Recently, the term "chronic
homelessness" has gained currency in Washington and throughout
the nation, most prominently in the statements of Bush Administration
officials and in federal legislation. U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez has stated that "ending
chronic homelessness" is a primary goal of the Department's homeless
assistance programs; moreover, a variety of federal legislation now
directs federal agencies to prioritize their efforts and target their
resources toward the so-called "chronically homeless."
Although the term "chronic
homelessness" is rarely defined with any degree of specificity,
it is generally used to characterize people who are homeless and who
also have mental health or addiction disorders, and who are therefore
more likely to experience homelessness for longer periods of time. The
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has serious concerns about
the "chronic homeless" initiative because 1) the terminology
distorts the history, causes, and nature of homelessness; 2) the
policies that accompany it pit vulnerable populations against each other
in competition for scarce federal resources; and 3) the
initiative as a whole - terminology and policy - is short-sighted and
likely to exacerbate, rather than end, homelessness.
The "Chronic Homeless" Terminology
Distorts the History, Causes, and Nature of Homelessness
The term "chronic homeless" treats
homelessness with the same language, and in the same fashion, as a
medical condition or disease, rather than an experience caused fundamentally
by poverty and lack of affordable housing.
This move to pathologize homelessness via a new, stigmatizing terminology
ignores the history and causes of homelessness, which are fundamentally
economic and not medical in nature. It also disregards current social
and economic trends,and is especially misguided at a time when the affordable
housing gap is at a record high, when the economic recession is forcing
many people out of work, and when many families are struggling to
meet welfare requirements in the face of impending time limits.
The term "chronically homeless" misrepresents the
causes of homelessness for people who do have disabilities such as
mental illness, addiction disorders or other physical disabilities. While rates of these disabilities are disproportionately
high among single adults who experience homelessness, they do not
explain homelessness -- people do not become homeless just because
they are mentally ill or addicted. Rather, the kind of housing and
income supports needed by low-income people with disabilities has
decreased sharply since the early 1980s and is in extremely short
The initiative to end "chronic homelessness," especially
as articulated in policies to shift federal resources to certain kinds
of targeted homeless assistance programs, assumes that there is a
static population of people who are homeless with disabilities. While targeted homeless assistance programs may help to stabilize
people who are currently homeless, they do nothing to prevent future
homelessness among low-income people with or without disabilities.
As long as the underlying problems of lack of affordable housing,
insufficient income, and inadequate health care remain unaddressed,
people who are living in extreme poverty --
with or without disabilities -- will continue to become homeless.
Moreover, even once their disabling conditions are stabilized and
treated, people who have mental health disorders, addiction disorders,
or other physical disabilities must compete with all others for a
dwindling supply of low-income housing. Only efforts to mend the systemic
gaps through which many people living in extreme poverty- including
people with disabilities “ fall will homelessness end.
The Policies Accompanying
the "Chronic Initiative" are Likely to Exacerbate, Rather
than End, Homelessness
as the "chronic homelessness" terminology is misleading and
stigmatizing, the policy initiatives accompanying it are misguided and
likely to worsen conditions for people living in severe poverty.‹ Recently, a number of such policy initiatives
have surfaced. They include 1) a Congressional directive to give preference
in the awarding of federal homeless assistance grants to communities
that prioritize programs for the "chronically homeless;" and
2) legislative language requiring that at least 30 percent of HUD's
homeless assistance funds be set-aside for "supportive housing"
for people with disabilities who are homeless. In addition to these
federal policies, recent Administration statements about the direction
of the Interagency Council on the Homeless imply additional federal
policies may be forthcoming.
Taken alone, each one of these initiatives
is problematic; taken together, they signal an alarming shift in federal
policy that is likely to perpetuate homelessness far into the future.
I.‹‹‹‹‹‹‹‹‹ Preference in Awarding Federal Grants to Communities
that Use Funds for‹‹‹‹‹‹‹ "Chronically
Homeless, Disabled People."
majority of federal homeless assistance dollars are administered by
HUD through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. These grants
provide funding for emergency shelter, prevention activity, supportive
services, transitional housing, and permanent housing with support services
("supportive housing"). HUD awards its homeless assistance
grants based on communities' ranking of local needs and their prioritization
of the gaps in resources needed to meet those needs, through a process
called the "Continuum of Care." Last year, Congress directed
HUD to use the Continuum of Care process to "give preference
to communities that use funds for permanent housing to end homelessness
for chronically homeless, disabled people."
