Why Housing First? Why Not Housing Second? Or Third?

The National Conference on Ending Homelessness will take place next month, and Alliance staff are hard at work putting final touches on the workshop sessions.  New conference attendees will see certain themes reverberate across workshops: philosophical stances that undergird and inform multiple workshop sessions.  Among the most common themes is the importance of adhering to Housing First principles.  Why is that?

Housing First is a very simple concept that is often misunderstood.  Housing First is an approach to homelessness that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness quickly, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.

Should housing come first? 

But why should housing come first?  People who experience homelessness may have a myriad of other challenges, including a mental health or substance use disorder, limited education or work skills, or a history of domestic violence and trauma.  Would people experiencing homelessness be better off if we helped them address other issues they are struggling with first and address their housing needs later?

These are not uncommon arguments.  Housing First, it has been argued, allows people to avoid addressing severe challenges, such as a substance use disorder.  The argument continues that if these underlying issues go unaddressed, people will quickly return to homelessness.

 At times, these arguments have successfully delayed implementation of Housing First in many programs and localities. But they’re based on false premises. Services are part of Housing First interventions. People are offered or connected to services that are tailored to the needs of their household. But these services are not mandated: and people are not coerced into accepting them. Client choice is a fundamental tenet of Housing First practice.

What the evidence shows.

Housing First-informed interventions such as Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) and Rapid Re-Housing (RRH) demonstrate again and again that when people have help paying for housing, and when they receive services tailored to their individual needs, they will escape homelessness and they will stay housed.  Not only are Housing First interventions effective in ending homelessness, they are typically cheaper than allowing people to remain homeless and reliant on public shelters and other services.

Practitioners with long histories of serving people experiencing long-term homeless adults know that withholding housing help until people “get better” can result in people spending years on the streets as their health declines. People with severe mental illnesses cycle frequently between jails, hospitals, shelters and streets without ever achieving a stable home. Those that have seen this heartbreaking cycle, unfortunately still too common given inadequate resources, understand this fundamental truth: withholding housing assistance doesn’t help people, it hurts them.  

Housing First promotes housing stability and well-being.

Instead of requiring people to stabilize before receiving housing, Housing First interventions focus on helping people achieve stability in housing first.  This is often a critical precursor to other improvements in their lives.  People with the foundation of a home are better positioned to take advantage of supportive services: they have the stability in which to engage in job search. They have the platform they need to provide care and continuity for their young children. They have the safety housing affords that allow those who want to address traumatic experiences with a skilled practitioner to do so at a pace that is unthreatening and makes sense to them. They have a safe place to store medication and address their health and mental health needs. The absence of housing help makes attaining personal goals that much harder to attain.

Housing First focuses on providing the housing assistance and the supportive services that people require to sustain housing and avoid future homelessness.  Study after study demonstrates that housing has many curative benefits for people experiencing homelessness. It is true it does not solve every need; people still require additional supports to attain personal goals and continue to thrive.  But one thing housing clearly does solve?  Homelessness. And that is what we will all be convening to solve at our upcoming conference.  Looking forward to seeing you there.