The data is in.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) indicates that "Housing First" is effective at preventing and reducing homelessness.
This begs the question: Why is "Housing First" such a tough sell?
Beginning during the Bush administration, hundreds of communities across the U.S. began to talk about using a Housing First approach as a means to reduce the numbers of homeless. In fact, there are at present approximately 300 cities and counties which have some type of 10-year plan to end homelessness in various stages of "development." Unfortunately, there aren’t many of them that have one which is actually operational.
There are numerous reasons why communities have yet to use a Housing First approach to its fullest potential.
One of the reasons most commonly given is the initial cost of implementing such a program. Start-up isn’t cheap.
Yet, when compared to the cost of continuing to "deal" with homelessness using the more historic approach of "a meal and a bed," the Housing First approach is overall the most cost effective in the long term. This is because it actually solves homelessness rather than simply maintaining it. This in turn means that as the numbers of homeless are reduced in any given community, there is a significant cost savings to a community.
Another reason many communities have put off moving ahead with their 10-year plans is due to the economy. Interestingly enough, despite the recession, one region in Virginia has made ending homelessness a priority using "Housing First."
In 2008, Fairfax County had a growing homeless population. As a result they adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness. But rather than leave it on the drawing board until such a time when the economy might improve, they forged ahead. Part of their 10-year plan also included homeless prevention programs.
What may be surprising to some is that their efforts have been rather successful — in spite of the recession.
According to an article in The Washington Post, from 2008 to the present,
" . . . Fairfax has actually reduced its overall homeless population by nearly 16 percent and its homeless families by 19 percent."
That, in itself, is one of the best indicators that the Housing First approach is a viable solution for reducing homelessness.
However, cost isn’t the only reason Housing First has failed to "gain traction" in any given number of communities. Sometimes it’s the local citizenry itself who oppose its implementation.
I think much of that opposition stems from folks not clearly understanding how such an approach to reducing homelessness actually benefits the overall community. In addition, folks are resistant to the notion of providing housing for the homeless without requiring them to undergo some sort of rehabilitative or "life-transforming" programs. As such, in their minds, helping the homeless acquire housing prior to being "fixed" appears only to enable them to continue to "use drugs and alcohol." This mindset, however, is based purely on stereotypes and misconceptions — and not actual reality.
The reason Housing First is so successful at helping folks overcome homelessness is because it helps to stabilize their day to day lives. It empowers then with the ability to reconstruct their lives. They then become more likely to remain housed and attain some measure of self-sustainability.
Even among the chronically homeless who have an addiction disorder, a Housing First approach has shown itself to be effective at helping them overcome their addictions and rebuild themselves.
Is the Housing First approach 100 percent effective?
There are still a number of "kinks" in the system. However, it’s important to recognize that Housing First is still basically in its infancy stage when compared to the traditional sheltering system. So, undoubtedly, there is still room for a bit of fine-tuning. All the same, I suspect that there is no methodology for ending homelessness that is perfect. Still, from what the data indicates, Housing First seems to work best.
Is Housing First cost effective?
To be sure, it is certainly more expensive to start up than a homeless shelter or soup kitchen would be. This is because the availability of affordable housing is required. Nonetheless, in the long run, there are substantial savings to the community with the additional benefit of actually reducing homelessness.
In the end, what it comes down to is this: the initial investment any community puts into implementing a Housing First approach will be a large one. Over time though, that investment will yield positive results in numerous ways.
First it will have reduced homelessness. Next, because the numbers of homeless will have been reduced, there will be less of a financial strain on a community by not having to perpetually fund services that maintain homelessness without solving it.
But perhaps most importantly, by enabling folks who are experiencing homeless to become housed, it will have restored their human dignity.
That makes any community all the healthier — and a better place for everyone to call "Home."
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If you’re interested in knowing more about "Housing First," take a read of the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ report: What Is Housing First? (in PDF format)
Also, visit the BeyondShelter.org website and their page: Housing First – Ending Family Homelessness.