Some places are actually solving homelessness, but not in the way you’d think

Photo by Shwanika Narayan

By Alexia Underwood

San Francisco’s plan to “clean up their streets” —or remove people who are living on the streets from public view in advance of the Super Bowl — is not uncommon. It’s a frequent, if controversial, practice before major sports events and celebrations. There is one thing that it isn’t, though: a permanent solution to the problem of homelessness.

There are places in the U.S., however, that say they have found the answer to this seemingly intractable issue. All have used some variation of “Housing First,” a strategy that supplies homeless people with heavily subsidized permanent housing, with no preconditions.

The idea is simple: People who are homeless or chronically homeless have a primary need, which is to find stable housing. Once that’s taken care of, they can focus on dealing with other problems, like mental illness, physical disabilities and addiction. Studies have shown that housing the homeless is actually cheaper than letting them remain on the street due to the high cost of jail stays and emergency room visits. The Housing First strategy offers support and assistance to chronically homeless individuals once they have a permanent, safe place to live. Here are a few of the places that say they’ve eradicated chronic homelessness, and how they did it.

Utah

The state of Utah is the poster child for the Housing First strategy. They successfully slashed their chronically homeless rates by 91 percent over the course of a decade— a truly impressive feat. (Chronically homeless means people who have been out on the street for over a year, or four times in the past three years.) They began with 17 people and a small pilot program in Salt Lake City. Their approach of offering subsidized permanent housing was so successful, that politicians were soon willing to try it in the rest of the state. It turns out that housing the homeless also cost the city much less than letting them remain on the streets (around $8,000 per year per person vs. $20,000) because of expenses like emergency room visits, shelters and jail time. Other reasons why this strategy worked so well: The Church of Latter-day Saints, which wields enormous influence in the state, was supportive of the plan. Also, Utah is a relatively small state, which made the policy easier to implement. Their chronically homeless population numbered 2,000 in 2005 when the program was enacted; today that number is less than 200.

Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ, says it recently succeeded in eliminating chronic homelessness among veterans. Over a three-year period the city found permanent housing for nearly all of it’s 222 chronically homeless veterans by implementing the Housing First strategy. One factor that inspired the city to focus on this issue was President Obama’s stated goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015. Some factors that helped: It’s relatively cheap to build in Phoenix, and there’s space to build (the city built nearly 200 new apartments to house the vets). They also received $6.5 million in federal grants to combat homelessness. As recently as 2014, the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness put the retention rate at close to 95 percent.

Houston

Houston, TX, claims that it’s the largest city to eradicate chronic homelessness among veterans. Using the same basic policy strategy as Utah and the city of Phoenix, they moved almost 3,700 veterans into permanent housing in a three-year period by way of a community initiative called The Way Home, which allowed nonprofits in three counties to work collaboratively to house vets, and then offer them an array of services and assistance.

New Orleans

As of last year, this historic southern city which suffered through Hurricane Katrina says it has ended veteran homelessness as well. In one year, New Orleans officials and nonprofits placed 227 veterans in housing. One reason why they were able to accomplish this so quickly is that New Orleans has less homeless vets than other major cities; according to the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles had more than 1,600 homeless veterans and New York had close to 7,000 during this same time period. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu made a public pledge to house all veterans by the end of 2015 (in response to a challenge from Michelle Obama) and worked with over 60 nonprofits and organizations to make it happen.

The simplicity of this approach — giving people access to permanent housing, which then allows them to focus on other things, like dealing with mental illness and addiction — seems almost too obvious. But there are still lots of obstacles: Not all cities are willing to commit the funds, not all cities have the space to house their homeless populations and political infighting prevents some cities from focusing on one cohesive strategy like Housing First. And it’s important to remember that ending homelessness for specific communities, like veterans or the chronically homeless, still leaves tens of thousands of people on the streets. So is Housing First a catch-all remedy? Probably not. But its success has inspired other cities to experiment with how they combat homelessness, with intriguing results. In the end, the success of Housing First shows us that rethinking our established policies — and treating people with dignity and respect — can go a long way toward finding sustainable solutions.

Photo by Shwanika Narayan