Washington pushes a ‘housing first’ approach that may be doing more harm than good
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Editor’s note: The organization we’re profiling here, Homestretch Inc., received 20 percent of its $3 million budget last year from government grants. Homestretch is not officially a Christian organization so is not eligible for Hope Award recognition, but it works closely with churches in the Falls Church, Va., area, and its executive director, Chris Fay, formerly was a church anti-poverty staffer: He learned from the Bible that all of us are made in God’s image and are capable of change. Because Homestretch does not follow the philosophy now dominant in Washington, its percentage of governmental support has dropped by two-thirds since 2008.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Lisa Brown cries every time she watches those home renovation shows. When ecstatic owners walk into their freshly decorated house, it reminds her of the first time she saw her one-bedroom row house in Falls Church, Va.
In the summer of 2014, she and her year-old son, Christopher, had been in a shelter for two months. Before that, she’d spent over a decade homeless in the Washington, D.C., area (not counting two years in jail on drug charges), drinking too much, working part-time jobs, and couch-hopping when she wasn’t sleeping outside. She was exhausted, lonely, depressed, and at age 45 a single mother.
Then an organization called Homestretch admitted her to its program and gave her an apartment. She walked through the door and could hardly believe her eyes. It was clean and nice. It had furniture, a bed, a TV, dishes, sheets, towels, “anything you need,” she said: “When they put those keys in my hand, you couldn’t tell me anything. I was the happiest person on earth.”
But the apartment came with conditions. Homestretch staff members are heavily involved in clients’ lives. They provide or connect them to a set of services tailored to their needs, from job training to credit counseling. Homestretch emphasizes accountability. When clients ask what will happen if they refuse to attend treatment programs or put 10 percent of their paycheck toward debt reduction, they’re told, “You’ll be evicted.”
Brown now works at a Home Depot service desk and loves working with people: “I touch lives every single day with my smile.” She’s learning to use email on the laptop on her kitchen table and often Skypes with her first child, a daughter, who is in the Navy. She has a few thousand dollars saved up, has nearly paid off her debts, and is on the verge of becoming self-sufficient.
Brown and Christopher are among hundreds of thousands of homeless families and individuals across the country to receive homes either rent-free or heavily subsidized in the last several years. Since 2009, the federal government has spent billions on an approach, “Housing First,” that’s based on the idea of housing as a human right. But that approach often fails to give some homeless families the help or hope they need—and sets them up for more failure. To understand why, it’s helpful to take a look at the idea itself, two ways it’s being implemented, and why places like Homestretch are different.
ONE APPROACH is “Rapid Rehousing,” which moves individuals and families with less-severe issues out of homeless shelters and into apartments—and supposedly back on their feet within six months or so. FACETS, for example, is an agency using a rapid rehousing approach in Fairfax County, Va., just west of Washington. It’s located in a tough urban area, directly across the street from a juvenile detention center. Its goal is “to get all homeless of Fairfax off the streets,” said staffer Maria Avila: “We take each case individually, [but] we cannot force anyone to take medications, go to programs, etc. At FACETS, it’s ultimately their choice what they have to do.”
The agency reports that in 2015 it helped 104 families into housing but does not have statistics on how many of the families it aided have returned to homelessness. Avila acknowledges that her organization’s clients often end up back on the streets: “It happens all the time … due to a lack of education, motivation, and any type of mental motivation. They tend to have episodes. Each time they’re housed and then homeless, that’s an episode. It’s a large number”—and a problem nationwide.
In short, rapid rehousing moves families out of shelters (for only several thousand dollars per family), but it’s less successful helping them become independent. Studies have found a large minority of rapid rehousing clients end up back in the same shelter system. But few studies track people who move and re-enter Housing First programs in different cities, or track them for longer than two years, so it’s likely that a large majority don’t make it.
For example, a 2013 study by the Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness examined New York City’s experience and found that “rapid rehousing was a failed experiment that produced unwanted incentives and unwarranted costs, all of which the city’s Department of Homeless Services must now address.” New York City learned from that experience and officially abandoned rapid rehousing, but late last year Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 15-year plan to add 15,000 “supportive housing” units.
Christy Respress is executive director of the D.C. branch of Pathways to Housing in Washington, located in a former ice cream factory. Emblazoned on the lobby wall in dark blue is the organization’s motto: “Housing ends homelessness.” Among Pathways’ 105 staff are 17 “street outreach” workers. They ask homeless people what they need, and “if they say, ‘housing,’ we consider them housing ready,” Respress said. Staff mentors build trust with clients, help them find leases on apartments scattered over the city, and guide them through the maze of social services.
Pathways spends about $24,000 per year per person, including housing and services. According to Pathways, that same person living in a government shelter would cost taxpayers $40,000; in jail, $60,000; and in a psychiatric hospital, $300,000. Pathways advertises a retention rate of 89 percent, meaning the vast majority of the 600 adult clients it’s worked with over the past decade are still in Pathways housing.
Such retention shows that Pathways does not emphasize in-and-out rapid rehousing. Pathways does accept the basic Housing First premise that housing is a basic human right. Homeless people struggle to find enough to eat and places to sleep and wash, let alone get treatment for mental illness and addictions or look after family—but place them in a “supportive housing” complex or leased apartments and they have a safe, stable base on which to rebuild their lives.
