To End Chronic Homelessness in California We Need to Distinguish Permanent Supportive Housing from Affordable Housing

When someone says we need more affordable housing to end homelessness, it is often an unintended half-truth.

National, state, and local policymakers and advocates regularly define affordable housing as a household not paying more than 30% of its total income for housing costs that include rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance, and taxes. Policymakers and advocates define permanent supportive housing as affordable, meaning a household does not pay more than 30% of its total income for housing costs.

Although on the surface these two types of housing sound the same, one of the major differences between the two is that permanent supportive housing has to be occupied by persons who were homeless and have a disability or families with an adult or child member with a disability, as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A disability includes a diagnosable substance use disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive impairments resulting from a brain injury, or chronic physical illness or disability.

Another major difference involves supportive services, which are automatically offered to residents in permanent supportive housing and not always with affordable housing. Wrap-around supportive services help households maintain their housing. Such services include employment counseling and placement, health care, mental health care, and substance use counseling and treatment.

It Is Time to Publicize the Difference to all Stakeholders

It is time to publicize the difference to all stakeholders because we will never end chronic homelessness without enough permanent supportive housing units.

Chronically homeless persons are those who have been homeless for one year or more or in and out of homeless for at least a few years. To meet the definition of chronically homeless they must also have one, and often have more than one, disabling condition such as those noted above.

Many stakeholders know that permanent supportive housing is an evidence-based permanent housing intervention that research has also proved to be cost-effective, particularly for chronically homeless persons. Additionally they know that cost studies have shown that this intervention also lowers public costs by reducing the use of crisis services such as shelters, paramedic responses, emergency rooms, psychiatric centers, and jails.

Too many stakeholders, however, do not know the benefits of permanent supportive housing. They do not know that hard-to-house chronically homeless individuals and families will not be permanently housed without permanent supportive housing.

Too many stakeholders are not fully aware that prolonged exposure to homelessness has a significant negative effect on individuals that can result in death. They do not know that homelessness is much more than the absence of physical housing—it is a tension-filled, trauma-filled, and treacherous condition that often results in injuries and fatalities. People who were homeless have been brought to county morgues where Coroner Office staff determined that they died by electrocution, thermal injuries, hypothermia, environmental exposure, and blunt force injuries including traffic accidents and being crushed to death by large objects such as garbage bins.

What Next?

Each jurisdiction that has persons who are chronically homeless living on its streets needs to include permanent supportive housing in a plan that

  • Explains the difference between affordable housing and permanent supportive housing to the public;
  • Educates the public about the health and safety issues that surround chronic homelessness;
  • Informs the public about the number of persons who are experiencing serious injury and death while living on the streets;
  • Describes the high cost of managing chronic homelessness to the public in terms of emergency assistance;
  • Determines the number of persons within the jurisdiction in need of permanent supportive housing by using local data sources;
  • Designs and develops permanent supportive housing that works best for residents and community stakeholders.

We will be publishing more reports in the near future that will provide more information about permanent supportive housing, which can also be used for inclusion in strategic plans for solving chronic homelessness.


  1. Michael Ullman on January 18, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Exactly. The Homeless Services community also needs to understand that affordable housing does not cause homelessness since
    our primary population can’t afford $1500 or $500 a month. They need fully subsidized housing.

    Good Column Joe !

    • Joe Colletti, PhD on January 18, 2018 at 8:25 pm

      Michael – duly noted about the subsidy. Someone paying 30% of one’s adjusted income towards the rent is probably $200 to $300 a month and subsidy needs to pick up the monthly balance.

  2. Lisa on January 18, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    So what category does someone fall into when they have lost their income due to bankruptcy, medical issue, or loss of job?

    • Joe Colletti, PhD on January 18, 2018 at 3:43 pm

      According to the HUD definition of homelessness, someone who has lost his or her income due to bankruptcy, a medical issue, or loss of job would be considered at risk of homelessness if the person is some how still living in, for example, an apartment unit. If the person lost their unit and is “couch-surfing” with friends and families the person would still be considered at risk of homelessness. If the person lost their unit and living on the street or in a shelter or transitional housing program, the person would be considered homeless. If the person was homeless for a year or more and/or living on the streets or in a shelter at least four times during the past three years for a total of 12 months and has a disability such as physical or mental illness, the person would be considered chronically homeless.

  3. Pam Marshall on January 29, 2018 at 11:25 am

    Thank you, Joe, for bringing up this subject. You are right-on regarding educating the public and understanding the differences between “affordable housing” and Permanent Supportive Housing. As an advocate, I find that local government sees affordable housing as something to use to say “look, we’re doing our part”. But really, the housing they are offering is not “affordable”, at least not to poor or homeless people. I advocate for “very affordable” and “extremely affordable” housing, but I think in doing so, we are getting some of our terms confused or at best, not well-explained. It’s easy to do, since there are so many terms and acronyms!

    Also, I am noticing that our Chronically Homeless population is rising in Ventura County. I believe that this is not so much due to more people becoming homeless, but because those who are homeless are staying that way, due to the lack of housing available. We have many people, agencies, and local governments who want to help end homelessness, but the political will to build truly affordable housing and/or permanent supportive housing is still lacking.
    Definitely a work in progress.

    • Joe Colletti, PhD on February 1, 2018 at 7:02 am

      Hey Pam – how right you are in that the number of persons becoming chronically homeless due to the lack of affordable and permanent supportive housing. They are literally priced-out and left languishing on the streets and becoming more debilitated and prone to illness, injury, and death. There are a number of recently passed assembly and senate bills that local officials need to be aware of that provide more funding and remove barriers –

  4. Susan on February 1, 2018 at 12:59 am

    Hollywood 90028 familys cant afford 1800 for single parent 1 job 2 kids no bank acct no credit lives pay ck by pay ck and apts want firstn last rent deposit cant afford barley paying rent not includeutilities n new owner give 90 days to relocate and cant find apt w kids they charge ea person for credit ck not guarantee apt and credit ck amnt dont go towards rent n each credit ck ruens ur credit score

    • Susan on February 1, 2018 at 1:00 am

      What can we do

    • Joe Colletti, PhD on February 1, 2018 at 7:07 am

      Susan – how sadly true. Compassionate landlords need to have forums in which they can express their compassion to other landlords and share how they provided housing to someone who seemed like a risky tenant and how it worked out well.

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