It’s possible to make a real difference in the lives of the people who need the most help.
This group includes the chronically homeless (those who’ve been without a permanent home for more than a year); people who’ve been in and out of jail; and people who struggle with addiction and other mental health issues.
Supportive housing, which provides a safe place to live plus services such as case management and counseling, has shown positive results in cities and towns across the country as a haven for individuals and families most in need.
The number of chronically homeless people has dropped every year since housing officials began tracking the statistic in 2007, partly as a result of efforts to provide shelter that is both permanent and supportive.
Despite these hopeful numbers, there’s still a need for 1.23 million more units of supportive housing, according to CSH, a New York City–based nonprofit focused on homelessness. That’s discouraging, because even if the U.S. were to produce 100,000 new units of supportive housing for the next 10 years, we’d still come up short. However, communities are still making progress.
Every vulnerable person who’s helped with supportive-housing apartments in turn reduces strain on other parts of the social-services system, from hospital emergency rooms to homeless shelters. Successful communities are creating a system to help ensure that supportive-housing units are filled with the people who need them most.
A Wide Range of Recipients
These vulnerable populations include a wide range of individuals from various social systems across the country, from youths aging out of foster care to those exiting the criminal justice system.
CSH determined its estimate of 1.23 million by adding up the number of vulnerable people across eight different services systems, and then added another 10% to account for error, using the following figures:
- Intellectual and developmental system: 270,000
- Aging system: 270,000
- Criminal justice system: 260,000
- Individual-homeless system: 95,000
- Mental health system: 65,000
- Family system: 50,000
- Youth system: 45,000
- Substance-use system: 40,000
- Veterans: 25,000
Yet these groups rarely get the help they need.
For example, in a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than medical help. As a result, nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The vast majority of them aren’t violent; many are simply awaiting trial for minor offenses.
Ironically, it’s much cheaper to provide supportive housing to people who are experiencing chronic homelessness than it is to have them remain homeless, according to numerous studies. “We’ve seen its effectiveness, and cost effectiveness, across the country,” says the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
People living in supportive housing also use fewer services after they move in. Their rate of incarceration drops 52%, emergency-room visits decline 57%, and their use of emergency detoxification services falls by 87%, according to CSH. And more than 83% remain in the housing for at least one year.
Homelessness by the Numbers
On a given night in January 2016, 549,928 people were homeless in the U.S. Of those, about one in five had chronic patterns of homelessness.
Chronically homeless people include many who can benefit most from supportive housing. These individuals are also more likely to be sleeping in unsheltered locations, such as under bridges, in cars, or in abandoned buildings. Approximately 66%, or 52,890, of the chronically homeless people counted in 2016 lived in unsheltered locations, a much greater rate than that for all people experiencing homelessness in the United States, 44%, according to HUD.
New supportive-housing apartments have helped drive down the number of chronically homeless. In the past 20 years, affordable housing developers have created tens of thousands of supportive-housing apartments in jurisdictions across the country.
To lower the number of chronically homeless further, advocates are struggling to reach the people who need the most help. For example, it can be a lot easier to identify chronically homeless people if they stay in shelters, since people in unsheltered locations may be actively trying to avoid being noticed. Also, the chronically homeless who do stay in sheltered places are probably at least willing to communicate with social workers, whereas those who live in unsheltered places are sometimes resistant to engage with services providers.
By finding the people who need the most help, housing officials can make sure that supportive-housing resources are used effectively. “Supportive housing is not for everyone,” says Robert Friant, managing director for CSH. Organizations like CSH work to identify the most frequent users of services.
“Communities need to have a system in place where that person comes into the homeless system and is identified,” says Friant. Then, the most intensive services, like supportive housing, can be focused on the people who need the most help.
This prioritization of services can also be tied to an explicit goal to end homelessness in a community. So far, 10 communities working with Community Solutions, a group specializing in homelessness, have ended chronic homelessness or homelessness among veterans, including Rockford, Ill., which has reached zero in both categories. “We continue to work with Rockford, and the mayor continues to get a real-time, weekly briefing,” says Jake Maguire, principal with Community Solutions.
Maintaining that goal over time requires constant communication between officials and agencies. If someone becomes homeless in Rockford or a homeless person arrives in town, the service providers quickly know that someone in their location needs a place to live. “Within a week, they know that that person is out there,” says Maguire.