The Treasure Valley stands at a critical juncture: how should we address homelessness in our community? Much has been made of one particular proposal — the “tiny house” movement — in recent months. It is true that “tiny houses” may be one viable option for some individuals and families who are down on their luck. In cases such as these, a tiny home may be sufficient to fulfill the need for affordable housing and facilitate financial stability.
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However, what about those who are also struggling with homelessness in addition to struggling with extenuating circumstances? How do we better provide services for people struggling with addiction or mental health issues that might make it harder to maintain continuous stable housing?
As members of our community rally to address homelessness, “tiny houses” have frequently been suggested as a solution for all homeless individuals. However, it is a very dangerous assumption that every individual or family experiencing homelessness can have their needs met by a “tiny house” alone. The missing component is supportive services for high needs individuals and families.
Although “tiny houses” may be viable for serving those who are in need of temporary housing, there is a certain homeless sub-population that requires more than a “tiny house.” People experiencing chronic homelessness will not find stability in a “tiny house” environment, and their needs require that we look for a housing solution that provides both permanent housing and the supportive services they need. Read the Opportunity Village rules: Tiny homes may come with a few rules.
When discussing how to best serve the homeless in our community, it is essential to recognize that each individual is a human being with a unique set of needs. As the community discussion has progressed, it has become clear that there is a general lack of understanding of the full slate of policy options that address homelessness, and a lack of attention to policy research. Before the discussion continues, and before we do a serious disservice to the homeless population in the Treasure Valley, it is vital that we take a moment to assess the evidence available so that our community can move forward, serving our region in the most effective manner possible.
HUD defines chronic homelessness as:
An individual with a disability, without permanent shelter, who has been homeless for at least 12 months or for at least 4 separate occasions over the past 4 years, or a family whose adult head of household meets the previous criteria or whose composition has fluctuated will the head of household has been homeless. — Federal Register, Vol. 80, No. 223
There are many unfair stereotypes ascribed to homeless individuals that further stigmatize an already vulnerable population. The reality is that homelessness has many different faces. For one individual, homelessness might consist of living out of a van they found on Craigslist while completing their bachelor’s degree, or sleeping on a friend’s couch while they search for employment. For others, homelessness is a cycle of bouncing from shelter to shelter, often compounded with the added challenge of drug addiction, mental health issues, and/or a lack of a support system. Whilst homelessness comes in many different forms, the underlying constant is the absence of a safe place to call home.
Previous approaches across the country, such as Transitional Housing, Treatment-first Programs, and interim housing, have all tried to address the specific needs of those experiencing chronic homelessness.
When addressing individuals who are struggling with chronic homelessness, the evidence clearly points to one particular provision that has repeatedly yielded impressive success stories: Permanent Supportive Housing with a Housing First approach. The City of Boise has recognized the impact of Housing First and, along with valuable partners (such as Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority, CATCH Inc., HUD, Terry Reilly and Idaho Housing and Finance Association), is presently moving toward implementing such a program in our community.
HOUSING FIRST: REMOVING BARRIERS TO HOUSING
Multiple cities that have implemented some form of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) with a Housing First approach over the last 10-15 years have experienced great success and positive feedback from their communities; in 2002, the Coalition for the Homeless, a national advocacy group, echoed that feedback, finding that PSH programs that target chronic and episodic shelter users are the most efficient and cost-effective ways to reduce shelter use.
A TBR Homelessness Colloquy
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At the core of the Housing First approach is the belief that every individual has the right to feel safe, secure and have a home. Therefore, Housing First removes barriers that stand between a homeless individual and housing, such as sobriety or participation in any treatment programs. Support is provided to tenants in two powerful ways.
First, their new home is permanent. The goal of a Housing First approach to PSH is to enable tenants to live safely and as independently as possible. It is necessary for PSH to indeed be permanent to allow tenants to feel secure and free from the worry of returning to homelessness. By providing for tenants’ basic needs for shelter, a Housing First approach to PSH allows them to focus entirely on engaging with supportive services. For some, their new housing will be their home forever, while for others it could be one step towards living independently.
Second, wrap-around supportive services proactively create relationships with tenants and provide psychological and physical health services upon request. These wrap-around services are extensive, individually focused and often provided 24/7 with easy access for all tenants. The combination of these wrap-around services with permanent housing has the power to invoke long-term positive change for a tenant as he or she engages with the services purely out of choice and not in order to maintain housing. The Housing First model of providing PSH is still relatively new, however there is already a significant amount of evidence-based research supporting its effectiveness.
Stefancic, A., & Tsemberis, S. (2007). Housing First for Long-Term Shelter Dwellers with Psychiatric Disabilities in a Suburban County: A Four-Year Study of Housing Access and Retention. Journal of Primary Prevent, 28, 265-279.
Pearson, C., Montgomery, A. E., & Locke, G. (2009). Housing Stability Among Homeless Individuals With Serious Mental Illness Participating in Housing First Programs. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(3), 404-417.
Padgett, D. K., Stanhope, V., Henwood, B. F., & Stefancic, A. (2011). Substance use outcomes among homeless clients with serious mental illness: Comparing Housing First with treatment first programs. Community mental health journal, 47(2), 227-232.
Tsemberis, S. (2010). Housing First: ending homelessness, promoting recovery and reducing costs. How to house the homeless, 37-56.
PROVIDING HOUSING FIRST PERMANENT SUPPORTIVE HOUSING (PSH): SCATTER SITE & SINGLE-SITE
There are multiple models used to providing Housing First PSH. The two main ones are through single-site and scattered-site housing units. A single-site PSH model, such as Connections Housing in San Diego, is one that typically offers all services in a single complex, or dormitory, with the inclusion of on-site service providers. Scattered-site PSH, which Salt Lake City’s widely touted, statewide Housing First strategy includes, usually consists of affordable rental units located in various spaces throughout a city. Scattered site units often require a sufficient number of units available in the rental market, as well as landlord support.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
As we move forward in our search to provide services to our community’s most vulnerable population, it is imperative that we remind ourselves that there is no single solution. As we have detailed here, Housing First is the evidence-based approach best equipped to serve people experiencing chronic homelessness. This is a venture that requires collaborative efforts from residents, businesses and services in the Treasure Valley to collectively support those experiencing chronic homelessness.
Eldridge Cleaver once said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” As our community continues on the path to ending homelessness, we ask that all stakeholders take the time to be diligent in researching solutions while considering diverse needs.
Tiny homes are certainly an innovative form of housing that might work to house those who are down on their luck, but tiny homes are not a viable option for delivering Permanent Supportive Housing to the chronically homeless population. Those experiencing chronic homelessness are the most vulnerable subpopulation of the homeless community here and their long-term stability demands permanent housing with the addition of compassionate wrap-around, supportive, services delivered from a Housing First approach. Investing in tiny houses for those experiencing chronic homelessness would be doing a huge disservice to this population.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.