The ‘housing first’ fallacy

Why I can’t put my faith in Sacramento’s one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness

Grace Loescher is the program director for Tubman House, a transitional living community for homeless, parenting youth and their children; and director of the Creation District, a creative studio space bringing together youth from all social divides.

This is an extended version of an essay that appeared in the July 21, 2016, edition.

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 concept, representing the belief that all individuals deserve no-barrier housing, to code speak for a narrowly defined program that could perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.

Under the housing-first model, prioritization 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 abuse. They don’t fit the definition of chronic homelessness, but 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 first homeless. Through the housing-first model—and here I mean the specific federal implementation and not the root philosophy—she was deemed highly vulnerable and transitioned into permanent supportive housing.

After a few months, she was evicted from her unit because her partner assaulted her, causing fear and uproar in her supportive housing community. She 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 federal dollars are—but I do challenge us to be the city that thinks more critically about the problem of homelessness. The youth that I 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 and assistance is key to ensuring that a homeless youth does not wind up so traumatized by the cycle of homelessness that they end up becoming our next generation of chronically homeless.

That would be an approach I could put my faith in.