Many communities, advocates, residents and local leaders are raising the alarm about one of our country’s seemingly intractable challenges: More people are facing or experiencing homelessness, with many living outside of the formal shelter and supportive housing system. In fact, The Point-in-Time count reached a seven-year high of 580,466 people in 2020*, largely driven by increases in the number of people experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness.
Though distinct experiences, there is often significant overlap for people facing chronic and unsheltered homelessness. This creates unique and extreme vulnerabilities for individuals who experience one or both forms of homelessness — and for local leaders looking to support residents and address housing instability, it brings about a specific set of added challenges
Chronic homelessness refers to when an individual experiences homelessness for at least 12 months, or on at least four separate occasions that total 12 months. According to the 2020 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), chronic homelessness accounts for approximately one quarter of all homelessness, which constituted a 15 percent increase in the population since 2019.
Among all individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in 2020, 66 percent were unsheltered as well. Unsheltered homelessness refers to situations in which a person lives in arrangements “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation,” such as abandoned buildings, train stations, cars, parks, camp grounds or outside. HUD reported significant increases in populations experiencing unsheltered homelessness in 2020.
The data also shows stark increases in the number of Black, Indigenous and People of Color experiencing unsheltered homelessness in particular. While HUD reported increases in unsheltered homelessness overall, including for white individuals, Black and Hispanic populations experienced a 9 and 10 percent jump respectively in just one year between 2019 and 2020. Additionally, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander and Multi-Racial demographic groups each comprised a greater percentage of the total unsheltered population than the total sheltered population.
Behind these statistics are systemic issues through which Black, Indigenous and People of Color are disproportionately impacted by unsheltered and chronic homelessness, and individuals experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness face compounding barriers to stable housing. As a result, cities must take a more targeted and trauma-informed approach, through a racial equity lens, to ensure that all residents have a safe place to call home.
Barriers to Housing for People Experiencing Chronic and Unsheltered Homelessness
These issues, amplified by existing risks and vulnerabilities, manifest as barriers to housing for many people experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness. Understanding and addressing these hurdles remains paramount to reducing instances of chronic and unsheltered homelessness in communities.
Unfriendly Policies and the Criminalization of Homelessness
The prevalence of city-wide bans on behaviors associated with chronic and unsheltered homelessness has increased dramatically in recent years. Such policies criminalize what are oftentimes essential activities for people experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness, including camping, sitting or lying down in public; loitering; panhandling; and living in a vehicle. In addition to levying additional financial burdens through fines, these policies put people experiencing homelessness at increased risk of criminal involvement — especially Black, Indigenous and People of Color who are more likely to be cited. While potentially leading to unsafe interactions, this system involvement also makes it more difficult for individuals to find employment, health services and housing, all of which are crucial to reducing chronic and unsheltered homelessness.
Lack of Housing Supply and Limited Housing Options
The United States has a housing supply deficit. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States has a shortage of 7 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters. The housing supply shortage is caused by a number of factors, including a lack of available land and labor, increasing costs for raw materials, and opposition to inclusive development.
Additionally, individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness have limited housing options or alternatives. Housing programs often establish certain requirements, such as sobriety or lack of involvement in the justice system. These requirements not only act as barriers to receiving services, but ignore how they often are threat-multipliers that exacerbate chronic and unsheltered homelessness.
How Cities Can Meaningfully Reduce Chronic and Unsheltered Homelessness
Many cities across the United States have achieved reductions in populations experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness with the application of targeted, compassionate approaches. Outlined below are a few practical steps municipalities can take to begin the work.
Create an Integrated Service Structure
Cities can create an integrated, but streamlined, suite of services dedicated to chronic and unsheltered homelessness.
The city of Tacoma, WA and Pierce County created a Coordinated Entry for individuals experiencing homelessness in which providers can quickly connect people with a network of non-profits, government agencies and community businesses. The city prioritizes effective interventions for all populations through a trauma-informed approach and looks to develop a Race and Equity Strategy team. The city also authorized emergency mitigation sites, legalized encampments and enhanced shelters with wrap-around services.
The city of Chattanooga, TN partners with the Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness for a similar system of coordinated care. The city adopted a Housing First approach, which prioritizes immediate, permanent housing for individuals experiencing homelessness and reduces prerequisites for shelter. Additionally, the city keeps robust data on the demographics and utilization of services for individuals experiencing homelessness, which inform the direction of the program. These strategies allowed the city to reach functional zero for veteran homelessness in 2020.
Engage the Community and People with Lived Experience
Engaging individuals experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness and the community at large ensures that services are tailored, beneficial and integrated into the fabric of the municipality.
The city of Santa Monica, CA engages individuals experiencing homelessness through a comprehensive outreach strategy. Three outreach teams include licensed mental health professionals, housing case managers, substance-use specialists, medical providers, psychiatrists and peers with lived experiences. This approach emphasizes tuning in to community voices, providing appropriate services and empowering individuals in the process.
In the city of Seattle, WA, hundreds of students, volunteers and businesses helped construct over 325 tiny houses, which provide low-cost, safe alternatives to shelters. The city constructed seventeen tiny house villages as of 2022. Villages include 24/7 staffing, village organizers and dedicated case managers to help transition residents into permanent housing. Outreach efforts to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and to the community at large succeeded in generating multi-lateral support. As a result, the city was able to create a sustainable, effective tool to reduce chronic and unsheltered homelessness.
Use ARPA Funds for Shelters and Homelessness Services
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides funds to municipalities for a variety of purposes, including addressing homelessness.
The city and county of Honolulu, HI used ARPA funding to launch a Crisis, Outreach, Response and Engagement Team tailored to communities experiencing homelessness. The program braids emergency response services, community health workers and local organizations to provide outreach, crisis-intervention and rapid re-housing for unsheltered communities.
The city of Newark, NJ bolstered shelter operations, support programs and mental health services with its allotment. Among the city’s projects are the renovation of a 75-unit apartment building for veterans at risk of or experiencing homelessness, as well as affordable housing for seniors.
The Future of Chronic and Unsheltered Homelessness
With unsheltered and chronic homelessness on the rise, cities should look to develop targeted strategies to support these vulnerable populations. People experiencing chronic and unsheltered homelessness are particularly likely to face additional risk factors that are barriers to stable housing, meaning that strategies will vary across population group, municipality and time. The cities that have begun to eliminate or reduce the number individuals experiencing homelessness have often done so by taking an individualized approach. Tuning in to the specific needs of community members with compassion is often the first critical step to meaningfully reducing chronic and unsheltered homelessness.
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This article is part of the “Housing for:” blog series authored by National League of Cities’ Housing & Community Development team. This series explores local approaches to fostering thriving, diverse and equitable communities through safe, affordable and healthy housing. Each blog post highlights housing obstacles and solutions relevant to a particular demographic group or topic, and recommends potential strategies for local government leaders looking to take action.
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*This blog uses data from the 2020 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count conducted within Continuums of Care and included in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to the U.S. Congress. While a PIT count was completed in 2021, external factors such as COVID-19 led to a focus on enumerating populations experiencing sheltered homelessness, resulting in a significant undercount of those who were experiencing unsheltered homelessness.