Social Housing Commission building Australia
Social Housing Commission building Australia
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

One Size Does Not Fit All

Let’s take a one-week break from my reporting on California homelessness to celebrate this Big News! FR-6700-N-25! Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO)!

Maybe that sentence was MEGO to you (mine eyes glaze over) but it’s GOGOGO for government and nonprofit executives looking for federal dollars. The Department of Housing and Urban Affairs is passing out billions “in competitive funding to homeless services organizations across the country for supportive services and housing programs for people experiencing homelessness.”

HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge announced, “As our nation faces a worsening housing crisis, it is imperative that we continue to invest in communities’ efforts.” Specifically, HUD is looking for projects that “end homelessness for all persons experiencing homelessness” and “use a Housing First approach.” 

The second goal, though, undermines the first. “Housing First” — to put it simply, hand out apartments with no requirement to change behavior — can work for folks who have their acts together. It rarely works for those who are mentally ill or addicted. That is sadly the situation for a majority of people who sleep on the streets.

Some hit the streets because they already had serious problems, often including a catastrophic loss of family or community relationships, others sickened under the huge stress of long-term homelessness. Whatever the cause, they need help beyond four walls. Getting them out of sight makes the 99 percent of Americans who are housed feel better, but leaves tens of thousands helpless and hopeless.

One sad aspect of this is that all across America creative people have started or grown small projects that are ineligible under HUD rules if they go deeper than the Housing First model and deal with root causes.

HUD statements remind me of what Henry Ford said from 1914 to 1925 when he kept production fast and prices low by offering the Model T (lovingly called “the tin Lizzie”) only in one color. As Ford put it, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” The mono-color approach saved time and money, but it only worked because the model worked so well. All the efficiency in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the product had been lousy.

I’ve written previously about research that shows Housing First fits some but not for others. HUD’s insistence on one-size-fits-all reminds me of Major League Baseball during the 1960s and 1970s, when teams cranked out “multi-purpose” stadiums that could be used for both baseball and football.  For a time they were the efficient new new thing, but they did not have the intimacy of the old parks like Boston’s beloved Fenway or the quirkiness of the baseball new wave that began when Baltimore’s Camden Yards opened in 1992.

I’ve seen old rescue missions in many cities that are like Fenway Park, and new programs that remind me of Camden Yards.  For example, Homestretch in northern Virginia works with homeless families and creates individualized plans for each family that take into account assets including skills and realistic aspirations, and also problems including social isolation, chronic physical or mental illness, lack of skills and education, and histories of institutionalization or substance abused.

Many “Housing First” programs can show temporary success — but when the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless in 2018 tracked homeless families that were rapidly rehoused in Washington DC, half of the families that received housing vouchers lost their housing when the subsidies expired. The report title: “Set Up to Fail.”

Keeping track of people longtime is also important. The 2018 HUD Family Options Study showed that in seventh year of being rapidly rehoused, half of the families tracked by HUD has full- or part-time employment. That’s not a bad figure, given the obstacles many who are homeless face, but 87% of Homestretch graduates were employed either full or part time.

I asked Homestretch head Christopher Fay whether his organization could grab a small piece of that $3 billion. His response: “We cannot apply for any of this funding, unless we were to agree to radically change our approach. The ‘Housing First’ requirement would mean we could not mandate participation in any services, including a requirement to pay rent, attend ESOL [English for speakers of other languages] or life skills or parenting classes, save money, or even maintain sobriety if the parent suffered from addiction.”

Fay said “HUD has kept this policy under both Democrat and Republican administrations. The Housing First advocates have a total lock on government policy, despite the aggravations it gives the service providers on the ground.”

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.