Housing First: the ‘counterintuitive’ method for solving urban homelessness


Across the US, homelessness
in cities is dropping almost across the board. 

Part of the credit for this apparent success must go to
Barack Obama’s Opening Doors programme, which the Department of Housing report
concluded had made “significant progress in spite of tough economic times”.
Launched in 2010, Opening Doors was the country’s first comprehensive strategy
to prevent and end homelessness. It set the target of ending chronic
homelessness and homelessness among war veterans by 2015, and among families
with children by 2020.

Housing First makes a
proper roof the first priority … a homeless shanty near the GM building in
Detroit, Michigan.Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty

Central to Opening Doors is a controversial idea that has
picked up support in cities worldwide, especially in the Scandinavian countries,
Germany, France and the UK. Known as Housing First, it prioritises moving
homeless people straight from the streets into a home, as opposed to other
programmes whereby people are mandated to address certain personal issues prior
to entering housing.

“With Housing First, the idea is to help people find
permanent housing right away, without conditioning this housing on sobriety,
mental health treatment, employment, or anything else. Then, continue working
with them on all of these issues once they are stably housed,” says Jake
Maguire of Community Solutions, which ran the 100,000 Homes Campaign – an
initiative across 186 cities, counties and states that, earlier this year, met
its goal to find roofs for 100,000 homeless Americans. “This is important,
because typically it has been done the other way around. The data
overwhelmingly reveals the counterintuitive fact that Housing First ends
homelessness permanently, while treatment first rarely ends it at all.”

The numbers back it up. The 100,000 Homes Campaign announced in
August that homelessness among US war veterans dropped below the 50,000 mark
for the first time since 2010, falling to 49,933 – a 30% drop during that
period.What works to end veteran homelessness will work to end
all homelessness,” says Becky Kanis, a former army captain and until recently
campaign director. “Permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing are proven
strategies, and they actually save taxpayers money.”

Not everyone agrees. Although Housing First was adopted by
the George W Bush administration, it remains unpopular on the right of the
political spectrum, and not just among people who believe that citizens should
“earn” state support. The initial cost of Housing First is expensive, and many
people are resistant to the idea of providing housing for homeless drug addicts
without first enrolling them on to a rehabilitative programme.

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