This article on Housing First appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Shelterforce.
Housing First may have gone a long way toward taking homeless individuals off the street, but it’s leaving families out in the cold.
By Violet Law
In Columbus, Ohio, hundreds of homeless people who have spent years living on the street or camping out on the city’s riverfront are finding a haven in the new housing programs run by the Community Shelter Board (CSB), an independent nonprofit that coordinates funding and delivery of homeless assistance services statewide.
Instead of shuttling the city’s homeless from one emergency shelter to the next, or putting them through bureaucratic hoops just to qualify for temporary housing, CSB settles the homeless into housing units for as long as they need to be there. Because most of those being housed are afflicted with addiction or mental illness, supportive services and case management are made available but are not mandated. Since some homeless people are unwilling to accept housing that is contingent upon them receiving treatment, CSB’s approach is simply to get homeless people off the street and into a stable, more permanent environment.
Columbus is among the first handful of cities, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, to house the homeless under this “permanent housing” paradigm, first introduced in 1988 by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Beyond Shelter. Known as Housing First, this approach to housing the homeless has garnered much attention. And in the last five years, the Bush administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) has promoted it as the solution to ending chronic homelessness.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a “chronically homeless person” is an individual who has been without a home for at least one year and is diagnosed with mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. Housing First focuses on serving this segment of the homeless population.
While the cities that have adopted Housing First have reported a reduction in their chronic homeless population by the hundreds or even thousands in the last decade, homeless advocates are increasingly alarmed that this solution, executed with little increase in federal funding, is threatening to short-change other homeless populations, such as families with children and teenagers who have aged out of foster care, in favor of one narrowly defined group. “We wish [the Bush administration] had picked up the whole agenda of ending homelessness for all,” says Nan Roman, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).
According to HUD’s first-ever annual homeless assessment report released in late February, there were an estimated 754,000 homeless people nationwide in 2005, of which 23 percent were considered chronically homeless. In January, NAEH released the results of a one-night count that it conducted in 2005. That survey found 744,313 homeless people nationwide, with families making up 41 percent of the overall homeless population. – “You’re pitting one segment of the homeless population against another,” says Paul Boden, executive director of Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of social-justice-based homelessness organizations on the West Coast. “How can they cut Section 8 but believe in Housing First as a concept? They’re cutting housing but doing Housing First. It’s not just ironic; it’s hypocritical.”
Housing First at Its Best
In 1997, with redevelopment pending along Columbus’ downtown riverfront, CSB worked to provide suitable housing for the homeless who had long congregated there. The board gained administrative and financial support from the private sector, foundations and city, county and state governments. By 1999, CSB had implemented a new program called Rebuilding Lives. Its goal was to create 800 supportive housing units for the chronically homeless, including those displaced from the riverfront. The residents are treated like tenants; they hold the key and the lease to their individual apartments and are responsible for housekeeping. They can choose to receive services, but turning down help will not keep them from being housed.
Although all of the sites under the Rebuilding Lives program are anchored by the same philosophy-to reacquaint the homeless with whatever it takes to stay housed-they are not identical. Some require all residents to be clean and sober; others tolerate some level of alcohol use as long as it doesn’t disturb other residents. In addition to Rebuilding Lives, CSB coordinates street outreach, homelessness prevention and emergency-shelter operations among service providers.
Sunshine Terrace is one of the sites under the Rebuilding Lives program that provides housing to homeless people with addictions or mental illness. A vacated public-housing high-rise converted into permanent supportive housing, Sunshine Terrace has 65 units available to residents for as long as they want to be there.
Shortly after moving into Sunshine Terrace, Maliki Bey and Mike Fox became fast friends, bonding over a desire to put their lives back together. Three years ago, Bey took shelter in a YMCA-run SRO, but being wheelchair-bound, he felt very constrained. It was more like a structured program than supportive housing, he recalls. Under Rebuilding Lives, however, Bey, a former cocaine addict, says he is given the freedom to live independently while getting the case-management services he desires. He has a well-stocked kitchen where he can better manage his diet by cooking his own meals. “I feel like I got my life back. I’m living normally, like most people do,” says Bey.
Mike Fox knows his life has changed for the better now that he is in permanent housing. He spent the past several years in and out of emergency shelters and temporary housing. “Shelter is just a place to lay your head and get something to eat,” says Fox. But here, “it gives you a sense of self to get back on your feet.”
A recovering alcoholic, Fox was determined to turn his life around as soon as he moved into Sunshine Terrace. It wasn’t easy. The strain of 30 years of street life and alcoholism finally caught up with him: He underwent five operations, including heart surgery. Yet Fox had the peace of mind knowing that his Sunshine Terrace unit was being held for him while he rehabilitated in a nursing home. When he returned, he started an Alcoholics Anonymous group in the building to help other residents kick the habit.
Even with the apparent success of the Rebuilding Lives program, CSB still acknowledges that other housing options are necessary. But with funding being heavily directed to permanent housing, transitional housing or emergency shelters are being deprived of the resources needed to operate fully.
The Real Debate
While the benefits of permanent housing programs are manifest, some advocates for the homeless are increasingly speaking out against the Bush administration’s position that Housing First is the panacea for ending homelessness-especially now that ICH and the administration are seeking to reauthorize the McKinney-Vento Act, which was, in 1986, the first piece of federal legislation to address homelessness. The administration’s draft version of the reauthorized legislation calls for making permanent the Samaritan bonus-the current incentive to provide permanent housing for the chronically homeless. Those who oppose this incentive charge that the singular focus on the chronically homeless population is at best a misguided effort to solve the complexities of homelessness by defining it too narrowly and simplistically. Some opponents of the administration’s proposed reauthorization bill, mostly from the National Coalition to End Homelessness, support competing legislation introduced in Congress in February, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which they say would allocate homeless assistance funding in a more balanced manner.
