Chronic Homelessness: A Research Brief

This fact sheet provides a brief history and current understanding of chronic, episodic, and transitional homelessness. As understanding of homelessness in the United States has evolved, researchers have come to recognize chronic homelessness as a relatively small and “solvable” problem that affects, on average, about 10 to 15 percent of people who experience homelessness. This vulnerable population of people with disabilities is composed primarily of adults living on their own, who either experience homelessness for prolonged periods of time or have repeat episodes of homelessness. Chronic homelessness, in addition to being extremely debilitating to those who experience it, can be very expensive to homeless systems and public systems, including health care and criminal justice.

What are the implications for policymakers and practitioners?

From the available evidence, we can draw some clear lessons for policy and practice:

  • Coordinated entry and assessment can be used to differentiate the majority of people experiencing an acute housing crisis from the minority experiencing chronic homelessness, and to refer each group to the appropriate interventions. Accurate identification of those who are most likely to develop chronic patterns of homelessness in the future, in order to provide services to preempt this shift, is not feasible at this time.
  • Treatment and care for people experiencing chronic homelessness should be the primary motivators for any intervention. However, communities that are also hoping to realize cost savings by addressing chronic homelessness will limit savings potential if they only focus on those who are already high-cost users of crisis response systems. Practitioners should consider referring all adults who are homeless with disabilities to rapid re-housing, with the option to transition to PSH as continuing need is revealed, consistent with a Progressive Engagement approach (i.e., initially providing a small amount of assistance to resolve a housing crisis, and then additional assistance as needed after individual assessment).
  • Among the current population of people experiencing chronic homelessness, PSH is still the best fit, possibly with rapid re-housing as a bridge.
  • As individuals with chronic patterns age, they will need more medical services and assistance with activities of daily living rather than behavioral health services. Symptoms of severe mental illness or substance abuse may become less acute, but people develop other severe chronic health conditions.
  • Scalable interventions should be part of the solution, including aggressive enrollment in SSI and shallow rent subsidies when PSH is not available.

Read the full research brief to see the underlying research evidence.

Publication Date: 
Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness
United States