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  • Jack H. Bender

Housing First

Thanks to Mary, a reader and mental health professional, we are going to add to our understanding of housing as an important anti-poverty tool. In Mary’s experience, mental health professionals and housing providers have collaborated using the HOUSING FIRST philosophy. Housing First positions housing as the FIRST intervention among many possible interventions.

According to Housing First, people need food and housing before they can address other needs and that client choice is an important aspect of their support. Offering choices about housing and support services helps clients become committed to remaining housed and improving their lives.

One of the biggest disagreements uncovered in my interviews with local poverty activists involved “programming.” An agency may have a “no strings attached policy” when offering services while another agency may have requirements such as AA or Bible study to receive services. The Housing First approach recognizes housing as the foundation to life improvement and any activity that detracts or becomes a barrier to housing is to be avoided. Once the client has stable housing, the client can then address another need by choosing to engage in a relevant support service. Choosing raises the level of commitment.

Housing First can benefit homeless families, individuals with high needs and households that have become homeless from a recent personal or financial crisis. In the last case, providing housing will stabilize a family that still has skills and resources to push back against homelessness. With homelessness that begins to stretch many months, the family is likely to begin a downward spiral that becomes difficult to stop. Yet, research has shown that chronically homeless individuals benefit greatly from this approach.

The amount of time spent in Housing First programs vary. One model, permanent supportive housing (PSH), serves individuals with chronic illnesses, mental health issues, disabilities or substance abuse for the long term. Rapid re-housing (RRH) provides short-term rental assistance and services. Rapid re-housingis an intervention designed to help individuals and families thatdon't need intensive and ongoing supports to quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing.Features of rapid re-housing include housing identification, move-in assistance, rent assistance and case management according to Housing First philosophy.

Housing First works. A variety of studies show that clients are housed faster and remain housed longer than non-Housing First programs. One PSH program has a long-term housing retention rate of 98%. Rapid re-housing, in one study, helped people exit homelessness and remain housed on average of two months.

Communities that implement Housing First find it to be cost effective, even resulting in cost savings. The pressure on and expenses incurred by police, hospitals and emergency shelters is significantly reduced.

The test of any society is how well it treats its most vulnerable. Housing First recognizes housing as a fundamental need that a society must provide. Its rapid response posture walks the talk. It’s belief in choice preserves human dignity and leverages research. Imagine how your community would change if Housing First was the norm.


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