Issue #149, Spring 2007
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Housing First may have gone a long way toward taking homeless individuals off the street, but it's leaving families out in the cold.
By Violet Law
In Columbus, Ohio, hundreds of homeless people
who have spent years living on the street or camping out on the city's
riverfront are finding a haven in the new housing programs run by the
Community Shelter Board
(CSB), an independent nonprofit that coordinates funding and delivery
of homeless assistance services statewide.
Instead of shuttling the city's homeless from one
emergency shelter to the next, or putting them through bureaucratic
hoops just to qualify for temporary housing, CSB settles the homeless
into housing units for as long as they need to be there. Because most
of those being housed are afflicted with addiction or mental illness,
supportive services and case management are made available but are not
mandated. Since some homeless people are unwilling to accept housing
that is contingent upon them receiving treatment, CSB's approach is
simply to get homeless people off the street and into a stable, more
Columbus is among the first handful of cities,
including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, to house the homeless under
this "permanent housing" paradigm, first introduced in 1988
by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Beyond
Shelter. Known as Housing First, this approach to housing the homeless
has garnered much attention. And in the last five years, the Bush administration's
Interagency Council on
Homelessness (ICH) has promoted it as the solution to ending chronic
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development (HUD), a "chronically homeless person" is
an individual who has been without a home for at least one year and
is diagnosed with mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. Housing
First focuses on serving this segment of the homeless population.
While the cities that have adopted Housing First
have reported a reduction in their chronic homeless population by the
hundreds or even thousands in the last decade, homeless advocates are
increasingly alarmed that this solution, executed with little increase
in federal funding, is threatening to short-change other homeless populations,
such as families with children and teenagers who have aged out of foster
care, in favor of one narrowly defined group. "We wish [the Bush
administration] had picked up the whole agenda of ending homelessness
for all," says Nan Roman, president and chief executive officer
of the National Alliance
to End Homelessness (NAEH).
According to HUD's first-ever annual homeless assessment
report released in late February, there were an estimated 754,000 homeless
people nationwide in 2005, of which 23 percent were considered chronically
homeless. In January, NAEH released the results of a one-night count
that it conducted in 2005. That survey found 744,313 homeless people
nationwide, with families making up 41 percent of the overall homeless
"You're pitting one segment of the homeless population against another," says Paul Boden, executive director of Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of social-justice-based homelessness organizations on the West Coast. "How can they cut Section 8 but believe in Housing First as a concept? They're cutting housing but doing Housing First. It's not just ironic; it's hypocritical."
Housing First at Its Best
Although all of the sites under the Rebuilding Lives program are anchored
by the same philosophy-to reacquaint the homeless with whatever it takes
to stay housed-they are not identical. Some require all residents to
be clean and sober; others tolerate some level of alcohol use as long
as it doesn't disturb other residents. In addition to Rebuilding Lives,
CSB coordinates street outreach, homelessness prevention and emergency-shelter
operations among service providers.
Sunshine Terrace is one of the sites under the Rebuilding Lives program
that provides housing to homeless people with addictions or mental illness.
A vacated public-housing high-rise converted into permanent supportive
housing, Sunshine Terrace has 65 units available to residents for as
long as they want to be there.
Shortly after moving into Sunshine Terrace, Maliki Bey and Mike Fox
became fast friends, bonding over a desire to put their lives back together.
Three years ago, Bey took shelter in a YMCA-run SRO, but being wheelchair-bound,
he felt very constrained. It was more like a structured program than
supportive housing, he recalls. Under Rebuilding Lives, however, Bey,
a former cocaine addict, says he is given the freedom to live independently
while getting the case-management services he desires. He has a well-stocked
kitchen where he can better manage his diet by cooking his own meals.
"I feel like I got my life back. I'm living normally, like most
people do," says Bey.
Mike Fox knows his life has changed for the better now that he is in
permanent housing. He spent the past several years in and out of emergency
shelters and temporary housing. "Shelter is just a place to lay
your head and get something to eat," says Fox. But here, "it
gives you a sense of self to get back on your feet."
A recovering alcoholic, Fox was determined to turn his life around
as soon as he moved into Sunshine Terrace. It wasn't easy. The strain
of 30 years of street life and alcoholism finally caught up with him:
He underwent five operations, including heart surgery. Yet Fox had the
peace of mind knowing that his Sunshine Terrace unit was being held
for him while he rehabilitated in a nursing home. When he returned,
he started an Alcoholics Anonymous group in the building to help other
residents kick the habit.
Even with the apparent success of the Rebuilding Lives program, CSB still acknowledges that other housing options are necessary. But with funding being heavily directed to permanent housing, transitional housing or emergency shelters are being deprived of the resources needed to operate fully.
The Real Debate
The economic rationale for focusing on the chronically homeless-who
until now were thought to account for only 10 to 15 percent of the overall
homeless population-is based on widely cited research conducted by Dennis
Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania on the shelter systems in
New York City and Philadelphia. Culhane found that, in these two cities,
this subset of the homeless population consumes the majority of the
available resources, mostly through emergency shelters. While few advocates
dispute those findings, the facts on the ground have shown that by structuring
services to focus on a relatively small percentage of the homeless population,
the situation for the majority is worsening in a number of cities.
