Housing First: End the Cycle of Homelessness
The Reality of Homelessness
I was 26 years old when I first stepped foot in a homeless shelter. My husband and I had just suffered a 6-month-long grueling journey through housing court. We were fighting tooth and nail over a rent overcharge and neglected repairs. I wish I could say that there was even a seed of justice, but unfortunately, they brought the big guns (expensive attorneys), and we eventually lost. We did not only lose our home, but also the last 6 years of our lives, and not to mention, our hope, faith, and dignity.
The only two states I've lived in, Hawaii and New York, have a homeless epidemic incomparable to other areas. I grew up on the west side of Oahu, where it was always 80 degrees under the shade. The attitude towards homelessness is quite different in Hawaii - pitch a tent on the outskirts of Waianae, catch fish and sunbathe all day. The homeless in NYC have to worry about freezing to death in the winter.
They do however share a common pattern of homelessness - it is often chronic and long-term. I believe the solution to such an issue is adopting the concept of Housing First. What does this mean? It simply means prioritizing permanent, stable housing, first, then tackling other issues that are specific and unique to the homeless individual or family.
Are Shelters The Right Solution?
My husband and I stumbled into a family shelter late in the evening. It was after 8, and we were lugging around the remains of our 1-bedroom apartment. We spent the entire day sitting at an intake center for adult families. Instantly, you're stripped of your person-hood and become replaced by a case number. Those who are meant to help and assist you debate your innocence. Have they forgotten we are people? You are only one misfortune away from the same fate.
I would not hesitate to share good words about the facility we are currently living in now. In fact, most of the staff are warm and mean well. If you pull away from your thoughts of hopelessness or entitlement, even just for a moment, you will see they are doing their best to make us feel human. However, I can still see how permanent housing would be most proactive and productive solution. Let me explain why.
For many, like ourselves, we have been living normal lives up until this point. With the exception of our housing situation, not much has changed. We do not suffer from mental illness or drug abuse. We are essentially a well-educated working family - minus the place to sleep at night. When I discovered that the facility has a budget of $4000/month for each individual, I just couldn't believe it! An apartment would cost less. How is this a cost-effective solution?
New Obstacles, Significant Challenges
Before we became homeless, both my husband and I were working students. We also received benefits such as food stamps. Now that we're living in a homeless shelter that does not provide us a kitchen, we often spend a lot more money trying to feed ourselves without completely neglecting our health and well-being. Because we're not allowed cable, we also can't have internet either. The truth is, in this day and age, is essential for almost everyone to have access to the internet. This is especially true for both students and working people.
My husband is an elementary school counselor. He often does a lot of work from home communicating with coworkers and preparing lesson plans. I am a writer. In my work, I do a lot of research. This alone requires the internet. Maintaining and meeting our daily responsibilities has never been so expensive. We pay more for mobile hot-spot data just to meet our basic needs.
Many shelters have a curfew as well, which is also limiting on time and resources available elsewhere. The mental and emotional stress of such a situation only adds fuel to the flame. Drug use, violence, and chaos within shelters is the cherry on top. All of these small and seemingly insignificant obstacles are very large for us.
As time went on, our experiences and the experiences of others, as well as through significant research has shown as that Housing First is the only real solution to a very complicated problem.
National Alliance to End Homelessness
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the focus of Housing First is:
Helping "individuals and families access and sustain permanent rental housing as quickly as possible"
Providing a "variety of services delivered to promote housing stability and individual well-being on an as-needed and entirely voluntary basis; and
A standard lease agreement to housing – as opposed to mandated therapy or services compliance."
Although this approach may work for us, more services may be required for those who have experienced chronic homelessness, or street homelessness where violence and drug abuse is more common.
However, the NATEH emphasizes on the fact that, "the vast majority of homeless individuals and families fall into homelessness after a housing or personal crisis. For these households, the Housing First approach provides them with short-term assistance to find permanent housing quickly and without conditions. In turn, such households often require only brief, if any, support or assistance to achieve housing stability and individual well-being."
It would make little sense to put working families in shelter facilities for long periods of time. Through my own observations, I find that it may even do more harm than good. Staying in a homeless shelter for a year, or more, and becoming accustomed to the culture and daily life of it, will without a doubt have an effect on the individual. Living in a shelter, particularly those for singles, doesn't promote regular daily life skills, nor does it help individuals make smart decisions regarding independent life and self-responsibility. Essentially, I believe that long shelter stay will only make integrating into society much harder later on down the road.
Friends of Boston's Homeless
Friends of Boston's Homeless share statistics with us that prove how effective it is to implement the concept of Housing First. Just in Boston alone, it's been shown that, "...over 90% (of homeless individuals) are maintaining their housing and have not returned to the streets or shelters"...and, it "saves our community about $11,000/person per year in health care and public safety alone once someone is housed rather than living on the streets or in shelters. It provides a dignified and cost-effective solution to homelessness."
U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless
For an even more in-depth look into Housing First, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless shares a thorough explanation of the program. You can find their statement quoted below,
"A community-wide Housing First approach has the following elements:
Emergency shelter, street outreach providers, and other parts of the crisis response system are aligned with Housing First and recognize that their role encompasses housing advocacy and rapid connection to permanent housing. Staff in crisis response system services believe that all people experiencing homelessness are housing ready.
Strong and direct referral linkages and relationships exist between crisis response system (emergency shelters, street outreach, etc.) and rapid rehousing and supportive housing. Crisis response providers are aware and trained in how to assist people experiencing homelessness to apply for and obtain permanent housing.
The community has a unified, streamlined, and user-friendly community-wide process for applying for rapid re-housing, supportive housing, and/or other housing interventions.
The community has a coordinated assessment system for matching people experiencing homelessness to the most appropriate housing and services.
The community has a data-driven approach to prioritizing highest-need cases for housing assistance, whether through an analysis of lengths of stay in Homeless Management Information Systems, vulnerability indices, or data on utilization of crisis services.
Policy makers, funders, and providers collaboratively conduct planning and align resources to ensure that a range of affordable and supportive housing options and models are available to maximize housing choice among people experiencing homelessness.
Policies and regulations related to supportive housing, social and health services, benefit and entitlement programs and other essential services do not inhibit the implementation of the Housing First approach. For instance, eligibility and screening policies for benefit and entitlement programs or housing do not require the completion of treatment or achievement of sobriety as a prerequisite.
Every effort is made to offer a tenant a transfer from one housing situation to another if a tenancy is in jeopardy. Whenever possible, eviction back into homelessness is avoided."
After thorough research, we can now see how Housing First may very well be the solution we need to end the cycle of homelessness. Housing First gets to the root of the issue, and makes a realistic approach to solving the problem. With hope, all cities will begin to implement these solutions across to the U.S.