Housing First is proven. National and San Diego County regional data back this up time and time again, as do Housing First success stories in Houston, Salt Lake City, Orlando and many regions across the country.
This is how and why it works: Housing First offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and then provides customized wraparound supportive services to meet their needs. When those experiencing homelessness don’t have to face the fear of getting kicked out of a program or pressure of an arbitrary deadline to meet a provider’s expectations, they are, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more likely to discontinue substance abuse, participate in job training, attend school and spend fewer days hospitalized than those not participating in Housing First programs.
What’s more, programs that follow the Housing First model are the most flexible — a key component in ensuring success when dealing with multiple people with varying needs and circumstances. Services are provided by focusing on spending money on what the individual or family needs as opposed to checking boxes for services rendered that may not be effective but chip away at grant money.
All of the cities mentioned above — and others — point to outcomes that support the success of the Housing First model: People remain stably housed, reduce their use of crisis services and institutions, and improve their overall health and social welfare.
With these findings in mind, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson recently spoke at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in support of Housing First. “A man will not beat addiction from a gutter, he will not get psychiatric help underneath a bridge, and he will not find a steady job without a steady address,” he stated.
However, in a June letter to Secretary Carson, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and 22 other Republican congressional leaders urged Carson to not prioritize funding programs that follow the Housing First approach to ending homelessness because it puts “families, youth and children at risk.”
Carson addressed these concerns during the conference. “Many taxpayers are understandably concerned about providing housing with no conditions against subsidizing drug use or other harmful behavior,” he said, but went on to say Housing First initiatives make sense — “not just morally, but practically.”
And the practical and moral reasons are clear: Housing First works by saving money and lives.
Locally, the San Diego veterans’ system has shown the dramatic success of Housing First by logging a 24 percent decrease in veteran homelessness in just two years and an approximately 40 percent decrease in five years.
Furthermore, a study by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute at Point Loma Nazarene University found that San Diego saved at least $3.5 million from 2010 to 2015 after it provided housing and social services to 28 people who had been heavy users of public services like emergency rooms, shelters and jails.
What about the “families, youth and children at risk” Issa refers to? Does Housing First work for them, too? As a matter of fact, it does.
The Family Options Study — a multisite random assignment study designed to examine the impact of various housing and services interventions for homeless families — was launched by HUD in 2008. Between September 2010 and January 2012, a total of 2,282 families — including more than 5,000 children — were enrolled in the study. The findings? Getting families into affordable housing as quickly as possible is the most cost-effective and efficient approach to ending family homelessness — beating the outdated approach of providing service-intensive, temporary housing that Issa and his supporters advocate.
And on the moral side: Look at the multitude of people who have died on our streets because of outdated approaches — methods we long believed were the best we had to offer. Now that we know better, it’s clear a more humanistic solution is needed.
Advocating for ineffective and wasteful models is in no one’s best interest. The jury isn’t out. We know what works and what doesn’t. While San Diego has been slow to adopt common-sense, data-driven solutions, evidence has given us a clear path to what works and Secretary Carson and HUD are correct to favor programs that follow Housing First.
Michael McConnell is a member of Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego, a small business owner, and former vice chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. This article first appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on August 4, 2017 and is reprinted with the author's permission.