Housing First Philosophy Vs. Practice

Sacramento prides itself on taking the compassionate “Housing First” approach to tackling our city’s ever increasing problem of homelessness. But I fear that the definition has shifted from a liberal thought form representing the belief that all individuals deserve no-barrier housing to code speak for a narrowly defined program that has the potential to ultimately perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.

Under this implementation of the Housing First model, prioritization for housing is determined by a survey that assigns each individual a score corresponding to his or her level of vulnerability. Those with the highest vulnerability scores are placed in Permanent Supportive Housing, long-term community-based housing that provides comprehensive support services. Those lacking enough factors to deem them highly vulnerable are moved into Rapid Re-Housing, a short-term assistance program that usually offers a few months of financial rent assistance and minimal support services.

This is a great plan in theory, but when we prioritize housing needs strictly by federally-defined criteria and a survey that aims to quantify vulnerability, we end up leaving our homeless youth out of the picture

Most homeless youth do not have lifelong disabling conditions. They are simply young, lacking support, and too often bear the trauma of childhood and adolescent abuse. They don’t fit the definition of chronic homelessness, but they need far more support than a few months of rent relief to achieve self-sufficiency.

I recently reconnected with a youth I worked with nearly two years ago back when she was homeless. Through the Housing First model—and here I mean the specific HUD implementation and not the root philosophy—she was deemed highly vulnerable and transitioned into Permanent Supportive Housing.

After a few months in her permanent supportive housing unit, she was evicted because her partner inflicted violence upon her, causing fear and uproar in housing community. She was evicted and is now back at square one, homeless and further traumatized. How can this be “Housing First” if there are no “Services Second”? A bi-weekly check in from a case manager and a few optional support groups are not going to heal a lifetime of trauma and myriad other struggles. But when our federal dollars are not going to service providers managing the housing, but rather private investors and landlords who need to protect their units at any cost, it’s no surprise that our youth get thrown back onto the streets after being promised “permanent” housing and support.

I don’t blame Sacramento for taking this approach—it’s where the HUD dollars are flowing—but I do challenge us to be the city that thinks more critically about the problem of homelessness. This youth that I just referenced will be painted as a success story when it comes to the “data” we are collecting—after all, she got into housing, right? Who cares what happens next?

Sacramento needs to be the city that doesn’t turn a blind eye to the gaping holes in this system.

We have a duty to ensure that our services include enough programs tailored to the unique and specific needs of our homeless youth population. We need programs that don’t pull the plug after six months, just when the real growth is beginning to take effect, and that don’t present a minimum-wage job and lifelong dependency on government assistance as the epitome of their dreams and ambitions.

Early and meaningful intervention is the key to sending youth the message that our community believes in them and is investing in them so that they don’t wind up so traumatized by the cycle of homelessness that they end up becoming our next generation of chronically homeless.