Take Philadelphia. As early as 1989, some local homeless service providers
had embraced the Housing First model. Most notable was Sister Mary Scullion.
Under the Project H.O.M.E. program that she founded nearly 20 years
ago, thousands of homeless people straight from the streets have been
settled into permanent housing units. Philadelphia has been extolled
as a success in reducing its homeless population and has become a case
study for metropolitan areas nationwide. As a result, the city has stopped
adding transitional housing and shelter beds over the past five years.
Now the shelter system is operating at capacity, leaving many homeless
people out in the cold.
"The shelter situation is in a crisis. We've never seen anything
as bad before. There are very few shelter beds for women and children.
All the beds are full," says Gloria Guard, executive director of
Center, a nonprofit agency in Philadelphia that helps homeless women
and their children with a range of services, including short-term housing,
case management and job training.
"The number of beds has stayed stable and there's no backdoor.
Right now the city is running out of shelter space, so what do we do?"
asks Guard. For a city that has been aggressive in tackling its homeless
problem for almost two decades, this crisis would not have come about
if it were not for the federal funding bias toward permanent housing.
In order to compete for homeless-assistance dollars, many homeless
service providers have written their funding requests in a way that
emphasizes permanent housing for the chronically homeless, even when
other homeless populations may be in greater need or alternative housing
options are more appropriate to their particular cities or regions.
This frustrates housing advocates like Paul Boden. "Communities
are writing their own plan, but the federal government already predetermined
the priority," he says.
The HUD budget does offer homeless assistance grants in three other
major areas: emergency shelters, transitional housing and supportive
services. "Funding for [these three] has suffered more or less
because the emphasis has been [to channel] more money to permanent supportive
housing," says Doug Rice, a housing policy analyst for the nonpartisan
Center on Budget and Policy
And despite all the buzz about the efficacy of permanent housing to
solve chronic homelessness, HUD's budget for new permanent housing and
all other programs for the homeless has been shrinking. For the 2006
fiscal year, HUD allocated a total of $193 million in homeless assistance
grants to new housing and service programs, a 45-percent decrease from
FY2003. The two largest funding categories are the Supportive Housing
Program and Shelter Plus Care. Federal funding for the Supportive Housing
Program, which provides mostly for emergency shelters, transitional
housing and supportive services, saw a 53-percent drop, from $245 million
in 2003 to $115 million in 2006. Even funding for new permanent housing,
funded mostly under Shelter Plus Care, went from $97 million in 2003
to $77 million in 2006. Less than $1 of every $5 in the FY2006 homeless
assistance budget went into adding new housing.
The impact of cuts in federal funding is being felt, especially in
metropolitan areas where affordable housing is already in short supply.
In San Francisco, single-room-occupancy (SROs) hotels occupied by low-income
renters are being converted into permanent housing for the chronically
homeless, exacerbating the city's housing problems.
"You cannot build and subsidize housing with that miniscule amount
of money," says Boden. In suburban and rural areas, where there
is no existing SRO supply, shelters and transitional housing that have
been serving the homeless well are increasingly coming under pressure
to close down or be converted to permanent units.
While most advocates agree that there is a need for permanent housing
for the chronically homeless, not everyone is cut out for it. Even with
its success with permanent housing, CSB's Barbara Poppe stresses the
importance of having other housing options for the homeless. "Permanent
housing is very specialized, expensive housing that should be reserved
for those with an ongoing need," says Poppe. "There are other
housing solutions for other homeless populations. We believe the emergency
is important; the emergency shelter is the final
safety net." According to Paul Boden, "Most people don't choose
to live permanently in programs administrated by social workers. That's
not their goal in life," he says. "When it's the only form
of affordable housing in your community, it's insulting."
It can also be aggravating. "If we don't do something with the
affordable-housing crisis, forget about it," says NAEH's Roman.
"This is the driver of the homeless problem. We can wring only
so much blood out of the stone with the homeless money here."
Meanwhile, advocates contend there is a need for all types of housing
for all kinds of homeless people-families with children in tow, elderly,
and single individuals with or without a disability or addiction. Hyping
a single housing option for one subset of the homeless population is
tantamount to treating the symptoms but not the cause of homelessness.
In its recently released report, "Without Housing: Decades of
Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures,"
WRAP traces how federal funding cuts since the 1980s resulted in the
homeless phenomenon we're seeing today. It states that, without restoring
lost funding, the federal government's latest campaign to end chronic
homelessness will prove as ineffectual as its empty rhetoric.
"The emergence of the Housing First model has occurred simultaneously
with a continued assault on public housing, housing subsidies, Section
8," the report reads. Poppe agrees: "The big piece that is
missing is that we need more affordable housing available, so people
don't need to be homeless in the first place."
Community Shelter Board
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Western Regional Advocacy Project