In 1992, Sam Tsemberis, a faculty member at the New York University School of Medicine, founded Pathways Housing First, an innovative New York City program that provides shelter to homeless individuals without preconditions.
“I was frustrated by the continued failure of doing things the old way,” Tsemberis told Truthout. “Requiring people to be clean, sober and in treatment for a period of time before providing them with housing was not working.”
As he thought about the growing number of homeless people on city streets, Tsemberis realized that the way services were delivered harkened back to an idea, promulgated by the Puritans, that people need to prove that they are deserving of help before a hand can be extended. “The belief is that people are inherently lazy and if you make things too easy for them, it will have a bad impact on society,” Tsemberis said. “Housing First takes a different view of humanity and argues that all programs need to be flexible to meet the client’s needs. It speaks to housing as the first necessity; Housing First programs are run using a harm reduction model.”
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In practical terms, this means putting a roof over someone’s head, no strings attached, regardless of whether the homeless person is drinking, using drugs, or dealing with an untreated physical or mental illness.
But this does not mean they’re left to solve every problem on their own.
Typically, under Housing First, support services from an interdisciplinary team of social workers, nurses and people who were themselves once homeless, visit the newly housed person and help with whatever they need, whether it’s doing laundry, going to the grocery or hardware store, or getting to a medical appointment. “There is never a need for someone to pee into a cup or take a pill to remain housed,” Tsemberis said. In fact, Housing First rests on the idea that basic necessities — food, shelter, clothing — need to be met before a person can think about getting a job, learning to budget, going back to school, or finding treatment for substance abuse or a health problem.
This approach, Tsemberis says, has been particularly effective for veterans, reducing homelessness among former service members enrolled in other programs by about 70 percent, regardless of whether they continue to drink or use drugs. For example, a 12-year-old initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Veterans’ Administration, known as the HUD-Veterans Administration Supportive Housing project, targets chronically homeless vets and provides housing in both developments exclusively for veterans and through government-funded vouchers that provide rent subsidies to private landlords. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal coordinating body that oversees government efforts to alleviate homelessness, credits the program with ending veteran homelessness in more than 75 communities including Houston, Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
“Housing First works,” Tsemberis stresses. “It delivers big time as long as it involves support for the client on their terms, as they express their needs.”
Nonetheless, Tsemberis concedes that not every program calling itself “Housing First” follows this model. While the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness touts Housing First as “a proven method of ending all types of homelessness and the most effective way of ending chronic homelessness, it promotes two distinct models: Permanent Supportive Housing and Rapid Rehousing.
The first offers long-term rental assistance to individuals and families; the second provides short-term, time-limited, subsidies. “Rapid Rehousing is not Housing First,” Tsemberis says. Instead, he and other critics charge that all too often, it sends people back into homelessness as soon as their subsidy ends. “Most people don’t graduate out of poverty in six months or a year,” he says. “Sure, some people only need short-term help, but not everyone is the same. Programs need to be flexible.” Tsemberis further notes that it is naive to think that long-term homeless individuals can seamlessly segue into independent living, especially if they have little-to-no family support.
The Return of Single Room Occupancy Housing
Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says that the inefficacy of short-term programs is why the 36-year-old Coalition now runs 19 long-term housing programs for formerly homeless Coloradoans, the majority of them in the Denver area.
“The last official government tally, HUD’s point in time survey, found approximately 11,000 homeless people in the state, but the Department of Education reports 24,000 homeless children in grades K through 12. Our estimate is that there are at least 30,000 individuals and families who are homeless,” Alderman told Truthout. “We offer permanent supportive housing with case management, and while some people welcome this, it’s not for everyone, and some people actually prefer congregate living. Some of our buildings are for short-term stays where we help the person or family find permanent housing, but most of our programs are geared to meeting long-term housing needs.”
The Coalition’s most recent acquisition is a former Quality Inn that it purchased for $11.1 million — about a third of what it would cost to construct a comparably sized building from scratch — and converted it into 139 300-to-400 square foot single-room units with private baths and kitchenettes, each stocked with a mini refrigerator, sink, freezer, cabinets and microwave. “The rooms are for single people or maybe a single parent and a child,” Alderman says. “Twenty-five of the 139 rooms are for temporary stays and residents can live in them until we connect them to another program, typically a 90-day process.”
Every resident, she says, is given a lease with the terms of tenancy spelled out. “People have to abide by some basic rules,” Alderman adds. “They can’t threaten the safety of others or engage in illegal activities like drug dealing or sex trafficking. But we always try to work with residents so that no one gets discharged back into homelessness. We also have some flexibility so that a violation does not have to mean an eviction. When someone menaces others, however, we take it seriously.”
That said, Alderman is quick to point out that evictions from the Coalition’s properties are extremely rare; their 19 programs have led to housing stability for 93 percent of residents, some of whom had previously been chronically homeless or in and out of the criminal legal system.
Vancouver Develops New Strategies in Response to Fentanyl Crisis
Purchasing old buildings and revamping them is certainly one strategy, but locales such as Vancouver, British Columbia, have opted to purchase pre-fabricated housing – or have even converted shipping containers into housing. Two and a half years ago, the B.C. government allocated $66 million to create 600 units of temporary, prefab housing on 10 plots of city-owned land. The units can be constructed in just three months, but according to city spokesperson Sally Green, they are meant to last no more than 10 years and are not permanently affixed to the ground. “Each building is managed by a nonprofit housing operator,” Green wrote in an email. “They work with residents and B.C. Housing to identify more long-term and supportive housing solutions as they become available.” But will the dwellings be destroyed in 2027? No one seems to know.
