The “Housing First” model to address homelessness has rose to prominence within the housing field over the past few years. Under this approach, the immediate priority is on placing individuals or families in permanent housing, followed by providing them with other supportive services as needed. While program specifics can vary, housing is usually not contingent on individuals’ compliance with their services. Individuals must comply with their lease, and are provided the tools they need to be successful. While this can sound like it rewards “bad behavior”, in actual practice, this approach is both more effective and more affordable. The Seattle DESC’s 1811 Eastlake property, which serves chronic homeless alcoholic individuals, was cited in the Journal of the American Medical Association as saving taxpayers $4 million in its first year of operation alone.
The fundamental idea behind this approach is that housing is an essential requirement for people to successfully take on other challenges in their lives.
Why is this a consideration for jurisdictions?
Housing first approaches require intensive subsidies to both house individuals without incomes and provide for the level of service needed to serve a population with significant medical and other needs. While costly, the individuals targeted by these programs are otherwise heavily reliant on emergency services, and typically cost the public much more than under the housing first alternative. The previously-referenced JAMA study found that Housing First participants went from median total public costs of $4,066 per person per month before entering the program to a median total public cost of $1,492 after 6 months in housing, dropping to $958 after 12 months in housing. That means saving around $37,296 per person per year. Another cost comparison prepared by Pathways to Housing of New York is shown in the graphic below:
Because of this direct financial impact, cities have much to gain by partnering with housing providers using housing first approaches. To maximize effectiveness, law enforcement and EMS should also be involved. A great local example of how this kind of a partnership can work is the Everett Community Streets Initiative. These partnerships are also critical for gathering the funding necessary to get these projects started – while cities stand to save a great deal over time, funding the required units of housing is a significant upfront cost. Jurisdictions will have more success collaborating to make sure financial resources are used efficiently.
In addition, developments using this model can be a source of fear for neighboring citizens. Fortunately, experience in other cities show that these developments can fit in a neighborhood context, and cities can serve as leaders to mitigate community concerns and prevent conflicts.
Assessing Needs and Performance
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has a “Housing First Checklist” aimed at guiding new housing first programs on a practical, step-by-step level.
- Snohomish County
- Around Washington State
- Bellingham: Whatcom Homeless Service Center