A New and Simple Approach to Homelessness: Pt 1

For far too long, our society has accepted homelessness as an inevitable fact of modern city living. Many cities, states, and countries such as Hungary and Tennessee have turned to criminalizing homelessness, also known as “rough sleeping.” As such, their prison populations have grown exponentially. They have come up with no real solutions to help end homelessness.

However, a simple but overlooked policy first suggested in the 1990s by a psychologist might just be the answer to extinguish this serious social issue in every city across the globe.

Housing First

What could this policy be? It’s called Housing First and has two basic steps:

  • Step one: Provide homes for the homeless free from any conditions. 
  • Step two: Provide specific support for their needs.

Alternatives to this program expect people to be sober, engage in support services, seek employment, and sometimes require courses on managing a residency. Only when all these boxes are checked is one considered to be housing ready. But does society have its expectations backward? How can someone who doesn’t have a place to sleep, shower, maintain their belongings, or even relax begin to do these things? Are we putting the cart before the horse, so to speak? Let’s look at the places that have tried Housing First. 

About ten years ago, Houston, Texas, had the sixth-largest homeless population in the United States. Not quite something to be proud of, so they established these two steps, decreasing homelessness by over 63 percent. By providing homes with comfortable furnishings and well-stocked fridges, they have successfully moved over 25,000 people sleeping in tents and park benches into homes. When they initiated the Housing First agenda, homeless veterans (one of the categories tracked by the government) would have needed an average of 720 days and taken 76 mandated bureaucratic steps to be eligible to leave the streets and get into housing. Now that wait has diminished to only 32 days.

Since Houston began their program, Utah, Vienna, Austria, and other regions have experienced transformative success doing the same. Helsinki, Finland, is on track to have no homeless people by 2025.

The Origins of Housing First

Dr. Sam Tsemberis, a clinical psychologist, created the Housing First idea in 1992, inspired by patients he’d treated at Bellevue psychiatric hospital whose homes were the New York City’s streets.

According to Dr. Tsemberis, Housing First really isn’t about housing at all. Instead, its focus is on treatment. Unless someone has a house, you can’t really expect them to focus on treatment because they are so focused on survival. Where they will sleep and what will they eat are much more pressing than getting treatment for mental health or addictions. How can they get a job if they have nowhere to shower or wash their clothes? Once the homeless have a home, the game can change. 

Who Can Benefit from Housing First Programs?

A Housing First program can benefit individuals and families experiencing homelessness with varying service needs. Housing First is a flexible and responsive approach that can be tailored to help anyone in need. For example, a Housing First program might help end homelessness for a household that is homeless due to a temporary financial or personal crisis with limited service needs. Perhaps they only require help accessing and obtaining a permanent place to live. On the other hand, Housing First has also been found to be an especially effective method to end homelessness for high-need populations, like chronically homeless individuals dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.

What Do Housing First Programs Provide?

Housing First programs typically provide rental assistance for various lengths of time depending on the household’s needs. Consumers sign a standard lease and have access supports as necessary to help them remain in the lease. Various voluntary services are made available to promote housing stability and well-being during and after housing placement. There are two common program structures in the Housing First approach, but each differs in implementation.

Permanent Supportive Housing

Permanent supportive housing (PSH) targets individuals and families with chronic health or mental health issues, disabilities, or substance use disorders who have dealt with repeated or long-term homelessness. PSH provides long-term rental assistance and supportive services.

Rapid Re-Housing

Rapid re-housing is best for a wide variety of both individuals and families. It provides short-term rental assistance and services. This type of program exists to help people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency, and stay housed. The key elements of rapid re-housing are as follows:

  • Housing identification
  • Rent and move-in assistance
  • Case management and services

How Can You Help?

At Sam Risso Foundation we aim to make connections with individuals experiencing homelessness tobe able to better provide resources and support. We do this through boots on the ground work and handing out care packages of basic necessities, such as deodorant, wet wipes, socks, toothbrushes, etc.

With Project Basic Necessity, we at SRF help connect those living with substance use disorder and/or experiencing homelessness with the necessary resources and support. If you want to join us in our mission you can help by donating to Project Basic Necessity or other ways here


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