But while the costs were the same, the outcomes were much different. Permanent supportive housing results in better mental and physical health, greater income (including income from employment), fewer arrests, better progress toward recovery and self-sufficiency, and less homelessness.”
More on Chronic Homelessness here.
Editor’s Note: Our StreetWatch homeless outreach team focuses on unsheltered and/or chronically homeless people in Greensboro, NC.