Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Shelters or Permanent Supportive Housing

Our recently commissioned study of the "business case to end homelessness" in Dallas contains an important and insightful section comparing emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing. Seems worth repeating here.


Different types of homeless people have different types of needs. Most people who become homeless are only without a home for a short period of time due to unforeseen events or financial circumstances. For these individuals, shelters and emergency supports are appropriate to help them get back on their feet quickly. Most citizens never notice these temporarily homeless individuals and families.

The homeless you see on the street corners are likely to be chronically homeless individuals. Supportive housing provides a permanent solution to this most visible and costly element of the homeless population.

Shelters that operate on an emergency basis are inappropriate for these individuals because their homelessness, and the problems that caused their homelessness, are chronic and long-term, not a temporary emergency.

 Treat homelessness as a temporary problem that can be solved with temporary assistance.

 Are necessary and appropriate for individuals experiencing temporary homelessness in need of emergency assistance.

 Cannot effectively serve the emergency needs of temporarily homeless individuals and families if their capacity is being strained by chronically homeless individuals who have little hope of ever "landing back on their feet" without significant assistance.

 Are designed to serve a continual flow of different individuals, not the same individuals day after day, year after year.

 Rarely provide 24-hour operation, privacy, or secure space to store personal belongings—hallmarks of freedom that chronically homeless individuals need and want.

 Often impose strict rules on guests and alcohol; while understandable from a group safety perspective, these rules are more likely to alienate chronically homeless people with substance abuse problems than produce instant sobriety.


 Recognize that some homeless individuals will never return to mainstream society without permanent supportive services.

 Aid residents in securing unclaimed benefits for which they are eligible, such as social security, thereby offsetting the costs of the project.

 Provide flexible supportive services that maximize each resident’s ability to live independently without mandating participation in specific classes or treatments.

 Integrate caseworkers and programming to assist residents in dealing with and overcoming addiction, mental illness, chronic health problems, and physical disabilities; developing money management and other life skills; and securing and retaining gainful employment. Residents with jobs are asked to contribute a portion of their income as rent, just like other subsidized housing programs.

 Provide a long-term solution centered on individuals, not a pipeline. Supportive housing does not impose caps on the length of stay nor try to push residents towards moving out.

 Empower homeless individuals to make lasting changes in their lives by providing the ultimate symbol of dignity: a key to their own place. Building rules and policies are flexible and incorporate tenant input, further respecting that dignity.

Without a doubt, emergency shelter beds are essential in any comprehensive strategy to address the problems associated with homelessness in a community like Dallas. At the same, no lasting or substantive solution will be found without the development of permanent supportive housing.

What has been your experience in working with homeless persons when it comes to housing and shelter? I'd be eager to know both your experience and your reaction.



Anonymous said...

You note that shelters "often impose strict rules on ... alcohol" that some homeless find objectionable - presumably, if alcohol is that big an issue for them, they have an alcohol problem.

You continue that Supportive Housing would "provide flexible supportive services that maximize each resident’s ability to live independently without mandating participation in specific classes or treatments."

With addicts, it is often said that someone has to "bottom out" before they will seek help. If being on the streets is not "bottom" enough, and treatment is not mandated, wouldn't supportive housing simply enable an alcoholic to keep drinking, just in a more comfortable setting? If so, is that really best for them?

Larry James said...

Anonymous, thanks for your post. The notion back of "housing first" is based on the belief that people do best and better when given a free choice to elect the options leading to change. By allowing people to come to grips with their issues on their own terms and by surrounding them with options that they are invited to choose, they seem to do better than by providing housing with "strings attached."

I observed the most dramatic example of this in a housing development in Seattle, WA. The development made all its programs optional. And residents who "fell off the wagon" did not lose their housing automatically, so long as they didn't bring their addictive issues or behaviors into the common areas.

We asked our tour guide how in the world they could sell such a program to donors and the city.

He gave two reasons: 1) the cost-benefit analysis to the entire community--it was less expensive and more effective to keep people in housing and work with them where they were than to boot them out and 2) a simple question: "Do we really think the streets of Seattle will be safer and healthier if we kick people out who have these problems?"

Housing first works. And the rate of recovery and coping skills developed compared to more traditional programs and approaches proves this up.

Anonymous said...

These basic needs - shelter,food and water are required for any human being to be productive. Whether it be a recovering or still using addict or alcoholic. To provide these individuals first with housing then programs to get them in treatment is not a seemed luxury it's a nessessary factor for them to kick thier habit. On the streets and homeless the use of drugs and alcohol is often used to cope with depression and mental illness in the only way they find possible.
On the website for Intershelter www.intershelter.com they showcase a homeless housing project with their Omnisphere domes that was very successful for 13 years in helping homeless learn job skills and become productive members of the community again. But the first need always addressed is providing them housing to begin the process of programs to reintroduce them as productive members of society.

Tiago said...

Even though there are homeless in every country I will be always shock with the fact than in the USA, the world biggest economy, thousands of homeless are seeing in every major town. I lived 2 years in a buenos aires rent and the government gave much more assistance to poors than our government, and this is not a rich country at all. Of course, social assistance is even stronger in Europe.