First things first

This article on Housing First appeared this week in the Boston Globe.

‘Housing first,’ a radical new approach to ending chronic homelessness, is gaining ground in Boston.

By Florence Graves and Hadar Sayfan | June 24, 2007

AT THE LATIN ACADEMY, a majestic former school built in 1900 near Dorchester’s Codman Square, Joe Jeannotte is participating in a social experiment.

Jeannotte lives in a sparsely furnished new two-bedroom apartment. Light streams through large windows, and a burgundy and forest green couch faces a small television. He looks older than his 38 years — gaunt, scruffy, with dark brown hair — and shares the place with his girlfriend, Judy, who asked that her last name not be used. Often, the noise of construction filters in as workers rehab other apartments, but the couple doesn’t complain. Not long ago, they were convinced they would never have a place to live at all. When they moved into the new place, at public expense, they had no home and no money, and both had been struggling for years with heroin addiction.

In the past, society’s approach to homeless people with chronic health problems such as addiction has been governed by tough love: Stay in treatment, or you don’t get the opportunity for publicly supported housing. People who could not confront their addiction, the thinking went, could not handle an apartment.

But a new approach, called “housing first,” is gathering momentum. The idea is to target the most difficult cases — the chronically homeless who make up between 10 and 20 percent of the homeless population and spend years cycling between the streets, shelters, jail cells, and emergency rooms — and give them apartments without requiring them to get sober, in the hope that having a place to live will help them address their other problems. More than 150 cities or counties around the country already have programs of some kind or plans to initiate one, and last month the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended doubling the size of a small pilot program in the state. If the pilot succeeds, proponents say it could force dramatic changes in homeless policy — and a recognition that the current shelter system, built on what they call a punitive moralism, has fundamentally failed.

“Shelters have become the poor houses of the 21st century,” said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA), who is administering Home and Healthy for Good, the pilot program.

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