Regardless, journalist Travis Lupick, author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction, sees the temporary units as a means to an end. “There is a serious affordable housing crisis in Vancouver and there is an acute shortage of supportive housing,” Lupick told Truthout. “The modular units are more than tiny homes. They’re cheap to build, quick to assemble and previously homeless people can be moved into them easily. Some communities were initially opposed to having these dwellings in their neighborhoods, but the uproar died down when residents realized that they’d been wrong, that people who were once homeless can make good neighbors.”
Lupick also notes another shift that has had a dramatic impact on the city’s homeless population, particularly those who use IV drugs. “Most supportive housing in Canada — we don’t use the term Housing First — is low-barrier and people are never kicked out for using drugs. In fact, one of the things that Vancouver did in 2016, when the heroin supply was more or less replaced by fentanyl, was to facilitate drug use in supportive housing residences.”
As people began dying from fentanyl, building managers created consumption rooms near the lobby or front desk. “Drug use is monitored by a staff person or community volunteer,” Lupick says. “The message is that we’re not only not looking the other way, but that you don’t need to worry about us calling the cops on you for using. We simply want you to stay alive.”
Many housing activists applaud Vancouver’s approach; nonetheless, they argue that keeping people in their homes — so that they do not become homeless — is key.
Cities Adopt Right-to-Counsel Protections
Three years ago, New York City became the first locale in the U.S. to provide free attorneys to low-income people — initially at or below 125 percent of the poverty guidelines and since raised to 200 percent — threatened by eviction for failure to pay rent, causing a nuisance, or because the landlord wanted the unit for their personal use or the use of a family member. Known as the Right to Counsel (RTC), the program has expanded to other cities, including Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, Santa Monica and San Francisco.
“Back in 2012, the Urban Justice Center and Community Action for Safe Apartments did a survey about Housing Court in New York City,” Right to Counsel NYC Coalition member Randy Dillard told Truthout. “They found that more than 90 percent of landlords had attorneys, but most tenants did not. Tenants — most of them Black, Brown and poor — often didn’t know what was going on, or how the court procedures worked. This realization led to a coalition to change the system.” The city began funding the program in 2013 at a cost of $6 million. Since then, RTC in New York City has grown exponentially, with $128 million allocated for fiscal year 2020.
At present, the program operates in 25 zip codes; by 2022, it will be in every corner of the five boroughs. The results have been impressive: In its first two years, 84 percent of tenants who had representation were able to stave off eviction, something Dillard credits to the attorneys’ ability to buy time for tenants to pay their arrears and help them access financial entitlements or other assistance. Overall, RTC activists say that citywide, evictions have gone down 41 percent since the program began.
The RTC Coalition is now pushing two new legislative measures: the first to increase eligibility for free legal representation from 200 to 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($51,040 for a single person and $104,800 for a family of four), and the second to mandate that the city do more to educate tenants about the right to counsel. Passage of these measures would make New York City’s RTC the most far-reaching anti-eviction program in the country.
Youth Face Unique Housing Challenges
But even if every tenant threatened with eviction is able to stay in place, it will not solve every problem. Vulnerable populations include people with disabilities and unaccompanied minors who, for whatever reason, find themselves without a place to call home.
This was the case for Jerel Negron. Negron ended up on the streets after a fight with his father made it untenable for him to remain at home. He was 16. “I was in high school when I left and had only the clothes on my back, but my high school principal and I had a good relationship. He did not know exactly what was going on with me, but he knew something was wrong and he hired me for a few hours a day to give out snacks every afternoon.” Negron ate breakfast and lunch at school, but he says he never told anyone that he was homeless because teachers and principals are mandatory reporters — people required by law to call child welfare authorities when they suspect that a minor has been, or is being, abused or neglected by their parent(s) or guardian(s) — and he feared being sent to foster care or placed in a group home.
“What would have helped me? It would have been great if the school gave out unlimited MetroCards since you risk arrest if you jump a turnstile,” Negron said. “An overnight shelter at school would have helped, too, since finding housing is really hard.”
Although Negron is now 24 and has landed on his feet, graduating from college and finding a job and an apartment, the sting of homelessness has not completely receded. While he is grateful to the many people who helped him along the way — including a New Jersey family that let him live with them during his senior year of high school — he still thinks about how awkward and out of place he felt when he was sleeping on park benches and couch surfing. “I mostly stood solo,” he says, “because I did not want to have to explain why I didn’t have a fresh haircut or new sneakers.”
Schools, of course, can play a vital role in helping homeless and hungry students, whether they are in shelters, doubled up with family or friends, or living on the streets. So can cities, whether they’re large or small, rural, urban or suburban.
While no one believes that the Trump administration will do anything to aid the homeless, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have addressed the issue. Sanders’s agenda includes capping annual rent increases at 3 percent; passing a national rent control law; and spending $2.5 trillion to create 10 million units of permanent, affordable housing for those who need it. Biden has promised to fully fund the Section 8 housing subsidy program; enforce laws against discrimination in housing lending; and expand the Community Reinvestment Act.
“Everyone agrees that homelessness is a problem,” Tsemberis said. “Finland, Norway and the Scandinavian countries believe that education, health care and housing are basic human rights and should be guaranteed. In the U.S., a lot of homelessness services are run by faith-based organizations that believe that sparing the rod encourages people to remain homeless. This is a misperception that caters to the Anglo-Saxon belief that you must be worthy to get help. This has to change.”
Note, March 23, 2020: This story originally misstated the percentage of tenants with legal representation who avoid eviction. The correct figure is 84 percent, not 85.
The article has also been updated with new statistics showing that evictions have gone down 41 percent since the Right to Counsel program began. This story originally reported 31 percent.