What is Housing First?

By Renee Kuhl, Executive Director, Lawrence Community Shelter

A couple weeks ago, the President of the LCS Board of Directors and I put out a statement informing members of the community about the tragic deaths of three members of our houseless community. In that statement, we called for Housing First initiatives in funding and policy as a way to prevent these kinds of losses in the future. As a team who works with people experiencing homelessness everyday, we are laser-focused on moving our clients into housing. We use Housing First principles all the time in partnership with our clients to achieve our shared goal of housing for everyone who wants it.

But what does “Housing First” mean?

“Housing First” has become something of a buzzword. Both advocates and critics use this term in reference to homeless services without fully understanding what it means or the body of evidence that supports it. “Housing First” interventions and principles emerge from a specific body of social science research that tells us something important about recovery, wellness, and housing: that people are best positioned for behavioral health recovery and lifelong wellness when their housing is supportive and secure.[1][2] It’s an approach that counters ableist assumptions about who people experiencing homelessness and behavioral health disabilities are, what they deserve, and what they are capable of.[3]

When we talk about Housing First, we are not talking about affordable housing writ large. We are talking about a housing and health intervention that targets a specific group of people who are suffering. They are disabled by behavioral health conditions, medical conditions, trauma, and a prolonged history of homelessness which itself makes people sick. We provide all kinds of housing for people with disabilities in our community, but people who are disabled and also experiencing homelessness know a different kind of stigma. It is ableism and discrimination to imply that people are somehow unworthy of housing, not ready for housing, or to put barriers to housing in place for people who are living on the street or in shelter.

Here are some guiding principles of a Housing First intervention: 

  • Low barriers: Housing First interventions treat homelessness as the urgent lethal threat that it is. Housing First moves people into housing directly from streets and shelters without concern for “readiness”; employment, income, and treatment or service acceptance or compliance are not required.
  • Supportive housing: The provider is obligated to bring robust social services support to the person. These are predicated on assertive engagement, not coercion. This can be offered from short or medium length of time (Rapid Re-Housing), or time-unlimited (Permanent Supportive Housing)
  • Self-determination: The intervention is tailored to the needs and desires of the person experiencing homelessness. It leverages the strengths of the individual and allows them to set their own goals. They have a choice in determining what type of housing and which community they want to live in.
  • Prioritization: Housing First is a life-saving health intervention that prioritizes the most vulnerable homeless members of the community for access.
  • Recovery at any stage: There is no sobriety mandate, and harm reduction approaches are utilized throughout the individual’s tenancy.
  • Equity and Enfranchisement: Tenants must have leases and protections under the law. Housing First interventions do not offer substandard housing or bind tenants to agreements which discriminate against them.
  • Ready to go: Housing First principles can be practiced in any setting where individuals who are homeless are being served. Housing First programs can be project-based, in a single or group-setting, or they can be single-unit, scattered-site interventions.

Ending homelessness in our community is possible.Communities such as Rockford, Illinois, Abilene, Texas, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania are doing it by investing enough local dollars annually in Housing First interventions to end chronic homelessness. It is time for Lawrence and Douglas County to embrace an evidence-based strategy to finally end this public health crisis so that we never have another week of avoidable loss like the one we had this winter. Through working together, coordinating services, and broadening access to low barrier permanent supportive housing, we know our community can be the next to achieve an end to chronic homelessness!

[1] https://endhomelessness.org/resource/housing-first/

[2] https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/housing-accommodation-and-supports/housing-first

[3] https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/Evidence-Behind-Approaches-That-End-Homelessness-Brief-2019.pdf