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Exploring the Housing First Model Controversy

Homelessness is a thorny issue in the United States of America. In recent years, there has been increasingly heated debate over how to deal with this problem.

Politician signing documents

The Housing First policy, which was rolled out federally in 2013 has been hotly contested. California, the state that has most openly embraced Housing First, bears the dubious distinction of having the highest number of homeless people in the country, with the highest number of people sleeping on the street. On the other hand, there are countries like Finland where Housing First has been used successfully.

To get a better understanding of the issue of homelessness and the controversy surrounding Housing First, RSnake spoke with Matt Mackowiak, political and communications consultant, and co-founder of Save Austin Now, a non-partisan group tackling crime and homelessness in Austin, Texas.

A Snapshot of Homelessness in the U.S.

According to the 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report carried out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 582,500 people were homeless on a specific night in January 2022.

It’s important to note that this number accounts for people sleeping rough, in shelters or transitional housing. It doesn’t include what is frequently termed the “invisible homeless” who may be staying temporarily with friends or family.

The homeless population is made up of a variety of subgroups that can overlap. One important consideration is the number of unsheltered people with significant mental health challenges.

“UCLA did a study that found roughly three-quarters of the homeless population has drug and alcohol addiction. Three-quarters of the population have mental health challenges, and then there’s overlap between those two populations,” explained Mackowiak.

Of course, the homeless population is made up of different people with varying needs. These include young people under the age of 25, veterans, and people fleeing domestic violence.

With inflation and the costs of housing on the rise, homelessness is an important concern for many people. RSnake experienced invisible homelessness first-hand and discussed his experiences in the episode. “It’s also an area that I care a lot about,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in homelessness.”

Homelessness By State and City

The HUD report showed that California had both the highest homeless population (171,521) and the highest rates of people who were unsheltered (67%). New York has the next highest homeless population (74,178), however, only 5.4% of the population is unsheltered. Florida is third on the list, with 25,959 homeless people.

In terms of cities, the report found that Los Angeles had the highest number of homeless people (65,111), followed by New York (61,840) and Seattle (13,368).

The Relationship Between Homelessness and Crime

The link between homelessness and crime is often discussed. In his interview with Mackowiak, RSnake shared his experience living close to a homeless encampment in Austin. “I noticed that it wasn’t so much homeless that was the problem, with crime,” he said. “It was the drug dealers right around them… The downstream effect of having people using drugs in such a small place is enormous."

Mackowiak pointed out that a significant amount of crime in the homeless population is perpetrated on one another. Theft, physical, and sexual violence happen frequently among unhoused people.

There is not a great deal of research on this subject. However, one study completed by two researchers in Texas did look at the relationship between crime and homelessness in depth.

The researchers found a significant correlation between crime rates and the size of homeless populations in different areas of Los Angeles. However, when they adjusted for various factors, they determined that homelessness itself only had a small contribution to crime rates in a specific area (6%-10%). “Homelessness and demographics work together to influence crime,” they wrote.

What is Housing First?

Housing First is a strategy first developed in North America that recommends providing housing for homeless people before treating other problems like drug addiction or mental illness. It advocates against mandating treatment or requiring sobriety to participate in a housing program.

This is the opposite of the “step” approach (also known as Continuum of Care or Linear Residential Treatment), which has been traditionally used. This model worked to treat problems in gradual steps before providing housing.

Pathways to Housing in New York was one of the first programs to try this approach (though it didn’t initially use the words “Housing First”). The program provides accommodations for people either sleeping rough or are about to be released from the hospital with mental health issues. Sobriety isn’t required, nor is participation in programs, however, there are some requirements. People in the program are required to meet with a case manager twice monthly and take part in money management training. It’s also important to note that accommodations are scattered around the city, not located in a single building.

The first program to use the phrase “Housing First” was called PATH Beyond Shelter and was based in Los Angeles. The model was studied and found to be successful. The program focused on homeless families. People in the program created a service plan and received support services for 6-12 months.

Some research has been done on Housing First and found it to be relatively successful when compared with the traditional “step” approach. According to this paper reviewing the research on Housing First, the results were positive overall.

The Federal Housing First Policy

In 2013, a Housing First policy was implemented federally in the U.S. As part of the policy, people are given access to housing with no requirements or conditions. It seems it is also little or no support provided to people as they transition from life on the streets. This policy has been widely criticized.

According to a report released by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2020, homelessness rose 20% between 2014 and 2019, after Housing First was implemented. The report also stated, “The federal government’s policy shift in 2013 to prioritizing housing first as a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked to reduce homelessness for all populations and communities.”

According to the USICH report, one issue with the implementation of Housing First is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach. Families are treated the same way as single adults with significant mental illnesses or addictions. Different groups have different needs that are not reflected in this policy.

Another problem is the lack of services to address mental health, addictions and other issues. The report recommends providing what it calls “wrap-around supportive services” to help people transition successfully into housing.

The report also stated that in implementing Housing First, the federal government reduced funding to transitional housing spaces. This reduced the number of beds available, leaving more people out in the cold.

RSnake and Mackowiak also pointed out that in practice, providing housing for the homeless has become a lucrative business model for some people in New York in paricular. In places like New York, for example, budgets for housing are inflated for the homeless, but the living conditions are beyond the point where the housing would be traditionally condemed.

Alternatives to Housing First

In his conversation with RSnake, Mackowiak outlined some effective models he has seen that use a different approach.

Community First! Village run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes is a community of tiny homes in Austin, Texas. “Alan Graham with Mobile Loaves and Fishes does a fantastic mission-driven effort,” said Mackowiak. “Alan believes that homelessness is a lack of community first, more than anything else.”

According to Mackowiak, participants in the Community First! Villages are required to sign a contract that states they will stay sober. They are also required to pay a small amount of rent and work – either in the village or at another job. The organization focuses on people who are chronically homeless.

The second organization Mackowiak discussed is Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas. Haven for Hope provides transitional housing. Participants must go through a detox program in order to receive support. “It is absolutely remarkable,” said Mackowiak.

Housing First Abroad

Housing First has been tried in other countries, most notably in Finland, where it is considered a success.

The most important difference in the Finnish Housing First model is the support provided. In addition to funding housing, the county also spent €250 million hiring more support workers.

In one building, reported on by the Guardian, seven staff members supported 21 residents with everything from mental health to life skills.

People in Finland aren’t just given the key to an apartment and left to their own devices. They are supported in their transition.

Another key difference is that in Helsinki, the country’s capital, low-income housing is mixed with other types of buildings, and you can’t tell which buildings are subsidized and which are privately owned. This means lower-income populations are evenly distributed throughout the city, instead of being concentrated in a single area. This may help people receiving support become a part of more regular community life.

The Takeaway

Homelessness is a complex problem with no simple solution. People living on the streets have unique needs that cannot be met by a single unilateral approach.

RSnake and Mackowiack take a deep dive into these issues. If you’re interested in learning more, catch up with their conversation now!

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