The District takes cues from ‘Housing First’ philosophy in helping the homeless

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Observer Contributor
March 26, 2008

The District takes cues from ‘Housing First’ philosophy in helping the homeless.

Although a simple concept, the philosophy known as ‘housing first’ changed the way organizations in Washington, D.C., and around the country develop policy to end chronic homelessness, according to Linda Kauffman, chief operating officer of Pathways to Housing D.C., a non-profit organization.

Photo courtesy of Linda Kaufman.
Bonita, who didn’t want to give her last name, is just one of many people receiving housing through Pathways to Housing D.C.

The approach of housing first targets the chronically homeless–individuals who experience long-term or multiple periods of homelessness paired with disability, as defined by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It does so by providing a house or apartment before addressing the medical or psychological needs of the individual.

An affordable housing shortage in the District is the biggest challenge facing agencies like Pathways to Housing that take the housing-first approach, said Marcy Dunlap, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Because there is so little room to develop, agencies work with existing structures that are often overpriced or in areas of concentrated poverty, she said.

Mayor Adrian Fenty has embraced the housing-first approach, continuing previous mayor Anthony Williams’ Homeless No More Plan which was developed in 2004 as a 10-year plan to end homelessness, according to Laura Zeilinger, program analyst for the Office of the City Administrator.

Williams’ plan, which has not yet been implemented, was to develop more than 6,000 housing units by 2014, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

The principle of housing first is much simpler than its application because, according to Zeilinger, housing needs vary among the homeless. Some clients need the structure of programs that link housing with rehabilitative services, while others do better with programs that let clients make their own decisions.

Zeilinger said the goal is to have a continuum of care–a range of services that can be flexed to meet the needs of individual clients.

“When individuals are all directed into the same emergency shelters, they get stuck in this bottleneck with nowhere to exit. The D.C. government is trying to uncork that bottleneck by moving toward more affordable housing options,” Zeilinger said.

Pathways to Housing is different from many other programs in that it doesn’t require clients to access rehabilitation services as a stipulation for housing, but rather lets them choose their own recovery path, Kauffman said.

“A lot of programs say that you’ve got to be clean and sober to get off the streets … but when a person has a house first, they will make the right decisions in order to maintain it,” he said.

Kauffman also said that providing individuals with their own apartment is also more cost-effective than putting them in the system of shelters, hospitals and clinics.

Pathways provides treatment and housing at fair market value for less than $23,000 a year while a cot in the average shelter costs the government approximately $27,000 a year, said Kauffman.

Zeilinger, skeptical of the figures, said it’s tough to weigh the costs of housing first against other treatment plans.

“It’s not a straight calculation. People–whether they’re in a shelter or in permanent housing — have different treatment needs with different costs attached,” Zeilinger said.

In November, Fenty introduced a detailed plan to end homelessness that included $117 million to secure more than 2,500 affordable housing units in the next seven years. More than 300 units –a combination of new and pre-existing structures–will be available by 2009, Zeilinger said.

Other cities, such as Dallas and San Francisco, have had success implementing the housing first approach into policy and, Dunlap said, the Washington, D.C. government is moving in that direction.

Fenty will release a revised strategy for affordable housing in the district before the end of March, Zeilinger said.

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