Housing first for homeless veterans

12 percent of adult homeless people in the United States are veterans. In the grand scheme of things, homelessness is a huge issue in the United States, and it’s a multifaceted one — a large number of homeless people are LGBQT youth, many are mentally ill (a category that overlaps significantly with veterans), and others face different life factors. Consequently, resolving the issues facing the homeless community can’t involve a one size fits all solution, a neat and tidy way of wrapping things up, but as the nation observes Veterans Day, the homelessness crisis looms, with people from Vietnam vets who never recovered from the war to young people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan winding up on the streets.

Approaching the issues facing veteran homeless is complex, and ideally, it’s something that should be prevented in the first place. Interventions to help veterans, like identifying and treating mental illness, and creating more comprehensive programmes to help people reintegrate, are key. Other programmes work on helping vets go to college, or assist with job placement so people are able to support themselves after leaving military service. The government can and should be dedicating more resources to this kind of veteran outreach, and if it doesn’t, it’s going to end up with growing numbers of homeless veterans.

There is, however, a really clearly documented method for addressing homelessness across the spectrum, including among vets: Housing first. Initially deployed as a pilot program in several cities, housing first is proving itself to be an incredibly effective technique for helping homeless people get off the street and stay off the street, allowing them to build lives for themselves rather than bouncing between treatment centres and shelters and public outreach programmes that don’t really address their needs.

The logic behind housing first is extremely simple. You get people into housing, and then you figure out what they need. It’s very difficult for people to cope with the complex issues contributing to their homelessness when they don’t actually have a place to call home, a stable environment to live in, access to people who can help them get appropriate services. Put someone in a home, even if it’s a simple, basic place to sleep, makes a huge difference, and we’re not talking about shelters with rigid, confusing, and sometimes frustrating rules for residents, or overcrowded transitional housing, but actual homes — SROS, apartments, whatever kind of housing a city can make available.

It’s hard to get consistent treatment for drug and alcohol abuse when you’re living on the streets and moving around. In a simple example, people undergoing methadone therapy are typically cut off when they miss an appointment, including counseling appointments, and are sometimes penalised for showing up late or appearing to be under the influence. It’s really hard to stay with a course of treatment when you don’t have a stable living situation. It’s challenging to store and cook food when you don’t have a home to do it in. It’s hard to stick with medical appointments to manage mental illnesses when you don’t know where you will be on any given day. It’s difficult to pick up prescriptions, get to the food bank, and access other public services when, again, you don’t have a house.

Salt Lake City, one of the pioneers of housing first, noticed an immediate and dramatic change among their homeless population when they took the project on. They found that by prioritising housing over other outreach and support programs, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for homeless residents — having a place to call their own created the stabilising factor people needed to succeed when it came to making lasting changes in their lives. Having a home means you have a place to sleep, to cook, to store belongings. It means you can bathe and prepare for job interviews, do homework for school, complete tasks of daily living that help you create a life for yourself rather than forcing you to scrabble on a daily basis to survive.

Notably, for those who take a pragmatic and utilitarian view, housing first also represents a significant cost savings. When people don’t bounce between social services or relapse continually, they don’t need to rely on as many public resources. Instead, they can start supporting themselves and building up their own communities. That allows cities to dedicate resources to other critically needed services, which creates a very strong incentive to use housing first in city planning, homeless outreach and social services. If the initial cost of acquiring and managing housing is expensive, it’s far less costly in the long run than dealing with recurring issues that people can’t shake because they can’t stabilise their lives.

Connecticut has actually successfully applied housing first to its population of veterans, and numerous other states are starting to follow suit. The state is providing a blueprint as well as a challenge for others to follow, even as housing first goes against every stated conservative value and proposal — the notion that we should provide people in need with a place to live, rather than punishing them or forcing them to jump through hoops to get services, is unsettling for many conservatives. But, it turns out, it’s actually the smartest way to approach the needs of homeless people, and with the exception of those who genuinely want to advance the idea that we shouldn’t help people in need, it’s heartless and inefficient to argue against housing first.

Today, many conservatives are waving flags and talking about veterans. I’d like to see them put their money where their mouths are and promote housing first programmes in their communities.

Image: Visiting veterans, US Air Force, Flickr