Last January’s one-night count identified 1,746 chronically homeless people in the District of Columbia. These are people who’d been homeless a long time or recurrently and had at least one disability.
A new coalition has launched a campaign to end chronic homelessness here by 2017 — three years after the District was to have ended “altogether the tragedy of disabled and vulnerable people living in the streets or permanently in congregate shelters.”
Well, the District obviously has a long way to go. But, says the coalition, the goal is achievable. And the way to get there is simple — provide housing for all chronically homeless residents. Hence, the name of the new campaign — The Way Home.
Home, however, isn’t just housing. It’s permanent supportive housing, i.e., a safe, stable place to live, plus services that will enable residents to become as self-sufficient as possible, e.g., health care, help in overcoming trauma, training in “life skills” like money management and handling conflict
PSH has been part of the District’s homelessness strategy from the get-go. The original plan, adopted in 2004, included 2,500 new units, which the city would either develop or subsidize — 2,000 for individuals and 500 for families.
A followup plan developed for the District in 2008 indicated that 260 units had been created, leaving a very large balance.
In Fiscal Year 2010 and again in Fiscal Year 2011, President Obama, with the consent of Congress, gifted the District with a total of $27 million for Housing First, its permanent supportive housing program. So we witnessed a growth spurt.
But when the earmarks ended, progress toward the 10-year goal slowed and then slowed some more. Only 121 units were added to the stock last year, the Washington Post reports.
Prospects for this year are slightly better — 133 more units, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s budget report. This would make for a total of 1,483 units — about 59% of the goal the District was supposed to reach in 2014.
DCFPI notes that the DC Department of Housing and Community Development planned to fund construction and/or renovation of at least 100 more units, with the Department of Human Services then providing the money for the supportive services.
DCHCD has apparently done its part. But units it funds don’t have to follow the Housing First model. Nor do they have to go to homeless people with the most urgent needs for intensive services, unlike the Housing First units that DHS leases.
Those go to high-scorers on a vulnerability index, which identifies people who’ve been homeless so long and have such severe health problems that they’re likely to die if left on the streets or in a shelter.
Departures from the model clearly concern the new coalition. As it says, Housing First has certain characteristics that not all PSH programs share.
Basically, as its name suggests, Housing First moves chronically homeless people into housing immediately, then delivers the services they need. They don’t have to first successfully complete a substance abuse program or otherwise prove they’re “housing ready,” e.g., by following a course of treatment for their mental health problems.
And they don’t have to adhere to a prescribed regime, though as the model’s founder says, they’re more likely to once their top priority — housing — is met. And if they relapse, they’re not tossed out, as may happen with PSH that doesn’t follow the Housing First model.
Housing First has two big things going for it. One is that it’s got a proven track record of success in ending homelessness for people who’ve got a track record of it.
A study of New York City’s pioneering Pathways to Housing found that 88% of participants were still housed after five years, as compared to 47% in the city’s residential treatment program, which was a step in a continuum designed to end in permanent housing.
A multi-community program in Massachusetts reports that only 3% of participants returned to homelessness in the six years since it began.
The second big thing is that it’s a cost-saver. In Seattle, a Housing First program for people with severe alcohol problems saved $4 million in crisis intervention services in a single year.
Denver’s Housing First program cost $4,475 per person less over a two-year period, compared to what the city would otherwise have spent on shelter, emergency room and inpatient hospital care, detox and incarceration.
Larger savings in Massachusetts — $9,464 per person per year.
His administration’s proposed changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act would have undermined the basic principles of Housing First, as testimony by Amber Harding of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless amply explains.
More generally, the administration has shown a decided preference for time-limited safety net programs — and a related aversion to anything that smacks of a tolerance for dependency.
However, we haven’t had a coordinated, single-focus campaign for Housing First before. And this one is just getting started. What it needs if broad community support.