Beyond Housing First: Essential Elements of a System-Planning Approach to Ending Homelessness

The concept of “Housing First” has taken on a powerful status in the complex of government, non-profit and academic systems that study and seek to eliminate homelessness. It is a compelling concept, in that it has brought our society to the realization that housing instability itself is often the culmination of various underlying and intersecting issues, ranging from mental health and addiction issues to domestic abuse and poverty.

The “Housing First” principle holds that homeless individuals stand a far poorer chance of improving their condition while they remain homeless; that the stability of a permanent home provides the foundation that allows individuals to begin addressing the issues that led to their housing instability in the first place.

However, the elegance of the fundamental principle behind “Housing First” also risks creating an illusion, wherein agencies and governments might too easily conclude that the entirety of this approach to ending homelessness is merely to begin housing the homeless. While that is a step in the process, it is but a piece of the Housing First approach. And unless all the various elements of the approach are also included in the actual work done on the ground, the success observed so far in communities that have tried the Housing First approach will not necessarily be replicated. This can lead to disappointment for those trying to implement new strategies, undermine the effectiveness of Housing First, and most importantly, fail to fully help those individuals in need.

Housing First encompasses a strategic application of key principles across the entire homeless-serving system. When it is introduced into a new jurisdiction, it must be accompanied by an overhaul of the current approach to social policy and service delivery. The implementation of Housing First requires a difficult and systematic process, beginning with planning and strategy development that recognizes how every part of the homeless-serving system will co-ordinate around the Housing First philosophy. In many cases, the entire organizational infrastructure will have to be re-aligned in a way that supports the implementation of a Housing First approach. On the ground, services must be co-ordinated in a way such that clients can be assessed by level of need using standardized methods across all agencies, while reducing duplication of services across agencies. An important part of this is the requirement for an effective and integrated information management, so that different agencies can track what services are — and are not — being provided to each client, to what effect, and how the client’s need level changes over time. Finally, there must be formal systems of performance management and quality assurance to clarify whether systems are operating as they should, and whether goals — most importantly, improving the condition of clients — are being met.

There is a great deal of growing support for the Housing First approach in the non-profit sector and government sector alike. This presents an opportunity to make real progress in making wholesale changes to our approaches for ending homelessness, which have been needed for some time. Key to that is leveraging the widespread enthusiasm for Housing First programming into a reform for the entire homeless-serving system. Housing First as a popular catchphrase is not a magic bullet for ending homelessness — but as a philosophical basis for guiding broader change throughout the system, it does have the potential to get us closer to that ultimate goal.

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