This directive disregards local needs, realities, and emerging
trends, and is therefore in direct conflict with the stated goal of
the Continuum of Care.
the nation, a rapid decrease in the availability of affordable housing
has led to an increase in homelessness among families, and people
As a result, the greatest unmet need in many communities is for assistance
for families with children, unaccompanied youth,
and other people without disabilities.
Despite this trend,
the Congressional directive forces communities to prioritize services
for people with disabilities in order to get federal funds. The directive
thus creates a deep contradiction within federal policy -- rather
than allowing local communities to determine their own priorities
for the use of HUD homeless program funding, Congress has determined
their priorities for them.
By focusing scarce
federal resources toward one sector of people who experience homelessness,
the directive makes it more difficult for other vulnerable populations
to access the resources needed to escape deep poverty and homelessness;
ironically, it thus creates the pre-conditions for non-disabled people
to develop disabilities and to be at future risk of homelessness.
By forcing communities to give higher priority, and therefore allocate
greater federal resources, to programming for people who are homeless
with disabilities, there will be fewer resources available to programs
that serve all people irrespective of disability status. This fact
is distressing not only because of the large number of
people without disabilities (children and adults) who experience
homelessness, but also because by forcing people to go without assistance
and endure homelessness longer, they are more likely to develop disabilities.
This is especially true for children and youth, who comprise approximately
39% of the people who experience homelessness over the course of a
year and who are extremely vulnerable to the ill effects of deep poverty.
Many of the horrific conditions of poverty and
homelessness directly contribute to physical, mental and emotional
disabilities. For example, children who are homeless suffer from:
; inadequate health care
; greater exposure to environmental hazards like
; health problems associated with overcrowded and
communal living situations
; increased incidence of other health impairments
; higher exposure to domestic and other types of
; and severe emotional stress related to conditions
of extreme poverty and instability.
In addition, there is evidence that experiencing
homelessness as a child is associated with experiencing deep poverty
and homelessness as an adult.
Thus, rather than "end homelessness"
among people with disabilities, the prioritization of scarce homeless
assistance dollars toward people with disabilities potentially creates
the conditions for more people to develop disabilities and to experience
than expand federal resources to meet the needs of all people
experiencing homelessness, the directive pits vulnerable populations
against each other in competition for scarce federal resources.
can be no doubt that people who are homeless and who have mental
health disorders, addiction disorders, or other physical disabilities
are extremely vulnerable and need special assistance in resolving
their housing and health problems. The initiative to target resources
to these individuals is based on the argument that such individuals
"use up" more resources, and that therefore, if federal
resources were directed at supportive housing to help them permanently
"exit" homelessness, more resources would be available to
help the majority of people who experience homelessness (i.e. the
non-disabled). While this argument has other flaws (see below), it
is particularly disingenuous in the absence of any proposed expansion
in federal resources for homelessness prevention or assistance. Rather
than "free up" resources for other vulnerable populations,
the mandated prioritization of resources toward people with mental
illness, addiction disorders, or other physical
forces an inhumane competition for a scarce pool
of funds, and diverts attention from the larger issue, namely a lack
of resources for emergency assistance for all
homelessness -- and the real permanent solutions of adequate housing,
health care, and income.
II.‹‹‹‹‹‹‹‹ Required Set-aside for "Supportive Housing"
for People with Disabilities who are Homeless
For the past three years, federal
legislation has contained provisions that require HUD to reserve 30
percent of its homeless assistance funds for "permanent housing."
