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December, 2015

In the Spirit of the Season: Housing First, Second, & Third

by Larry

"Are there no prisons?...And the Union workhouses...Are they still in operation?" These lines early in the book and movie "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, help point to an ongoing societal dilemma, homelessness, with us since well before Jesus famously promoted kindness toward the poor.

Utah, though, is among several locations getting a better handle on the problem than might be believed if it were not true. They have in the past few years lowered their numbers of the chronically homeless by over 90%. They hope, indeed, to reduce them to almost zero within the next 12 months or so. Utah has done it by following principles of a program called "Housing First."

The Housing First plan is to simply: 1. Provide apartments or other permanent housing for the homeless without preconditions; 2. Get the formerly homeless on steady incomes (for instance, via regular earnings, government disability, VA, or welfare assistance, the support of church congregations, or from other non-profits); 3. Have them pay for their housing with 30% of income; 4. Support individual recoveries; 5. Facilitate their reintegration into the community.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Housing First is a cost-effective approach. It requires less money for Utah and other locales to house the homeless than if they deal with chronic homelessness in other ways. Historically, homeless persons have had higher unemployment, incarceration, and hospitalization rates, have had much worse medical histories and so required more ongoing healthcare expenses, and/or they are repeatedly staying at shelters. They often also have higher rates of criminal activity, alcoholism, and drug abuse. In addition, the chronically homeless are frequently themselves the victims of street violence. The aggregate funds spent for extra policing, rehabilitation, workforce department staffing, shelter operations, soup kitchens, and medical care involving homelessness exceeds the resources required for assuring these people roofs over their heads.

Side benefits of housing the homeless include their having better self-respect, higher rates of jobs, less interaction with law enforcement, reduced addiction, increased family cohesion, and overall enhanced stability. Best of all, the quality of life of previously homeless folks is vastly improved. What's not to like?

There are criticisms of the program. For example, there are those who feel the homeless do not deserve to have charitable or taxpayer funds spent on them when they have not earned the privilege of housing or when addictive or illegal behaviors have undermined their resolving their difficulties on their own. It is asserted too that they will not know what to do with "decent housing," that putting them up in nice apartments, for instance, would be just like throwing money into a hole. Others feel that the homeless are too disabled (or criminal or self-destructive, etc.) to be on their own. It is believed that providing apartments without first dealing with underlying addictive behaviors or other kinds of disability that led to homelessness will only result in the loss of the new housing as well. These seem valid objections except that, notwithstanding these and other reservations about it, Housing First is working where it has been implemented and so is making substantial progress in cutting the numbers of the homeless and hence in the improvement of many people's lives, including those of the children of erstwhile homeless adults. Many of these kids, certainly, could not reasonably be expected to provide for themselves.

I grant, though, that providing housing is not the complete or final answer. Many of these individuals do have mental and physical incapacities and can benefit from greater encouragement, understanding, and support in several spheres of functioning. In early 2014 at a "Beyond Housing Conference," this idea was espoused by the President and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, Ralph DaCosta Nunez. He said what is needed is not merely a Housing First approach, applicable as it is for those who only require housing, but also a "housing second" option, for those who require educational or job training assistance to better get ahead, and even a "housing third" remedy, for individuals with more complicated circumstances, among them those with generational poverty, prison backgrounds, addictions, post traumatic stress disorders, permanent injuries, and other mental and physical limitations.

As a former vocational rehab counselor, I am well aware of how intractable certain problems underlying homelessness can be. However, as demonstrated in successful homelessness reduction in a conservative state like Utah, bold initiatives can make a profound difference. From that foundation and with both compassion and the competent exercise of best practices it is possible to build an edifice of enduringly redeemed lives.

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