Housing First Must Underpin Our Work Systemwide

April 13, 2018

Last week, I joined over 800 participants from across the country – people with lived experiences of homelessness, peers, service providers, researchers, advocates, experts, and federal and state partners – in the Mile High City for the Housing First Partners Conference. Hosted by DESC and Pathways Housing First Institute, the conference featured a dynamic mix of pre-conference sessions, workshops, plenaries, TED-style talks, film-screenings, and other presentations.

I left feeling reenergized by the discussions I heard and took part in. We didn’t debate the merits of Housing First approaches, but instead focused on how to “walk the talk,” ensuring that evidence-based solutions and person-centered approached – like harm reduction and Housing First – are truly the underpinning of our efforts. There are a few key messages from my time at the conference that I want to lift up.

1. Housing First is a system orientation and response, not a program.

You might remember this from an earlier USICH blog, Four Clarifications about Housing First . While it is critical that programs across the country adopt the principles of Housing First, individual programs are not the end-all, be-all of a successful Housing First approach unless they form a system that promotes choice – in the types of programs available, as well as service participation – for everyone. Ending homelessness cannot be done by one program, or program type, alone. It requires a variety of housing and service interventions to work in concert, including emergency shelters and other temporary accommodations, outreach programs, rapid re-housing, affordable housing, and permanent supportive housing, with connections to services like health care, substance use treatment, employment, child care, and other supports people need.

2. Housing First helps other systems save money and achieve their goals.

For more than a decade, dozens of studies have shown that, for people experiencing chronic homelessness and people with the highest needs, the costs of permanent housing are offset entirely or in large part by reductions in the use of other crisis services. In short, those communities spent less on shelters, jails, ambulances, and emergency room visits .

What this means is that we should be working with law enforcement, jails, hospitals, health and behavioral health care programs, as well as other crisis systems in our efforts to scale housing solutions. Although these systems are not solely motivated by the goal of ending homelessness, building partnerships with other systems that can help us advance housing – and a focus on housing stability – offers a platform for health and other social outcomes those systems already prioritize.

3. Supportive housing implemented through a Housing First approach is the solution to chronic homelessness.

Housing First historically emerged as a solution to chronic homelessness, defying and reversing the linear process by which people with long histories of homelessness had to demonstrate that they were “housing ready” before they could be connected to permanent housing. While we now understand Housing First as a whole system orientation, it is no less important to improve practices at the program level. As we work to end chronic homelessness for people with disabilities and other people with high needs in communities across the country, supportive housing operated with a Housing First approach must continue to be strengthened and improved so that people have the support they need to not only maintain permanent housing, but to achieve their health, recovery, and employment goals.

Here are a few other blogs and resources focused on effective Housing First implementation:

Thank you to each of you who shared your stories, experiences, findings, and expertise at the conference last week, and thank you to those of you who do this work day in and day out. We still have a lot of work to do. But Housing First approaches give us a framework for getting the job done.

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