Addressing Chronic Homelessness: What the Research Tells Us

This guest post was written by Jill Khadduri, Senior Fellow and Principal Associate for Social and Economic Policy at Abt Associates.

Homelessness was once viewed as a permanent personal attribute, rather than a temporary condition. Long-term or repeated episodes on the street or in shelters were understood to be the “typical” experience of homelessness.

We now recognize that these patterns are indicators of chronic homelessness. Far from being the norm, only about 10 to 15 percent of people who experience homelessness are chronically homeless. But this relatively small group tends to be the most visible as well as the most vulnerable. A new brief from the Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness, by Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania, reviews the research to find which strategies and programs best serve people experiencing chronic homelessness.

What does the evidence say?

Permanent supportive housing — affordable housing assistance combined with access to flexible and individualized services — plays a critical role in resolving episodes of chronic homelessness for individuals. Despite multiple barriers, including chronic unemployment, disabilities, and substance abuse problems, the evidence shows that people who experience chronic homelessness are able to remain stably housed over the long term when they have access to affordable housing and appropriate supports.

What about families?

The experience of chronic homelessness differs substantially for families. These differences have implications for how programs should be designed and targeted for families experiencing chronic homelessness.

As explained in the brief, individuals who have spent extended time in shelter often face the greatest barriers to returning to stable housing. In contrast, families who stay in shelter or transitional housing for a long time tend to be among the highest functioning clients.

These chronically homeless families are no more likely to be unemployed or to have disabilities or behavioral health problems than are families who experience transitional or temporary homelessness. Therefore, rather than enrolling these families in service-intensive programs that can result in long stays, it may be more effective to provide direct rental assistance and voluntary access to “outpatient” services. These less intensive interventions can be a more appropriate and cost-effective solution to chronic homelessness for families.

What is the Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness?

This brief on chronic homelessness is one of five currently available from the Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness, which was launched December 2017. I am the founding director.

At the heart of the Center is a cadre of experts who prepare briefs that synthesize the literature in various topic areas and provide implications for policy and practice. In addition to chronic homelessness, other topics addressed by experts at the Center include children and families, rental housing subsidies and homelessness, trends and patterns, and homelessness among veterans. We are working right now on additional briefs on criminal justice reentry, homelessness prevention, and unaccompanied youth.

Jill Khadduri, a principal associate and senior fellow at Abt Associates, has been working on homelessness for many years — in particular, on the intersection of housing policy and homelessness.  She is co-principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report and has worked on several major studies of homelessness since joining Abt in 2000.