Up until recently, the most prominent approaches to solving homelessness appealed to the “conventional” wisdom that suggests society should aim to alleviate common problems surrounding homelessness like alcoholism, trauma, and addiction in hopes to facilitate the homeless individual’s ability to find a stable home. While these have historically been common solutions, the Housing First model inverts the conventional logic by giving people homes first and then services after.
By Salaar Maghazeh
What is the Housing First model?
The Housing First model does exactly what it says. Instead of trying to fix problems related to homelessness by requiring the completion of services or mental health programs prior to giving an individual a home, it proposes that society gives homeless individuals a home first along with a range of social services which in turn, helps them effectively solve the problems in their lives in tandem.
Research from the “National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse” points out that supportive housing (a type of Housing First model that focuses heavily on supportive services) results in a substantial reduction of substance use in its residents as well declining hospitalizations and use of emergency room services. This reduction occurs because of the mental and physical stability that homes provide during recovery from trauma or addiction, as homes provide comfort and peace of mind.
[It] proposes that society gives homeless individuals a home first along with a range of social services which in turn, helps them effectively solve the problems in their lives in tandem.
In practical terms, this could mean giving fully-subsidized homes with a normal lease to tenants or partially subsidizing homes in relation to how much the income of a tenant can be dedicated to the rent if he or she works. This is commonly referred to as “Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH).”
Given the complexities of homelessness and the factors that surround the phenomena, homelessness can become a dizzying problem to appraise, much less solve. Along with these complexities comes a sea of misinformation and propaganda on homelessness that has nestled itself cozily into the psyches of residents across the nation, often leading them to oppose measures when their communities are the best equipped to implement such measures. Consequently, there is no shortage of misunderstanding about the issue of homelessness and what can be done about it. However, the evidence for Housing First continues to build as cities across the country have begun its implementation.
How the Housing First Model Has Fared
Permanent Supportive Housing has been implemented in select areas around the United States, and these areas have found both reductions of chronic homelessness and increases of rehabilitation success. Across the country, PSH has cut homelessness by 30 percent according to research by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. This research also tells us that PSH reduces the costs to the average taxpayer by 49.5%, as a chronically homeless person left without supportive housing can rack up costs to state funding through jail time, use of emergency services, and hospitalizations. Supportive housing works to reduce these state-funded costs in a preventative approach.
One example to take note of is the state of Utah, which has achieved astounding results with the Housing First model. In 2005, the state of Utah had set the goal of ending homelessness. In Utah, this model pegs 30 percent of one’s income or $50 a month (depending on whichever is greater) as rent payment. Consistent with other Housing First programs, chronically homeless individuals found a range of crucial services at their disposal to help them with conditions that leave them vulnerable to falling back on to the streets, all while having a home to return to at the end of the day.
Consistent with other Housing First programs, chronically homeless individuals found a range of crucial services at their disposal to help them with conditions that leave them vulnerable to falling back on to the streets, all while having a home to return to at the end of the day.
This statewide program was launched after profound success with a pilot program in Salt Lake City that housed 17 of the most difficult cases. A report from NPR notes that Utah has cut chronic homelessness by 91 percent.
The city of Riverside has become a success story for the state of California to follow. According to a report by “Desert Sun,” the city has effectively brought veteran homelessness to zero through a Housing First-modeled program. Through this model, the city gave the veterans housing vouchers and then worked with landlords in the city to rent to these homeless veterans.
After receiving housing, veterans were given a range of social and health services like job training and help with substance abuse. By the end of 2016, Riverside had eliminated veteran homelessness and now hopes to scale this program up for the chronically homeless in Riverside.
In Los Angeles, permanent supportive housing has also made encouraging progress. According to the “UCLA Center for Health Advancement,” for a $275 million investment providing stable housing and case management to 13,468 chronically homeless people in Los Angeles County, the program saw a 31 percent reduction in arrests as well as an 11 percent reduction in emergency health care use, and cut down program costs by almost half. Although these statistics could always be better in light of the progress made by the state of Utah and the city of Riverside, the conclusion is clear that the Housing First model is empirically supported.
Drawbacks: Difficulties with Implementing in Large Cities
A potential problem lies in the sizes of cities and states that implement the program. Both the city of Los Angeles and the state of California are massive, and that may be why there was more impressive progress in Salt Lake City and Riverside respectively. For comparison, Salt Lake City is 110.4 square miles, and Riverside is 81.54 square miles. On the other hand, Los Angeles is a whopping 503 square miles. The only two solutions when it comes to geographic problems seem to be raising funding and dividing areas of Los Angeles amongst different supportive housing programs.
As with any alleviative measure that attempts to place a band-aid on homelessness, one must be wary of a program’s vulnerability to defunding; this affliction can be destructive if lobbyists and think-tanks can change the public perception of a program.
The problem is less of a drawback of the program itself, and more of a statement on the existing socioeconomic structures. Furthermore, a 2017 study titled “Homelessness in Orange County: The Costs to Our Community” by David Snow and Rachel Goldberg illustrates that the cause of the problem lies in “insufficient wages/lost jobs,” relative to housing costs. Yet, corporations across the country are seeing record profits, while worker productivity continues to grow. It seems the only way to rectify this injustice is to deal with the socioeconomic structure themselves.
It Proves to be Effective in Initial Stages
The Housing First model has shown its ability to slash homelessness while also saving taxpayer money, demonstrating that societies can deal with social ills in a cost-effective manner when given the right model. It has been implemented throughout the country on city and statewide levels, with modest to major success in many instances. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the country will follow suit in light of the landmark progress made by those cities and states implementing the Housing First model. With rising rents and decreasing homeownership rates across the country, the urgency for a stop-gap on homelessness continues to mount. The Housing First model may just be that very measure our country will need while people fight against the massive economic inequality.
Salaar is a third-year Political Science major. He has contributed to New University campus newspaper and is interested in socialism, Marxist economic analysis, and U.S. foreign policy. He covers these on his blog at amateurprotest.wordpress.com. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram at @ihatesalaarmaghazeh.