Is Housing First the solution to homelessness?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Last month, the Biden administration released a new plan to address homelessness, which has steadily increased in the United States over the past several years.

The White House’s strategy centers around a concept known as Housing First, a relatively new approach to homelessness that has shown some significant promise since it was pioneered a few decades ago. As the name suggests, Housing First is built around the principle of providing people with long-term housing before starting services to address their mental health, addiction or other challenges they face. Many anti-homelessness programs require participants to take part in counseling or prove they’re sober in order to receive benefits. Under Housing First, these supports are all voluntary.

When Housing First was first attempted in the early 1990s, it represented a sharp departure from what had been the previous consensus on homelessness — which was built around a so-called treatment-first approach, based on the belief that people needed to achieve a certain level of stability before providing them with housing.

Over the years, there have been several examples of cities that have significantly reduced homelessness using the Housing First strategy. Among the most successful is Houston, where homelessness has dropped more than 60% since 2011 thanks to a program that placed more than 25,000 people in long-term supportive housing. Housing First has helped reduce homelessness in places as diverse as Utah and Georgia, as well as cities in Canada and across Europe.

But there are also examples of places where Housing First doesn’t appear to have worked. During the past two years, California has spent $14 billion to combat homelessness — most of it on Housing First programs — but the number of people living on the street has continued to rise. Growing concerns about homelessness have become a major political issue in a number of liberal big cities in recent years, in some cases prompting local leaders to rely more on police in their response.

Why there’s debate

Housing First advocates say providing people shelter with no preconditions is the only way to permanently solve homelessness, rather than simply relieve the harm it causes. They argue that people must have their basic needs met, including shelter, before there can be any opportunity to address their more complex problems — whether it’s mental health, addiction or unemployment. There’s substantial research to support this view, with a number of studies showing that individuals who are supplied a place to live are more likely to stay off the streets and voluntarily participate in counseling and addiction services than those involved in treatment-first programs.

Though the approach first became federal policy during the George W. Bush administration, many conservatives have come to reject Housing First. Their primary criticism is that failing to require any kind of treatment as a stipulation for housing support allows mental illness and addiction to fester unchecked and may take away the main incentive many people have to seek help in the first place. Some also believe it’s unrealistic to think that cities can afford to supply housing to everyone who needs it.

There are also those who believe in the principle of Housing First, but see a variety of reasons why it may not work everywhere. One of the biggest challenges, they say, is that there simply isn’t enough housing in many major cities, which can make it prohibitively expensive for local governments to buy up enough homes to make Housing First work. Others say housing alone is not the solution and must be paired with ongoing support services once someone has gotten into a home.


People can’t address their problems if they don’t have a roof over their heads

“It's based on the incredibly basic idea that homelessness — as the name implies — is about the lack of a home. Instead of requiring people to sober up or meet other difficult requirements before getting a government-funded living space, Housing First gives people the security of a roof over their heads and then works on getting them sober and into a job. It’s a recognition that shelter is a prerequisite for self-improvement.” — Noah Smith, Bloomberg

Giving someone a home discourages them from seeking help for their underlying problems

“The Housing First approach discourages behavioral changes and no longer funds the treatment the homeless need to address their underlying struggles. Moreover, it ensures that nearly everyone who enters the homelessness system stays in it, as they are provided subsidized housing for life, without any expectation of healing and work, ever.” — Michele Steeb, New York Post

The strategy fails in places where it's too expensive

“The Housing First model can only work when homeless services agencies actually have enough units to meet their clients’ needs. … Largely because of the difference in housing costs, San Francisco spends roughly three times as much as Houston to house a single homeless individual.” — Ned Resnikoff, the Nation

Mental illness and addiction are the real roots of homelessness

“California radicals want the public to believe that there is no middle ground between imprisoning troubled homeless people and allowing them to wreak havoc. That’s not true. Mandating treatment for people who need it can make a real difference.” — Joe Lonsdale and Judge Glock, Wall Street Journal

All supporters of Housing First understand that there must be strong follow-up

“Housing-first approaches do not and have never implied that additional services are unnecessary — simply that human beings should not have to prove themselves ‘housing ready’ before being offered a safe, stable, permanent place to sleep at night.” — Nicholas Barr, Katherine Marcal and Nathaniel Waugh, Nevada Independent

Housing should be considered a human right

“In a Housing First model, housing is not a reward. It is a compassionate, preventative measure designed to keep the most vulnerable from suffering or dying on our streets.” — Heather Hogue, Provo (Utah) Daily Herald

The process of connecting needy people to open housing is often impossible to navigate

“This approach, though pragmatic and compassionate, has one problem: the pipelines from the street to a stable home are clogged, which means that many homeless people bounce around from the streets to shelters and back again — an exhausting and dispiriting process that leads many to simply give up on the system altogether.” — Jay Caspian Kang, New Yorker

Shelters treat the symptom, housing is the cure

“Temporary housing is expensive and, ultimately, a homeless person in a shelter is still a homeless person. … Yes, there is a need for some temporary housing for the thousands of people sleeping on the streets. But the bigger effort should be aimed at finding faster ways to create affordable and permanent supportive housing faster.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Too many homeless people aren’t fit to care for themselves even if given a home

“Instead of understanding the costly and deadly intersection of homelessness, mental illness, and addiction, the Biden administration continues to whistle past the outdoor asylums and drug encampments to marvel at what could be if we built more affordable housing.” — Paul Webster, National Review

Housing First is cheaper than the old way of responding to homelessness

“We know that providing stable permanent housing with caring support can set in motion positive life changes. Public monies are better spent on realizing these goals than in activating police departments to use force and coercion to ‘manage’ homeless people rather than put an end to their ultimate deprivation.” — Deborah Padgett, CNN

Housing First creates dangerous spaces concentrated with unstable people

“Stuffing thousands of people who should be recovering in hospitals, mental-health facilities, and drug-treatment centers into free or low-cost apartments has been disastrous. The places in which they are housed are ruined; people get hurt, and some die. Neighborhoods fall into disorder.” — Erica Sandberg, City Journal

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images