Interview with Sam Tsemberis on housing first

This interview is from the June 2007 issue of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE.


Sam Tsemberis is a pioneer in the Housing First movement to end homelessness.

He founded Pathways to Housing in 1992 with the mission of taking people off the streets of New York City and getting them into housing. This went against the old notion that some people aren’t ready to be housed. Pathways, however, took the approach that housing is a basic right and once people have a place of their own, they can then address other issues such as mental illness, drug addition, and health problems.

Pathways houses several hundred formerly homeless people today, with strong retention rates.

Tsemberis shares what’s happening with Housing First programs across the nation.

Q You pioneered Housing First with the chronically homeless in New York City in 1992. What is the most compelling evidence that it is working?

A The evidence was there right from the start. In our first year of operation we were able to house 50 people—one a week—who had been on the streets and mentally ill for years because they could not get into housing programs that insist on treatment before housing. In that first year, the housing retention rate for those tenants was 84 percent. Over the years, between our New York and Washington programs, we have housed more than 650 people, and the program retention rate is still 85 percent. The program has now been replicated in more than 20 cities as a successful model to end homelessness for people who have remained chronically homeless. The retention rate in programs across the country is 80 percent. More than 2,500 people have left the streets and moved into an apartment of their own. For the first time since we have been counting people who are homeless in this country, results of the one-night count show that the numbers are reduced.

Q Why isn’t it used more?

A The approach is currently used in about 20 cities but is part of plans to end homelessness in about 200 other cities. The cities that have planned it but are not implementing it probably do not have the funding to begin this new program. Providing agencies with state and/or federal funding targeted at developing Housing First programs would be completely effective in increasing the number of programs.

Q What is the challenge of implementing a Housing First program? Is it finding the apartments?

A Not really, because we are looking at [a] small number of apartments [for the chronic homeless]. Today, you can easily end street homelessness for the mentally ill in any city or town in America. There are enough available units to rent if the funds were available for the rents and services support. Landlords like working with agencies and collecting rents on time. One big problem is finding a local champion in each community who is willing to try something new and assemble a group of services providers who will seek out the funding and implement the program.

Q Where is Housing First headed?

A More and more cities are adopting 10-year plans to end homelessness. Most of those plans have a Housing First component. It will soon become part of standard practice. We try to be helpful and offer advice, support, and technical assistance.

In addition, we are growing our own program. We will be starting a Housing First program for other homeless populations: homeless families, mostly women and their children who have been in shelters. We will be advocating for the development of more and more affordable housing, which will include a portion of the new housing for poor people. Ultimately, ending homelessness begins to look a lot like ending poverty.

Q Do you still believe that homelessness can be eradicated in this country?

A Absolutely. It is possible. There’s nothing preventing us from ending homelessness. It’s not a disease like cancer where we still need to find a cure. We know the cure. It’s affordable housing for everyone and support services for some small number. As a society, the only thing in our way is our inertia. Political will and $10 billion would be an instant cure.