Magazine article Policy & Practice

Why Housing First?

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Why Housing First?

Article excerpt

I always thought I wanted to start a shelter. I knew from a very young age-14-what I wanted to do with my life: work with people experiencing homelessness. "I know how to end homelessness," I thought. "If people can just come into my shelter, I'll provide everything they need to not be homeless."

I have since abandoned that dream of owning a shelter. Not because it was too hard or because I didn't have the skill to make it happen, but because homeless shelters are not the way to end homelessness.

Really, if you think about it, that way of thinking is so backwards. Instead of focusing on the real issue, or the person's needs, I was focusing on my abilities. I thought that if I could establish a shelter and the structure that was needed to live independently- like completing chores by a certain time, going to bed by 10 p.m., waking up by 6 a.m., and never losing one's temper-and the residents could prove themselves to me, I would be teaching people to be "housing ready." Then, if they succeeded in the shelter, I could refer them to transitional housing. Transitional housing was sometimes an apartment but sometimes the same living environment with a two-year time limit and strict rules to follow and checklists to accomplish. Then, if they proved that they were "housing ready" there, they could be referred to permanent housing. And meanwhile, that whole time, the person is still living in homelessness.

And, what does that mean-to be "housing ready"? In all honesty, as one of my colleagues told me, we were trying to make people show that they lived like us. "But," she said, "it turns out people are pretty good at defining and meeting their own brand of success if you let them."

So I no longer want to own a shelter. But I do want to support people by helping them define their own brand of success.

It starts with two big concepts: Housing First and Coordinated Entry. Housing First flips the paradigm from "housing ready" to one that endorses first giving people their own apartment and then providing supports for their success. Research shows communities that embrace Housing First have found that clients do better and it's cheaper. (Check out the Mother Jones article1 or Gladwell's article2 for more information.) Our Milwaukee County Housing First pilot project revealed that, after one year, it cost an average of $30/day to house people and 99 percent of people housed kept a lease for the full year. …

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