It’s Time We Talked the Walk on Housing First

USICH Deputy Director Richard Cho

In the past several years, communities have come to realize that the Housing First approach is not just one possible approach to ending homelessness, but in fact, the only truly effective approach to ending homelessness. With that realization, much of the focus has been on ensuring that communities don’t simply “talk the talk” about Housing First, but also “walk the talk” and align their orientations, programs, policies, and procedures around the idea that the way to end people’s homelessness is by helping them obtain and maintain a safe and stable home.

The greater attention and focus on implementation is well-placed and should absolutely continue. At the same time, it’s also critical that we do all we can to also “talk the walk” on Housing First. What I mean by that is that those of you who have worked to pioneer and implement the Housing First approach must also work to become effective ambassadors, standard-bearers, and instructors of the approach. It’s not enough to just do Housing First well in our own programs; we also need to be able to explain, defend, and share the approach widely. 

It’s still too often the case that in a given community, one set of programs and organizations are fully committed to a Housing First approach, while another set of programs and organizations still adhere to the idea that people need to be “fixed” or “treated” before they can be successful in housing. In this “tale of two cities,” people experiencing homelessness wind up faced with a kind of “luck of the draw” dynamic, in which the type of help they get depends on where they happen to have landed. Or alternatively, they face a maze of programs and services with competing messages, which often furthers their demoralization and lack of ability to believe what they hear. 

It’s time to take Housing First fully to scale both in our communities and nationally. And to do that, we all need to “talk the walk” on Housing First.  So here’s three pieces of advice on how we can do that:

1) Speaking with Greater Precision

Terms like ‘Housing First’ serve as an effective short-hand for describing entire philosophies and approaches. But too often, we lose the full message in using the short-hand terms. When that happens, people misunderstand what Housing First is about. People think they are talking about the same things, only to find out that they are talking past one another. How often have you heard things like, “Housing First doesn’t work because people need services to stay stably housed” or “Housing First is a good approach for some people, but other people just need a rental subsidy”? 

We need to get more precise in our language, and maybe start going for the longer version instead of the short-hand. We know that Housing First is not housing only. In fact, it often only works when there are services. That said, we also know that Housing First doesn’t mean everyone needs intensive services. Housing First is simply the idea that everyone can be successful tenants in their own housing (where they have rights and responsibilities like any other renter), provided with the appropriate level of supports tailored to their needs and strengths.

In the same way, we may need to stop using terms that were once useful, but have now lost their context. One good example is ‘permanent supportive housing,’ where the term ‘permanent’ was added to distinguish it from transitional housing, rather than to mean that people remain there forever. Another is the term ‘voluntary’ in reference to services, which misses the point that the onus should be on providers to make services desirable and effective rather than simply using the threat of losing housing to force participation.

As good ambassadors of the Housing First approach, we do our programs and ourselves a disservice by only using short-hand terms, assuming these terms are always understood. Just like Housing First should listen to and tailor interventions to its participants, so too should we listen to and tailor our language to our audiences. Sometimes the longer explanations are worth the time and breath. 

2) Opening Housing First’s “Black Box”

Last year, the Daily Show aired a segment called, The Homeless Homed. The segment poked fun at just how intuitive Housing First is through the correspondent’s incredulousness at the notion that the solution to homelessness could actually be…a home. It’s true that Housing First seems intuitive and obvious. At the same time, when we think about the broader outcomes and benefits of Housing First — improved health and behavioral health outcomes, reduced use of emergency rooms, reduced criminal justice involvement, lower use of drugs or alcohol, and sometimes a complete transformation — it’s less simple to explain or even know how Housing First works. Moreover, there are still many skeptics and critics of Housing First that try to characterize it as giving a “hand out” or creating dependency and who would be ready to throw it out simply because of how it feels, regardless of the data and evidence behind it. 

We need to do better at explaining not just that Housing First works; we need to explain how and why it works. We need to start opening up what evaluators call “the black box” on Housing First.  We need to start understanding how it is that giving people stable rental housing with services helps them become healthier, less self-destructive, and more productive. Is it just the predictability and consistency of knowing where one will sleep? Is it having supports and people to rely on for help?  Is it the connection to benefits and regular health care that makes the difference? Or is it that having a safe home enables people to put aside the fight-or-flight survival mode that comes with past trauma and experience with violence? Is it all of these things, or different things for different people? 

Answering these questions may require further research and evaluation. Or at the very least listening to and collecting the stories of the people whose lives have been transformed by Housing First and what really happened to them after they signed a lease or obtained a key. Answering those questions and being able to explain our answers with data and evidence will make our defense of Housing First bulletproof.

3) Spreading the Message to New Audiences and Horizons

Those of us who were the early adopters of the Housing First approach recall how common it was for us to be the lone voice in a room full of homelessness advocates and service providers. Now, as the Housing First approach has taken hold, it’s quite easy to find those same rooms full of fellow Housing First proponents. And that is to be celebrated, for sure. Housing First has come a long way in just the last ten years.

It’s great to be able to be amongst so many like-minded colleagues, and we can learn from one another’s experiences and expertise. Doing that is much of what I am looking forward to as my colleagues at USICH and I participate in this week’s Housing First Partners Conference in Los Angeles. At the same time, we must avoid getting too comfortable in this space and with preaching to the choir. We must spread the message of Housing First to new audiences and new horizons.

In doing so, we’ll find, as I’m sure many of you already have, that there are audiences that are eagerly awaiting that message. After all, Housing First is like a multi-tool that can solve so many problems that intersect with homelessness: the high utilization of emergency rooms and hospitals, the cycle of arrest and jail use among people with behavioral health issues, the opioid epidemic, to name a few. We have audiences like sheriffs and police departments, hospital administrators, public health officials, mayors, county leaders, and governors who are actively seeking solutions to these problems that Housing First can help solve, but they may never know it if we keep Housing First under a ‘homelessness’ bucket. 

Housing First has been a catalyst for bringing us closer to an end to homelessness and for realizing our larger goals of social justice. Let’s in turn do justice to Housing First by being effective messengers and ambassadors. Let’s spread the message and the evidence about Housing First to those new horizons and non-traditional audiences. Only by doing that can we bring Housing First to scale.