#948 Homes for the chronically homeless

By Cathryn Wellner / February 19, 2014
Monarch butterfly cocoon

Just as the cocoon is home for a future butterfly, housing is home for a healthier future for the chronically homeless; photo by Greyson Orlando (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Most jurisdictions wring their hands over homelessness but leave alleviating it to the voluntary sector, jails and prisons, and hospital emergency awards. In 2005 Utah’s Governor Jon Huntsman announced a different approach, a plan to end chronic homelessness in 10 years. He was not claiming the state could end all homelessness, which would include people who are temporarily homeless and those who are “couch surfing” (staying with friends or family). However, he estimated that providing housing and services would likely be revenue neutral, given the high cost they were paying to patch people up or lock them away. Judging by Utah’s 2012 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, the plan is working.

The Utah plan is part of a program called Housing First. According to Wikipedia, what sets it apart from other housing schemes is that homeless individuals who are a community’s most disabled and vulnerable residents are given stable housing as a first step. Other schemes move them from shelters to transitional housing and finally to their own apartments, a continuum that depends on first addressing addictions and other issues faced by the chronically homeless population.

The basic premise of Housing First is that housing is a human right that is not negated when substance abuse, mental illness and attendant health and behavioural issues are added to the equation. It is a harm-reduction model based on “assertive engagement, not coercion”. The scheme is expanding throughout North America, and the Wikipedia article is a good place to find links to some of the places where it is being tried.

Many people are put off by such schemes. In an article for Care2, Robin Marty articulated that concern:

For the Scrooges of the world, the idea of providing an apartment “no questions asked” is unfathomable. After all, this is a country where politicians believe elementary school children should have to sweep the cafeteria floor if they get a subsidized meal so they know there “is no such thing as a free lunch.”  Too many honestly believe that it is better to spend more in resources keeping homeless on the streets until they have somehow “earned” a hand up.

I don’t think everyone who opposes such schemes is a Scrooge, but I do believe they are afraid that providing free housing will encourage more people to become a drain on the social safety net. Personally, I think the biggest drain on that net is the increasing concentration of wealth and the sense of entitlement embodied in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The best argument for Housing First schemes, aside from simple human justice, is that they seem to be making a difference. Here are some examples:

  • A study of Housing First projects across the U.S. found significant cost savings for services provided to participants in the program.
  • The Massachusetts Home & Healthy for Good program has reported an overall, annual savings of $9464 per participant, compared with individuals not in the program.
  • The Calgary Homeless Foundation reported an 85% retention rate for participants in the Pathways to Housing program, “even among those individuals not considered ‘housing ready’ by other programs”. They also reported support costs of $22,500 USD a year per client by comparison with $35,000 for shelter beds.

Housing First is only one idea for tackling chronic homelessness, but it is a good one. A similar scheme (The home where hope lives) in my hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia has won over skeptics. The idea of making sure everyone has housing gives me hope that we will continue to find better ways to stitch up the tattered social-safety net so that vulnerable citizens will not keep falling through it.


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