A Housing-First Approach Won’t End Homelessness
March 29, 2023
By Ginny Burton
In 2015 I secured my first position with one of Washington state’s largest nonprofits in Seattle. During my interview I was asked if I could explain harm reduction. My answer, which I called a friend ahead of time to inquire, was “meeting the person where they are at.” I didn’t really understand the concept at first, but quickly realized after accepting the job in that “housing first” building, that harm was not being reduced in this setting.
Housing first, on its face, seems like a rational policy and approach. Making sure everyone has a roof over their heads regardless of their circumstances. No expectation of being clean and sober, just honoring a person’s humanity. It was a perspective I thought worthy of support. It is commonly said that supplying housing encourages “the newly housed” to practice safer behavior enabling recovery.
Living as a recovering, abstinence-based person, and personally knowing some of the women housed in this building I accepted employment with, showed me the destructiveness of the policy.
I maintained employment with this agency for nearly five years and became very familiar with the horrors behind the policy known as housing first. Needless to say, as the harm reduction policy began revealing itself to me in this new role, I started to recognize the roots of problems with the housing first model.
Housing first does provide shelter, but it also imprisons vulnerable adults in the same space as predators. There is no requirement for self improvement and staff enable continued destructive behavior. People in these environments use drugs, overdose and die, commit prostitution and practice a tremendous amount of illegal behavior comparable to the streets, with impunity. It is an extension of the harm reduction model that encourages self-destruction and is protected because it happens behind closed doors.
Once a person enters a low income, housing first building there is no support to improve their quality of life or move on from this kind of environment, regardless of age or circumstance. Capacity equals funding, so these programs are incentivized to keep units full. These environments are often as dangerous as the streets.
Staff and residents are assaulted, residents preyed on, robbed, trafficked and more. In the five years I worked in the field, I know of maybe three clients out of hundreds who improved their quality of life and stopped using drugs, as a direct result of my support and encouragement. Everything a person needs to destroy themselves is provided inside these buildings, not just by other tenants. The percentage of people who successfully transition out of these environments is very low.
Again, the idea on its face seems like a good one. We in society see less of the growing mess than we did before each of these facilities opened, but the lives inside are being destroyed. When I first learned about housing first I remember wishing there was something similar available to me when I was on drugs. But after working in the environment a short time I was so grateful there wasn’t.
Housing first is not the answer to homelessness. Many people housed in these places are evicted and continue to live in the same manner they did on the streets. If we are to solve the homeless problem in our cities, we must be intentional in our approach. We must first focus on the underlying causes of an individual’s circumstances and equip people with the skills to take control of their lives.
A holistic, intentional approach addressing the contributing factors of a person’s circumstances is imperative. We must change the definition of harm reduction by meeting individual deficits, discovered through in-depth assessment, with the necessary education and training to enable independence. As it stands today, we are monetizing life support for those suffering on the streets while enabling the victimization of citizens in society.
The Union Gospel Mission Recovery Program is an example of a program currently attacking these problems holistically. When you come into a facility such as the Hope Place, you are assessed, given a urine analysis, provided a room if you are free from drugs, and then you begin addressing the underlying causes of your situation through a therapeutic, faith-based approach. The program is 18 months in total with education and housing support attached. We have to be intentional in our approach.
Tell the King County Regional Homeless Authority to scrap their housing first plan and come up with solutions that really work.
Ginny Burton is founder and principal of the O-UT Program LLC: A Holistic Intentional Reentry Treatment Program. Bachelor of Arts in political science with a minor in law, societies and justice, Martin Honors Scholar, Washington State Truman Scholar. 30-plus years experience with addiction, poverty, homelessness, incarceration and criminal justice. Speaker, writer, policy advocate, nonprofit service provider and activist.