Ending Chronic Homelessness: Strategies for Action. What is Chronic Homelessness?

03/01/2003

The first attempts to describe the current generation of homeless persons were based on survey methods. The surveys were conducted during a specific time period, e.g, the month of February, and used a convenience sample, e.g., going to soup kitchens or providers that specifically assist homeless individuals. Survey methods are the source for a commonly cited figure for homelessness in the United States, viz., 600,000 persons are homeless on any given night. Survey approaches continue to be used and are a legitimate, valuable tool for understanding the prevalence of a condition, such as chronic homelessness, and for understanding the characteristics of those experiencing that condition.

As homeless assistance matured, information system technologies were introduced into many homelessness assistance settings. Administrative systems made another method of population description possible — one that described the users of homeless assistance over a long period of time rather than a snapshot in time. Longitudinal analyses of the service users confirmed important distinctions among homeless persons that had first been noted by the Institute of Medicine in 1988. Specifically, the group is not homogeneous and three important subgroups regularly appear:(1)

  • temporarily homeless — persons who experience only one spell of homelessness, usually short, and who are not seen again by the homeless assistance system;
  • episodically homeless — those who use the system with intermittent frequency, but usually for short periods; and
  • chronically homeless — those with a protracted homeless experience, often a year or longer, or whose spells in the homeless assistance system are both frequent and long.

These subgroups emerge from actual utilization patterns in numerous cities and show relatively similar distributions: Approximately 80 percent of users are temporarily homeless, 10 percent are episodic, and 10 percent are chronic.

Applying the 10 percent estimate to the number of persons who are homeless annually results in a figure of approximately 200,000 individuals annually who will be chronically homeless.(2) The Department believes that by linking affordable housing with treatment and support services, substantial and permanent reductions in the occurrence of chronic homelessness are achievable.

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