Is Your Client Homeless Enough?

Maryellen Hess Cameron

Maryellen Hess Cameron spent over 25 years as the Executive Director of non-profit agencies in the social....

You might be one of those people who think a family is homeless just because it doesn’t have a place to live. Technically you are correct, but that doesn’t mean the family is eligible for housing for homeless people. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides the lion’s share of funding for homeless programs, making it the final arbiter of who counts as homeless. 

Before you read further let me clarify that homelessness is not an eligibility factor for Public Housing Authority housing and Housing Choice Vouchers. Every client you serve who is homeless or low-income may be eligible and benefit from it’s long term stability.  But it can take years to move up the Housing Authority waiting lists. If you have clients who are literally homeless, they may qualify for another pool of money designed specifically for people who experience literal homelessness. 

The programs for literally homeless people flow through local Continuum of Care programs (CoC) to nonprofit housing agencies. That is, they are sleeping in places not meant for human habitation. That could be sleeping in their car, under a highway overpass or in an abandoned building. Residents of homeless shelters retain their homeless status.  

Sleeping under a bridge still might not be enough to get CoC help. HUD established a funding preference for people who have repeated or lengthy episodes of homelessness. If your client meets this criteria, they might just be homeless enough to qualify for this program and a relatively short waiting list.

This article explains HUD’s definition of chronic homelessness, documentation you will need, and advice for collecting it in Casebook.

Categories of Homelessness

HUD has four categories of homelessness. Only Categories 1 and 4 are relevant to HUD programs for CoC funds for homeless people. Clients must fall into Category 1 if they are seeking long-term housing assistance. For example, they want a rent subsidy that will not expire for as long as they need it, (assuming they follow program guidelines.)  

Category 1: Literally Homeless

Literal homeless, which is the most restrictive category for eligibility. Individuals or families enter one of the permanent programs if they are in at least one of the following situations:

  • A homeless shelter designed to provide temporary living arrangements OR
  • Living on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings or other places not fit for human habitation

Exceptions that don’t end their status as literally homeless:

They entered an institution from the streets and leave within 90 days of entering it, and they will return to the streets or a shelter. Institutions include a jail, hospital or nursing home. 

They have a room in a motel room that is paid for by a non-profit or a government program.

Category 4: Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence

Clients who fall into Category 4 are considered homeless for affordable housing programs that have a time limit on assistance. These are:

  • Transitional housing only has a lease for a fixed number of months. 
  • Rapid Rehousing Assistance is a rent subsidy to re-establish stable housing 
  • Homelessness prevention is a subsidy that pays rent arrearages to help a survivor stay in housing and, possibly a subsidy for a fixed number of months.

HUD restricts the assistance for people who fall into Category 4  to a maximum of 24 months. Local CoCs have latitude to create their own parameters to subsidize a fewer number of months and/or up to a financial cap. 

Chronic homelessness 

Although it’s not a category this type of homelessness is given first priority in using CoC funds. 

  • The household has been homeless continuously for twelve months

  • The household has had four episodes of homelessness within the past three years. The episodes must have lasted long enough to total twelve months.

  • An adult in the household has been diagnosed with a disability.

Filling Out the Forms

Clients must submit proof of homelessness at the time they apply for housing and again at the time an apartment or a rent subsidy voucher becomes available to them. This detail amplifies the paradoxical reality that homeless people have to maintain their homelessness if they want help 

Let’s assume you have Marcy as a client. Marcy has a head trauma from domestic violence. A diagnosis by a licensed professional meets the disability requirement.

She is literally homeless at the time of intake. You can help her apply for housing help. But, during the intake you learn that she has been homeless off and on for years. You can build her history of chronic homelessness with the following sources of information:

  • Homeless Management Information System - The CoC maintains this database to track grant compliance and for HUD reports. Service providers report client episodes of homelessness. The system may already have records for Marcy it can report. 
  • Interview Marcy to recall her incidents of homelessness. You can prompt her through connecting it with other memorable events, such as an unusually big snowfall or a holiday. Ask for everything she can remember about where she slept and how long she might have been there.
  • Review your Casebook contact record for previous interactions with her. It may help prompt her recollection of homeless episodes. You may also find indications of her homeless episodes in your notes.  
  • Contact any other case managers in your agency who have worked with Marcy in the past.  
  • Obtain police and court records; they note it if an individual has no fixed address.
  • Obtain medical records, especially for emergency room visits and check for a note saying the individual has no fixed address. Consider Marcy’s condition that might be connected directly to homelessness, such as frostbite, injuries from assaults, or infected wounds.  
  • Other service providers who have a contact record with the individual. For example, Marcy had a case manager for previous attempts to escape from her abuser.  
  • Residency in a Safe Haven. This type of housing was created as a bridge between street homelessness and permanent housing. Most were converted to permanent housing but your community may still have one. A client who spent a year in one is chronically homeless.

When you record an incident of homelessness for Marcy (or any other homeless clients) report it to the HMIS administrator in your county. 

Casebook Records

You can use notes in the client’s Casebook record for contacts you had that can be connected to homeless episodes. For example, you learned she had a homeless episode prior to your contact. 

Record the following information for each episode:

  1. Length of time, to the best of Marcy’s knowledge, to document 12 months of homelessness. Encounters between you or other service providers and Marcy when she reports literal homelessness can count for the entire month.
  2. Where she slept during the episode.
  3. Number of months with episodes of homelessness. 
  4. Documentation needed for the episode.

Acceptable documentation:

  • Certificate of Homelessness from HMIS 
  • Statement on letterhead from another service provider
  • Shelter or Safe Haven certification
  • Case manager observations on agency letterhead
  • Medical records that reference no fixed address
  • Police and court records that reference no fixed address
  • Client’s self-report. This is acceptable to a limit. Too much reliance on this is considered suspect by HUD.

Scan the documentation and link it to the client’s Casebook record.

Is It Worth It?

Proving a person or family is chronically homeless can be difficult if they don’t have much of a record in HMIS. Ideally, your community has sufficient resources to serve people with as few episodes as one. At the time of this writing most communities don’t. In fact, the pandemic possibly expanded how many people have chronic homeless status.

CoC programs have millions of dollars that are only for homeless people. If your client is homeless and has no prospect for affordable housing in the near future documenting a chronic history is definitely worth it.


Associated Content:

Papering Your Way To Housing

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