The economic rationale for focusing on the chronically homeless-who until now were thought to account for only 10 to 15 percent of the overall homeless population-is based on widely cited research conducted by Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania on the shelter systems in New York City and Philadelphia. Culhane found that, in these two cities, this subset of the homeless population consumes the majority of the available resources, mostly through emergency shelters. While few advocates dispute those findings, the facts on the ground have shown that by structuring services to focus on a relatively small percentage of the homeless population, the situation for the majority is worsening in a number of cities.
Take Philadelphia. As early as 1989, some local homeless service providers had embraced the Housing First model. Most notable was Sister Mary Scullion. Under the Project H.O.M.E. program that she founded nearly 20 years ago, thousands of homeless people straight from the streets have been settled into permanent housing units. Philadelphia has been extolled as a success in reducing its homeless population and has become a case study for metropolitan areas nationwide. As a result, the city has stopped adding transitional housing and shelter beds over the past five years. Now the shelter system is operating at capacity, leaving many homeless people out in the cold.
“The shelter situation is in a crisis. We’ve never seen anything as bad before. There are very few shelter beds for women and children. All the beds are full,” says Gloria Guard, executive director of People’s Emergency Center, a nonprofit agency in Philadelphia that helps homeless women and their children with a range of services, including short-term housing, case management and job training.
“The number of beds has stayed stable and there’s no backdoor. Right now the city is running out of shelter space, so what do we do?” asks Guard. For a city that has been aggressive in tackling its homeless problem for almost two decades, this crisis would not have come about if it were not for the federal funding bias toward permanent housing.
In order to compete for homeless-assistance dollars, many homeless service providers have written their funding requests in a way that emphasizes permanent housing for the chronically homeless, even when other homeless populations may be in greater need or alternative housing options are more appropriate to their particular cities or regions. This frustrates housing advocates like Paul Boden. “Communities are writing their own plan, but the federal government already predetermined the priority,” he says.
The HUD budget does offer homeless assistance grants in three other major areas: emergency shelters, transitional housing and supportive services. “Funding for [these three] has suffered more or less because the emphasis has been [to channel] more money to permanent supportive housing,” says Doug Rice, a housing policy analyst for the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
And despite all the buzz about the efficacy of permanent housing to solve chronic homelessness, HUD’s budget for new permanent housing and all other programs for the homeless has been shrinking. For the 2006 fiscal year, HUD allocated a total of $193 million in homeless assistance grants to new housing and service programs, a 45-percent decrease from FY2003. The two largest funding categories are the Supportive Housing Program and Shelter Plus Care. Federal funding for the Supportive Housing Program, which provides mostly for emergency shelters, transitional housing and supportive services, saw a 53-percent drop, from $245 million in 2003 to $115 million in 2006. Even funding for new permanent housing, funded mostly under Shelter Plus Care, went from $97 million in 2003 to $77 million in 2006. Less than $1 of every $5 in the FY2006 homeless assistance budget went into adding new housing.
The impact of cuts in federal funding is being felt, especially in metropolitan areas where affordable housing is already in short supply. In San Francisco, single-room-occupancy (SROs) hotels occupied by low-income renters are being converted into permanent housing for the chronically homeless, exacerbating the city’s housing problems.
“You cannot build and subsidize housing with that miniscule amount of money,” says Boden. In suburban and rural areas, where there is no existing SRO supply, shelters and transitional housing that have been serving the homeless well are increasingly coming under pressure to close down or be converted to permanent units.
While most advocates agree that there is a need for permanent housing for the chronically homeless, not everyone is cut out for it. Even with its success with permanent housing, CSB’s Barbara Poppe stresses the importance of having other housing options for the homeless. “Permanent housing is very specialized, expensive housing that should be reserved for those with an ongoing need,” says Poppe. “There are other housing solutions for other homeless populations. We believe the emergency shelter systemâ€¦is important; the emergency shelter is the final safety net.” According to Paul Boden, “Most people don’t choose to live permanently in programs administrated by social workers. That’s not their goal in life,” he says. “When it’s the only form of affordable housing in your community, it’s insulting.”
It can also be aggravating. “If we don’t do something with the affordable-housing crisis, forget about it,” says NAEH’s Roman. “This is the driver of the homeless problem. We can wring only so much blood out of the stone with the homeless money here.”
Meanwhile, advocates contend there is a need for all types of housing for all kinds of homeless people-families with children in tow, elderly, and single individuals with or without a disability or addiction. Hyping a single housing option for one subset of the homeless population is tantamount to treating the symptoms but not the cause of homelessness.
In its recently released report, “Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures,” WRAP traces how federal funding cuts since the 1980s resulted in the homeless phenomenon we’re seeing today. It states that, without restoring lost funding, the federal government’s latest campaign to end chronic homelessness will prove as ineffectual as its empty rhetoric.
“The emergence of the Housing First model has occurred simultaneously with a continued assault on public housing, housing subsidies, Section 8,” the report reads. Poppe agrees: “The big piece that is missing is that we need more affordable housing available, so people don’t need to be homeless in the first place.”
Violet Law is a Pittsburgh-based journalist who specializes in affordable-housing issues.