Today’s Read: Members of Congress Question Housing First

Research over the past few decades has shown that providing people with a permanent home and appropriate support services can give them the stability they need to subsequently overcome other challenges such as mental illness or substance use disorders. Housing First is an approach to homelessness rooted in the assumption that providing housing swiftly and without preconditions offers the most effective stabilizing foundation to foster further problem-solving. For example, this study demonstrated that people entering housing without sobriety requirements reduced their consumption of alcohol.

Housing First can be implemented in several ways, including through the provision of short-term housing subsidies also known as Rapid Rehousing. However, providing access to permanent, affordable housing has been proven to be the most effective for maintaining future stability and improving family and child wellbeing. Housing First for families and for those who are chronically homeless requires adequate and long-term investments in order to be effective and sustainable, but it has been shown to save tax dollars over time by reducing the use of emergency shelters, correctional facilities, and hospitals.

Despite the demonstrated success of Housing First in reducing chronic and family homelessness, 23 Members of Congress wrote a letter earlier this month to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development expressing their concerns about the approach. Specifically, they questioned HUD’s practice of prioritizing low-demand models over “programs that work to alleviate the effects of poverty by supporting sobriety, work, and accountability” – ignoring that for many people, housing is the essential foundation that enables them to address their other challenges. Regrettably, the authors of the letter seem to misunderstand both the breadth and value of HUD’s emphasis on Housing First strategies, and altogether miss the point of Housing First for homeless families and individuals. It would be more productive and cost-effective for Congress to ensure that adequate funds are provided to sustain Housing First for our most vulnerable neighbors.

Konrad Putzier wrote about the lawmakers’ letter – and the response from New York City Hall and advocates – for The Real Deal:

“We fully support the homelessness prevention and rehousing approach underlying Housing First,” said a spokesperson for the New York City Human Resources Administration. “Without stable and appropriate supportive housing it becomes much more difficult for these individuals to consistently remain engaged in the health, mental health and other services they so desperately need, which will result in more people living on the streets.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the agency is working on a response to the letter.

Supportive housing projects following Housing First guidelines make homes available to homeless people without strings attached, such as drug or sobriety tests. The idea is that it’s easier for people to deal with substance abuse or mental health problems after they have found a place to live in.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations singled out Housing First as a key strategy in their push to end homelessness, and in recent years HUD increased funding for projects following the guideline.

But nearly two dozen House Republicans oppose it, arguing that by removing conditions attached to housing the policy doesn’t give homeless people with substance abuse problems enough of an incentive to sober up. “By implementing its preference for the Housing First model, HUD has removed any incentive for independent housing programs to operate under a model that includes mandatory services, accountability, or sobriety,” the group of Republican Congressmen led by California’s Darrell Issa wrote in the letter. They also claim that the guideline prioritizes services for “chronically homeless adults” at the expense of families.

Housing First proponents counter that the approach still helps chronically homeless people get their lives in order, and does so more effectively because people in stable living conditions are better able to find work or kick addictions. “We know it works,” said Giselle Routhier of the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, arguing that the program ends up saving taxpayers money by doing a better job of keeping people out of temporary shelters, jails and hospitals.