Housing First is a misguided policy, but it is not wholly wrong. Affordable housing does matter.
“The rising cost of housing has been a driver of homelessness, especially in communities where living costs are highest, and especially for families experiencing homelessness,” explained the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2020.
In October 2020, the USICH released a strategic plan titled, “Expanding the Toolbox: The Whole-of-Government Response to Homelessness.” The plan challenged the Housing First policy that was federally implemented in 2013. While unsheltered homelessness was on the decline from 2007 to 2013, it rose by 20.5 percent in between the years 2014 and 2019, shortly after Housing First was implemented as a national strategy to combat homelessness.
(The document, which was released under the former Trump administration, can no longer be found on federal government websites, but it can be accessed here.)
Far from ignoring the housing question, however, the 2020 strategy tackled it directly, identifying it as an important tool found among the many tools to combat homelessness.
“Housing first should be considered as one tool in the toolbox, but not the only tool in the toolbox,” it reads. Other tools that must be implemented alongside housing include trauma-informed care and wraparound services, employment programs, mental health services, and affordable construction.
Dr. Robert Marbut, who oversaw the “Expanding the Toolbox” strategy as the USICH Executive Director, explained it this way:
If you really want to get serious about homelessness, you gotta get very serious about mental health, behavioral health, you gotta get very serious about trauma-informed care, while you also have to get serious about affordable housing. And I don’t think you can ever talk about affordable housing unless you talk about affordable construction.Robert Marbut, “Pioneer Park Coalition Member Meeting with Dr. Robert Marbut Jr. (11/9/20)” on YouTube
Housing First advocates may talk a big talk about supportive services, but the unfortunate truth is that Housing First often fails to provide those supportive services, leaving the homeless housed, but still in less-than-satisfactory conditions to lead a successful life.
As Stephen Eide explains in his own research, Housing First has not demonstrated an ability to provide the essential services needed to the seriously mentally ill and the drug addicted, who make up 20% and 16% (respectively) of the homeless population.
This can doom many, especially the mentally ill and the drug addicted, to failure.
Affordable housing matters, and it must remain a tool in the toolbox. In a crisis that requires many tools, Housing First only uses one tool, and it has only led to an increase in our homeless population. It’s time to take a look at all of the tools available.