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Homelessness comes in many different forms. For some, an episode of homelessness is a once-in-a-lifetime event and can be ended by an increase in their income or access to affordable housing. Others experience episodic homelessness – they may experience homelessness sporadically throughout their lives, but tend not to be living on the streets or in shelters for long periods of time. These individuals and families may have a short stay in a homeless shelter, but are also likely to be “doubled up” – living with families and friends willing to offer a temporary home.
About 18 percent of homeless individuals experience chronic long-term homelessness, which requires a more holistic response. Often, those experiencing chronic homelessness have physical disabilities or mental illnesses that make it difficult for them to stay employed or housed. Many rely on emergency rooms for healthcare and are repeatedly incarcerated for minor offenses, at great expense to taxpayers. They may also shuttle in and out of the shelter system, which offers temporary relief but cannot adequately address the root causes of their homelessness.
Homelessness usually does not result from a single cause but, instead a combination of events and circumstances. Individuals and families with low incomes and high housing costs are most at risk. The risk rises when these factors are combined with chronic conditions (such as mental illness, substance abuse or another chronic illness, or a physical disability) and the lack of family or friends who are able to help.
Other risk factors for homelessness include domestic violence and abuse, divorce or family instability, lack of education and illiteracy, serious illness, and debt. These risk factors reduce an individual or family's ability to maintain steady employment or a stable home life, and may ultimately lead to homelessness.
Like its forms and causes, there is no one solution to homelessness.
Supportive housing - which provides those experiencing chronic homelessness with a key to a safe and stable home of their own combined with support services - is the least costly and most effective solution to chronic homelessness. Effective at treating their disabilities and illnesses, effective and keeping them safe and out of prison and effective at returning them to the workforce, supportive housing works.
Supportive housing works because it provides both independence and a support structure for individuals, allowing them to effectively maintain treatment for disabilities and illnesses, gain access to the workforce, and stay out of expensive institutions - like prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. The combination of housing and support services has been shown to provide individuals with the tools needed to rejoin their community.
Affordable housing is also key to ending homelessness for many other families and individuals. Many households experience an episode of homelessness primarily because of financial reasons. By increasing the supply of affordable housing, families and individuals with low incomes will be able to find housing units they can afford.
Other ways to prevent and end homelessness include increasing the availability of rental subsidies such as Section 8 certificates or State Rental Assistance Program vouchers; preserving the safety net of social services; and providing adequate discharge planning from prisons, hospitals and other institutions.
For housing assistance or services, please contact the United Way's InfoLine by dialing 2-1-1.