What is Housing First?

Housing First is getting a lot of attention in Lane County, but what exactly is it?

Housing First is not a new, or untested, idea. It’s a model for addressing chronic homelessness—meaning people who have been homeless for a year or more and also face serious behavioral and/or physical challenges—that was developed in New York in the 1990s. It has been put to work in cities around the U.S., vigorously studied, and deemed effective for permanently housing some of the nation’s most difficult-to-house people.

Portrait of a rugged-looking man with light skin and dark hair. He is looking at the camera and smiling.
Portrait of a rugged-looking fisherman

The concept behind Housing First is simple but revolutionary, turning upside-down the traditional model for addressing homelessness among individuals with mental illness and/or addiction. In the past, the philosophy was “treatment first”; housing was offered as a reward if individuals successfully addressed their personal issues.

Yet homeless people will tell you that living on the streets is the worst scenario for addressing behavioral health problems. Staying alive is a full-time job and you are often living in close proximity to cheap drugs. It’s a challenging world to escape from, and if you fail in your attempts to do so, so what? Failure leaves you in exactly the same place.

Housing First changes the formula—and improves success—by putting chronically homeless individuals in a clean, safe apartment and immediately offering the support they need to stay there. That support can involve a variety of things, including behavioral and physical health treatment, training in daily living skills, or help maintaining a good relationship with landlords.

With their basic survival needs met, formerly homeless individuals find themselves in a much better place to address their personal issues—and on their own terms. Because Housing First emphasizes self-determination, clients are empowered to change, and in a way that works for them. Because they have so much to lose (their new home), they have incentive to make real changes that prevent eviction and a return to the streets. And thanks to the support services in place, failure is much less common than with other homelessness-prevention models.

Related article: A ‘housing first’ pioneer: Shankle House has sheltered vulnerable homeless people for 20 years

Housing First also makes sense from an economic standpoint. Studies around the U.S. have shown that each chronically homeless person costs a community $30,000–$50,000 per year thanks to repeated emergency room visits, law enforcement time, and unsuccessful social service efforts. Homeless persons also hurt the parks they inhabit and businesses in areas they frequent. Housing First programs—including the expense of a place to live and the necessary supports—can cut public costs by half or more as well as reduce the negative impacts on parks and businesses.

ShelterCare has been using the Housing First model successfully since 2006. We obtained a private grant that year and launched a pilot program for six individuals; it worked. Federal and state money has allowed us to steadily expand our use of the model. By the end of 2016 about 130 of our clients will be receiving housing and support thanks to Housing First.

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