What Is Chronic Homelessness?

chronic homelessness

Homeless People in America

The homeless men and women you see sitting on a sidewalk, in a park, and living in other public spaces are the most visible of all homeless people. Some are homeless for a period of time and return to families or find a place to live (at least temporarily). Those who don’t are experiencing chronic homelessness. Adults who are chronically homeless are often referred to as “single”. However, some are parents (whose kids are not with them), and some are homeless with spouses, partners, and friends.

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) defines chronic homelessness as people who have been homeless for at least a year or repeatedly while experiencing a disabling condition including physical disability, serious mental illness and/or substance use disorder making it difficult to find and maintain housing. By “homeless,” HUD means someone who is sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation or living in an emergency shelter. By “repeatedly,” HUD means at least four episodes in the last three years with a cumulative total of at least 12 months.

According to the 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the number of sheltered individuals experiencing chronic homelessness increased by 20 percent between 2020 and 2021. This trend has increased in recent years and continued to do so between 2020 and 2021.

Chronic Homelessness Risk Factors

Factors increasing the risk of homelessness include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of jobs paying a living wage
  • Unexpected health care costs

The average age of people experiencing chronic homelessness in 2010 was approximately 50 years old. Aging homeless people experience even greater health risks and can be even more vulnerable.

Living on the streets and in public can be very difficult. Exposure to extreme temperatures as well as wind, rain, sleet, and snow increases the chances of getting and staying sick. Life-threatening hypothermia can set in starting when temperatures are between 32 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Being homeless also leads to increased chances of the following:

  • chronic pain
  • skin, foot, and dental problems
  • diseases and illnesses such as tuberculosis, hypertension, asthma, and diabetes
  • sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and AIDS.

Homeless adults are more likely than others to experience psychiatric disorders and mental illness. They are also more likely to use tobacco and other substances. Homeless people are vulnerable to being victims of crimes, sexual trafficking, physical violence, sexual assault, rape, and verbal harassment.


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