What Does It Mean to End Chronic Homelessness (After We’ve Ended It)?

by Janice Elliott December 12, 2016

Connecticut is amazingly close to “getting to zero” on chronic homelessness. At current rates of decline, (a 50% decrease from 2014-15 and an additional 20% drop the from 2015-16), we could reach zero within a matter of months—an amazing feat. Twenty years ago, when efforts to end chronic homelessness were in their infancy, I and my colleagues could only dream of a day when an entire state could reach this milestone.

Does reaching zero mean no one in Connecticut ever becomes chronically homeless? Unfortunately, no. But it does mean that communities around the state have the capacity to respond effectively when someone in their community needs help. At its most basic level, getting to zero means communities have sufficient permanent housing and services to meet the needs of people who are identified as chronically homeless. It also means there is natural turnover of supportive housing units over time so that if someone new becomes chronically homeless there will likely be an apartment available to them in a reasonably short amount of time.

So when we reach that point where we’ve gotten to zero, we’ve solved it, right?

Yes, and no. We’ve created an amazingly effective response given the problem as it presents itself within the homeless service system now. But when looked at from a broader lens, there is still much work to be done.

There are thousands of people in Connecticut living with mental illnesses that are being warehoused in our jails and prisons—the majority of whom are not a public safety risk. Once incarcerated, they tend to stay in jail longer and when released they are at a higher risk of ending up on the streets and then returning to incarceration than those without these illnesses. If we were really serious about making sure they get the help they need then we would get them out of jails and into homes with supports. But we’d quickly find that the existing supportive housing supply we have would be overwhelmed and inadequate to the task.

That’s why it’s important to keep our eye on expanding community solutions like accessible treatment and supportive housing that must be available in order to make these broader systems reforms (like criminal justice reform) work. Connecticut has made good steps in that direction with the CT Collaborative on Re-Entry program, formerly known as FUSE (Frequent User Systems Engagement), which offers services such as supportive housing and mental health services to individuals who repeatedly end up in state prison.

So what does ending chronic homelessness 2.0 look like?

It means looking beyond the homeless system to reforms on a grander scale, reforms that have at their heart a focus on ensuring that people living with mental illnesses have decent, affordable places to live in the community and the support they need to stay there.

Under this broader view, success will not be measured in the homeless service system. If done right, we can bypass this step altogether and prevent people living with mental illness from ever becoming homeless by providing them with the supportive housing they need to survive. But the leaders in the homeless system can use their expertise to guide us—and indeed, experienced creators and providers of supportive housing can be at the center of these reform efforts, partnering with behavioral health and correctional systems.

Let’s begin to lay the groundwork for the pivot—from “getting to zero” to staying there.

Chronic Homelessness is the number of people counted on the streets or shelters who have disabling conditions and have been homeless repeatedly or for long periods of time

Out of the 16,154 inmates in state prisons, about 3,423 have a serious mental illness, 21 percent of the total prison population, according to Michael Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management. Learn more.

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