Housing and Shelter

Transitional or supportive housing and homeless shelters can help stabilize people with mental health issues and substance use disorders who are experiencing homelessness.

Poverty, unemployment, and lack of affordable housing are commonly recognized causes of homelessness. These risk factors can be exacerbated by personal vulnerabilities such as mental and substance use disorders, trauma and violence, domestic violence, justice-system involvement, sudden serious illness, divorce, death of a partner, and disabilities.

Housing and shelter programs can help address the root causes of homelessness through a range of essential recovery support services, including mental and substance use disorder treatment, employment, and mainstream benefits. Types of housing and shelter programs include:

  • Emergency shelters are often where people experiencing economic shock first turn for support through a wide range of services.
  • Transitional housing typically involves a temporary residence of up to 24 months with wrap-around services to help people stabilize their lives.
  • Permanent supportive housing offers safe and stable housing environments with voluntary and flexible supports and services to help people manage serious, chronic issues such as mental and substance use disorders.
  • Providing permanent supportive housing on a housing first basis—without requiring transitional steps or demonstrated sobriety—is effective for people experiencing chronic homelessness. People with a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or co-occurring mental and substance use disorder have demonstrated similar or better housing stability and substance use, compared to those placed in housing with pre-requisites. Large-scale studies demonstrating the benefits include the Collaborative Initiative to End Chronic Homelessness (PDF | 1.5 MB) and HUD-VA Supportive Housing Program.

Research shows interventions to prevent homelessness are more cost effective than addressing issues after someone is already homeless. The longer a person is homeless, the harder and more expensive it becomes to re-house this person. Rapid rehousing helps people move from emergency/transitional shelter or on the street into stable housing as fast as possible. It also connects people with supportive, community-based resources that help them maintain housing. The success of this strategy is noted in this example from a research report (PDF | 810 KB): Only 10 percent of families exiting the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rapid Re-housing for Homeless Families Demonstration sites returned to homelessness.

Other strategies showing evidence of effectiveness for preventing homelessness include:

  • Programs that help stabilize households by providing food support, such as food stamps and programs for free school breakfast and lunch.
  • Programs seeking to increase the supply of affordable housing in America, such as the Housing Trust Fund.
  • Benefits advocacy, which helps people find public and entitlement benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), veterans’ benefits, food stamps, childcare assistance, Medicaid, and low-income energy assistance.
  • Discharge planning for people released from institutional care (e.g., hospitals, psychiatric care, substance abuse treatment centers, foster care, military service, jail, prison).
  • Case management that focuses on determining clients’ needs for housing assistance, helping them find and get housing, and securing other resources needed to maintain housing stability (e.g., health insurance, childcare services, medical treatment, psychological services, food, clothing).

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Last Updated: 03/29/2019