“housing first” approach to homelessness

Politifact (prompted by an appearance of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan on The Daily Show)  just did a detailed cost analysis of something I’ve been meaning to cover for some time — the “housing first” approach to helping the homeless:

Pioneered in the 1990s in New York City, it puts street dwellers in publicly subsidized rooms of their own and connects them with drug treatment, job placement and psychiatric services with the goal of stabilizing their lives. Unlike many treatment programs, housing-first initiatives don’t require participants to get sober first.

“Housing first is a kind of ‘come as you are’ approach. We encourage folks to accept services, and as a result people change their behaviors,” said Brenda Rosen, executive director of Common Ground, a housing-first homelessness program in New York City.

The approach succeeds and saves money, advocates say, because it targets the chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for a year or more and commonly suffer from addiction or mental illness. That segment of the homeless population uses expensive public services at very high rates — emergency rooms, police and fire, and courts.

According to Politifact, former homelessness policy czar under George W. Bush, Philip Mangano, analyzed homelessness costs and housing first costs across many cities.

“We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” he said.

Other studies have also shown drastic reductions (up to 80%) in hospital visits, detox visits, and incarceration rates.

What’s more, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that savings increase over time as a person stays housed longer.  Additionally, despite the lack of rules around substance use, alcohol consumption decreases over time.

Housing first programs have a high tenant retention rate — often around 80% for 6 months.  It was largely the push for such programs that led to an impressive drop or 30% in U.S. homelessness rates from 2005 to 2007.

Despite the strong evidence in favor of “housing first”, most cities and programs do not take this approach.  It remains controversial, both from those who think that people who abuse substances don’t deserve housing, and from those who believe it is an impractical approach:

Elizabeth Epstein, research professor at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, disputes that approach. She says alcoholism is an addiction that is not irreversible and that putting people together in a drinking environment makes it much harder for them to quit.

“Honestly, the idea doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “I think that money would be better spent by providing them treatment and not allowing them to drink in their living quarters.”

Based on the evidence of effectiveness, I think there is little doubt that we should lobby for housing first approaches in areas that don’t currently have them, and make sure they are sufficiently well-funded in areas that do.  Housing first improves the lives of people who have been living on the streets, and it saves tax payers money — a rare win-win situation.


  1. Rowan Said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    This sounds to me like strong support for the “Rat Park” experiments: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_Park

  2. Vhiie Said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:15 am

    I live in the city of Baltimore. It is nothing more inthearseding to see previous soldiers homeless. All the aid that is provided for others, how can this country toss out the people who have fought for it, have laid their lives down, possibly, to safeguard our freedoms, and to bring our freedoms and prosperity to other peoples of the world. Something doesn’t add up. Are we really as altruistic as that? Or are there other reasons why we are fighting these wars that make leaders so guilty that they have to ignore the needs of the most loyal people to our American missions and dreams . Where is our great value for human beings for them?