This term is somewhat misleading, however, because under HUD regulations,
only new Shelter Plus Care projects, Section 8 SRO Projects, and new
and renewal projects designated as permanent housing for people with
disabilities under the Supportive Housing Program, meet the definition
of permanent housing. Families without a disabled member are not eligible
for permanent housing under this requirement. Furthermore, the only
permanent housing program for which both disabled and non-disabled individuals
who lack housing can qualify, Section 8 SRO, had only 13 projects funded
nationwide during the last round, or less than .005% of HUD McKinney-Vento
grants. This 30% requirement, often cited as the means through which
"chronic homelessness" will be ended, is the oldest of the
policies to accompany the "chronic initiative" and thus has
produced the clearest evidence of the short-sightedness of the approach
upon which the set-aside is based - that shifting resources to supportive
housing for people with mental illness or addiction disorders will
"end homelessness" for that population - is fundamentally
This argument assumes that there is an unchanging number
of people who are homeless with disabilities, and that once housed,
homelessness will be ended. However, without efforts at addressing
the causes of homelessness -- lack of affordable housing, health care,
and income supports -- there will continue to be people who become
homeless and who have disabilities. Simple math provides further evidence
of the absurdity of the notion of ending homelessness through this
approach: based on the 30% Congressional mandate and last year's total
appropriation for homeless assistance programs, HUD was required to
allocate $306 million to permanent supportive housing. Assuming a
very conservative cost estimate of $75,000 to produce a new unit of
supportive housing, not including related operating subsidies, this
set aside will create, roughly, a mere 4,000 units a year, thereby
falling woefully short of meeting the need.
While permanent supportive housing programs under
HUD McKinney-Vento may help many people who are homeless and who have
disabilities exit homelessness, they do nothing to prevent people
from becoming homeless
; thus, as a strategy for ending homelessness, it
is fundamentally flawed and ill-fated.
HUD homeless assistance programs are, and always will be, an emergency
response to homelessness; only by addressing the underlying causes
will homelessness be ended.
required set-aside has already forced numerous communities to cut
funding for programs that serve families, children, and other non-disabled
The 30% set-aside for supportive housing for people
with disabilities is a national mandate; thus, 30% of the total national
appropriation for homeless assistance programs must be used for this
end. In 2000, HUD was forced to pass over higher ranked projects for
people without disabilities in order to meet the mandate. For many
local communities, this meant loss of funding for programs that the
communities themselves ranked as more pressing needs -- especially
for families with children. For example, 26 Oregon counties lost $1.3
million in federal funding, and $1 million in leveraged funding; these
programs would have provided the units and services necessary for
692 people to move into and maintain permanent housing. Other communities
nationwide were similarly impacted.
In 2001, HUD did not have to pass over projects
because communities adapted to the 30% requirement by giving a higher
ranking to permanent supportive housing projects, regardless of local
needs. In short, this Congressional mandate forced communities to
change their priorities or face an outcome like they did in 2000.
III. ‹‹‹‹‹ Future Direction of the
Interagency Homeless Council
Congress recently provided
funding for the Interagency Homeless Council, the "independent
working group" which is charged with coordinating the activities
of federal agencies on homelessness. A recently released press release
on the naming of a director for the Interagency Council stated that
"ending chronic homelessness
is a priority goal of HUD's homeless assistance programs." This statement, in the context of a press release
on the Interagency Council, causes concern that more federal policies
based on the short-sighted, distorted, and politically convenient notion
of "chronic homelessness" will appear in the future. In light
of the unprecedented numbers of men, women, and children who are experiencing
homelessness, it is imperative that the Interagency Council work to
meet all of their needs, as well as concentrate on preventing future
homelessness by addressing its root causes.
In sum, "chronic homelessness"
is yet another stigmatizing label -- a code word for those individuals
who are deemed to merit attention and resources because they fit pre-conceived
notions of homelessness, and because they enable policy makers to disconnect
the issue of homelessness from the acute lack of affordable housing
and poverty that underlie it. The "chronic homeless"
initiative collapses a wide range of experiences of people who lack
housing into a singular, monolithic category, creating a false hierarchy
of need based on resource allotment, not the structural underpinnings
of homelessness itself. Thus, what is truly "chronic" about homelessness
is the lack of political will to address its root causes. For millions
of Americans, this "chronic" political inaction results in
homelessness -- the most abject form of poverty and deprivation -- in
the land of plenty.
For more information,
please contact Donald Whitehead, Executive Director, at 202.462.4822,
ext. 14 or email@example.com,
or Donald Whitehead, Housing Policy Analyst, at 202.462.4822, ext. 13 or firstname.lastname@example.org.