That works for men like James, a Vietnam vet who kept his identification in a makeshift file made of magazine covers. Referring to the famous movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, Jim Davis, a big, white-bearded vet who was once homeless himself and now works at Pathways, said, “James is Rainman. He has a limited ability to communicate, never shows emotion … his expression never changes.” But when he got an apartment: “James smiled. … I’d never seen him with emotion.”
Critics of this approach mostly admit that it helps chronically homeless individuals like James who struggle with severe mental illness or addiction and are highly unlikely to be able ever to live independently. They make up about a fifth of the homeless population. With such individuals, Housing First may even save money, says American Enterprise Institute economist Kevin Corinth. But for those capable of earning success and becoming successful, Corinth says, Housing First approaches don’t save money in the long term because they offer little incentive for the homeless to address their problems.
‘They have a voucher, they’re in a house; what’s the incentive to earn more money?’ —Christopher Fay
“The question,” he said, “is where does the dignity of the human being come from? The right to housing? Or being able to fulfill your God-given potential?” The defining characteristic of Housing First programs is that they never require clients to participate in services such as addiction counseling or job training—or even require them to stay sober—to keep their apartments. If housing is a right, eviction offends their human dignity—and forcing them to give up drugs may drive them back to the streets.
Housing First strategies have resulted in unintended consequences in some cities. In Washington, landlords are less willing to accept Housing First clients. One landlord told The Washington Post that he eventually had to evict 30 of 100 homeless families. Another said that none of 30 homeless families could afford the rent after the rapid rehousing vouchers stopped. The result: homeless families stacking up in D.C. shelters for months. One woman told the Washington City Paper last year that homeless people are rejecting rapid rehousing vouchers because “it’s common knowledge at the shelters that you’re coming back if you do it.”
When New York City hopped on the Housing First bandwagon in 2005, the number of homeless families seeking refuge at shelters grew as people who had been managing on their own got in line at the shelters to wait for free or cheap housing. Worse, the percentage of recidivist families who went back to shelters rose from 20 percent to over 50 percent, according to that 2013 study by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, and the cost of sheltering recidivist families almost tripled in six years.
HOMESTRETCH Executive Director Christopher Fay acknowledges that permanent supportive housing works for some chronically homeless individuals, and rapid rehousing might work where illness or job loss causes temporary homelessness, because people in those situations often have job qualifications, life skills, and supportive networks. But that’s not most homeless people in America, he says: The idea that people like Lisa Brown can get back on their feet with a few months of housing assistance is “so ridiculous as to defy logic.”
That seems harsh to some clients, Fay added, but 20 families each year enter Homestretch: 90 percent are headed by single moms, with an average of two children per family. Almost all have been in shelters run by Fairfax County and arrive with a reference from the shelters: Homestretch does not take walk-ins. Staffers rarely turn down arriving families, but they do say no if problems are beyond Homestretch’s capability—severe mental health problems, for example—or if the adults are being severely dishonest.
Homestretch does not offer a quick fix. On average it takes client families two years to graduate, with graduation defined as securing stable housing they can afford with their current job. During those two years Homestretch offers services to help families progress—including credit counseling, GED and computer literacy training, life skills programs, and tutoring—as well as friendship: Staffers throw surprise birthday parties for children.
The results, verified by Ecosystems, a business analytics firm based in McLean, Va., are impressive. Ninety percent of client families accepted into the program graduate, with their average monthly income jumping from $950 on entry to $2,350 at graduation. (Only 7 percent of homeless people receiving housing subsidies showed an income increase after 20 months, according to a 2015 HUD Family Options Study.) Families arrive an average of $4,800 in debt and leave with $6,000 in savings and often a resurrected credit score. Ninety-five percent of graduates are still working and in their own homes two to five years later.
Fay contrasts the Homestretch goal of self-sufficiency with what Housing First programs offer: “They have a voucher, they’re in a house; what’s the incentive to earn more money?” Permanent shelter without effort infantilizes them, and rapid rehousing locks many people into a cycle—from the streets to shelters to housing and back to the streets—that reinforces an already crushing sense of failure and “takes another chink out of their ability to perceive themselves as able to recover.”
The Obama administration sees things differently. Its 2009 stimulus package included $1.5 billion for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program. The Department of Housing and Urban Development deemed it a huge success, and since then the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, a conglomeration of 19 agencies, has been pushing Housing First principles across the country through a program costing $5.4 billion annually called “Opening Doors.” It purports to “end” chronic homelessness by 2017 and family homelessness by 2020. Private, state, and local agencies wanting a slice of that pie must adopt the Housing First approach.
That’s too bad. Programs like Homestretch, which buck the Housing First pressure, create a culture in which people make progress and then feel positive peer pressure to make more. Lisa Brown’s Homestretch financial adviser taught her how to pay her bills first “instead of just blowing the money on going out to eat. That was enormous for me, because I never knew how to do that.” She stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: “Drinking was starting to be a distraction instead of being fun.”
Homestretch staffers also taught her how to listen and how to trust people. Most importantly, “they loved me when I couldn’t love myself,” Brown said. How does she know? “By their actions.”
—with reporting by Rebekah Jorgensen, Giovanna Lastra, Lisa Pauline Mattackal, Grace Richardson, and Jae Wasson in Washington and Falls Church