PD&R Quarterly Update: Housing First as an Effective Approach to Homelessness
On April 6, 2023, HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) hosted a Quarterly Update event that featured two panel discussions on the success of Housing First approaches in addressing homelessness. The first was a community action panel, moderated by Norm Suchar, director of the Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs at HUD, that included Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward; Martha J. Kegel, executive director at UNITY of Greater New Orleans; Ana Rausch, vice president of program operation at Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County; and Mary Simons, executive director and CEO of Open Doors Homeless Coalition. For the second panel Margaret Salazar, HUD regional administrator, moderated a discussion between David Canavan of Canavan Associates and Marc Dones, CEO of King County Regional Homelessness Authority, on their experiences implementing Housing First in Seattle. In addition to the panels, the event included a housing market update from PD&R’s Kevin Kane and a data spotlight segment from PD&R’s Veronica Helms Garrison. Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness provided keynote remarks.
The Decline of Homelessness in Cities Implementing Housing First
A longstanding misconception has been that individuals who are experiencing homelessness are rejecting housing, but in reality, they are more likely to have been discouraged or excluded from transitional housing programs that require preconditions for participation. Better aligning with this reality, as Helms Garrison framed it, Housing First is “a service model that addresses homelessness by quickly getting individuals into housing to address homelessness and really to act now and ask questions later.” Kegel explained that UNITY of Greater New Orleans connects with individuals by respecting their dignity and privacy and taking a compassionate approach that provides a supportive environment and promotes recovery and healing from the traumas often experienced by unsheltered people. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a spike in homelessness, but New Orleans began implementing Housing First and has achieved a 90 percent reduction in homelessness.
Similarly, since 2011, the Way Home Continuum of Care (CoC) serving Houston and Harris County, Texas, has served more than 28,000 individuals through a Housing First model, with about 90 percent of participants remaining housed. According to Rausch, the CoC has recently decommissioned over 60 encampments and used Housing First to bring 500 individuals from encampments directly to apartments. The decommissioning strategy is a 4-to-6-week process to create a list of names and conduct interviews to determine the level of intervention and individual circumstances, such as owning pets or a lack of identification. Once the CoC locates housing, homeless outreach teams from the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Department help transport people to their new homes and offer storage for additional items. “Instead of the person going multiple directions trying to get everything done, everything is brought to the individual to get it done there,” Rausch explained.
Simons described the success of Housing First in a rural area composed of six southernmost counties of Mississippi. The Open Doors Homeless Coalition has decreased the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the area from 600 in 2008 to 135 people today.
Like Way Home Continuum of Care, the coalition leverages partnerships for immediate outreach to people living in encampments. In addition, they administer the Creating Housing Options in Communities for Everyone (CHOICE) program, which serves people experiencing homelessness with mental illness with fewer preconditions and can house people immediately upon release from the hospital. Another practice of the coalition is relationship-building to encourage landlords and property owners to make their units available to people exiting homelessness. In addition to communicating the payment methods and sponsoring individuals who cannot pay independently, Open Doors Homeless Coalition also signed releases that allow landlords to call the coalition for any health or mental health issues residents are experiencing. Finally, the coalition has built a strong relationship with housing authorities by signing a contract that certifies people’s eligibility for vouchers when referred into the program through coordinated entry and providing emergency housing vouchers when necessary.
Mirroring Disaster Response with Emergency Command Centers
The second set of panelists discussed the mindset shift that has been key in addressing the rise in homelessness in Seattle and King County, Washington, where the number of people unsheltered rose by 17 percent between 2020 and 2022, and how other cities have adopted similar approaches. Dunes noted that King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA) set up an “emergency” command center. This title reframes the work’s perception with a sense of urgency, where operations focus on the daily deployment of resources. The emergency command center approach aligns with disaster recovery response, where an abundance mindset views individuals as survivors who should receive an array of federal resources available to support them in navigating their next steps. The deployment efforts helped Canavan realize that resources are available, and a change in mindset gives access to these resources. For example, he explained that when working with Rausch in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, the Social Security Administration brought printers and blank social security cards onsite. Repeatedly seeing those government systems meet needs during times of crisis highlighted that people working with the homeless population “don’t even know to ask for these things because we’ve never experienced deployment of resources at this scale.” KCRHA has weaved in this all-hands-on support seen during a disaster into its day-to-day work with homelessness. This includes working with Washington’s Departments of Human Services and Licensing to deploy staff to set up tents adjacent to an encampment, retrieve vital records, and get identification cards printed, which are typically barriers to connecting people experiencing homelessness to housing.
In his remarks, Olivet highlighted the power of the evidence supporting Housing First from work done on veteran homelessness, noting that a Housing First approach resulted in, “as many as 9 out of 10 program participants [remaining] stably housed after 2 years, increased income and quality of life, decreased healthcare costs and cost savings to emergency response systems.” Both panels emphasized that widely communicating Housing First’s effectiveness is necessary for broader progress on reducing homelessness. Moreover, the success stories the panelists shared help address reservations some organizations may have in implementing Housing First. Focusing on panelists’ operational solutions, which yield lower levels of homelessness and more societal cost-savings, has shown signs of positively influencing public perception of government investment in coalitions implementing Housing First.