Housing First Erodes Homelessness

Urban homelessness has probably been a problem as long as urban developments have existed. However, the Housing First movement has had massive impacts on homelessness both here in the nation’s capital and farther afield.

In the last century of historically unprecedented wealth (as measured by modern conveniences), urbanites have made some sincere efforts to help those in need. Despite these (often misguided) attempts, millions of low-income individuals and families are left stranded, homeless, and helpless in the world’s major cities. Unforeseen circumstances, conditions, maladies, bad timing, etc. keep them without the means to pay for a roof over their heads.

In contrast to the social programs and massive donations used to date, Housing First programs provide housing for people in need and ask questions later.  According to its supporters, when these programs are used on the large scale, it can effectively eradicate homelessness.


DC Resident Shortly Before Being Evicted from Tent City for the Homeless near Union Station, Washington D.C.

Most housing assistance programs require hopeful residents to jump through a series of hoops—addiction and therapy sessions, early check-ins that make working a full-time job tough, and time limits. It’s hard to blame the program designers. As the saying goes, “you don’t get something for nothing.”

But in the case of many homeless individuals, that’s exactly what they may need most of all. Many people need a leg up and an environment where they feel supported before they are able to tackle the tougher physiological, psychological and financial problems (among other issues) that they may face.

While some people are perfectly capable of “pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” some simply aren’t. People with drug and alcohol problems, or a number of other social and psychological problems, find turning themselves around far more stressful when they don’t have a place to turn themselves around at.

I’m no psychologist, and I can’t explain exactly why it works. But there are currently housing first programs or organizations in places as diverse as Dallas, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Anchorage, Minneapolis, New York City, Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin and Cleveland, among others.

Perhaps the most notable success has been in Salt Lake City. In 2005, there were 1,914 chronically homeless individuals in the state of Utah. Largely due to adopting the housing first strategy, that number dropped to 601 by 2012.

As for detractors claiming that this is “wasteful government spending?” It’s significantly cheaper than shelters—and way cheaper than the jails some folks might otherwise end up in. Shelter’s in Utah, for example, cost about $20,000 per year per person, while housing first drops the cost down to about $12,000. In New York City, shelters average $77 per night, while housing first is only $57.

Once people are housed in their own place with their own entrance and keys, they are encouraged to voluntarily take on the next steps. Support for alcoholism, drug addiction, psychological disorders and/or job advisors are often on-site, depending on the clientele. However, unlike other programs, participation is not a pre-requisite for housing.

Housing first’s ostensible leader, Sam Tsemberis, and his Pathways National is finding his program increasingly welcomed and highly successful. Specifically in DC, the program has an 89% retention rate—even with those who haven’t succeeded in other programs. Since 2008, housing first has been working in the District. Here’s a comparison that the Pathways website gives for the program here in town:


The program faces criticism on issues other than cost. According to the font of Wikipedia wisdom, “Ralph da Costa Nunez, the President and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH), who is also a Professor at Columbia University, predicted this one-size-fits-all is destined to fail as statistics in New York City prove.” The housing first model has also been likened to the Panelak of former communist countries, which was designed to eliminate all homelessness.

Successes seem to be numerous. A recent Time Magazine article (usually quite conservative on calling a trend in motion) even cited housing first for dramatically decreasing chronic homelessness, despite total homelessness increasing. A few years back, the Canadian government even adopted the method as their primary new housing strategy.

I’m inclined to use the program where applicable. It seems like more study is required before the entire nation is painted with a Panelak-like brush. It also seems like the housing first method can have wide-scale positive benefits. In either case, it seems that housing first will become an increasingly important policy tool in the pragmatic fight against homelessness.

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