Addressing the Critics of Housing First

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Every day, we hear a lot of different perspectives around homelessness.
However, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing.
We all want people off the street.

Our model is how we believe we can get that done, but we understand that some people might disagree. The following article highlights the main criticisms we hear and how we respond. We also have a separate blog post titled, "The Case for Housing First" available on our website as well as several reliable resources linked. We recognize that no model is flawless, however we want to invite conversation about how we can improve and advocate for sustainable, ethical, and empathetic solutions to homelessness. 

Q: If Housing First is so effective, why haven't we ended homelessness yet?

A: The underlying cause of homelessness is the severe shortage of homes affordable to people with the lowest incomes and a widening gap between incomes and housing costs. Additional factors that contribute to homelessness include chronic health and mental health conditions, domestic violence, and systemic racial inequality that results in higher rates of poverty, discrimination, incarceration, and lack of access to healthcare and other barriers to stable housing, particularly among people of color and people with disabilities.
Until we address the underlying causes of homelessness, this crisis will not end. America’s severe rental housing affordability crisis continues to push more and more people into homelessness.

Q: Well homelessness is increasing--Doesn't that mean Housing First is a failure?

The reality is that homelessness is spiraling into a crisis that we can't solve alone, and that we need serious collaboration and federal investment to address the systemic causes of homelessness.

While communities are successfully housing people every day, people are becoming homeless quicker than we can house them. According to HUD, between 2017 and 2020, 908,530 people became homeless each year, while 900,895 people exited homelessness. Over those years, 38,000 more people became homeless than those who exited homelessness. We see this acutely at the local level with homelessness growing in Albuquerque by 83% from 2022 to 2023, and the cost of housing increasingly out of reach for more and more New Mexicans. At the same time, there are simply not enough resources to provide every individual experiencing homelessness with the housing and services they need. As a result, we have to triage and only serve a small fraction of the people who need help the most, leaving many to cycle through expensive and temporary emergency solutions.

It's not enough to simply treat the consequences of homelessness. We need to advocate for structural solutions to address the causes of homelessness and prevent it in the first place. The solution is to increase investments in affordable housing and services, strengthen tenant's rightsexpand rental assistance to every eligible household, and pay a housing wage.

Q: Homelessness isn't just a housing issue. People become homeless for a lot of reasons, namely mental illness and addiction. Isn't "Housing First" narrow minded?

A: You're right, just looking at housing without any of the other structural determinants of health won't solve homelessness. However, Housing first does NOT mean Housing only.

Unfortunately, Housing First is not always implemented with fidelity to the model’s principles. Housing first is a simple solution, but that does not mean it is an easy one. Barriers to implementing Housing First with fidelity include severe housing shortages, long waitlists for services, and limited staffing capacity. Various iterations of Housing First policy often dilute the model, investing in more housing subsidies without a proportional investment in increasing capacity for the social supportive services needed to ensure success once housed.

Under a true Housing First model, individuals are placed in their own apartments and, as a result, they are better able to engage with voluntary services, such as health care, case management, substance use services, peer support services, and supported employment services. Recent evidence shows that Housing First is as effective, if not more effective, at increasing access to treatment. These studies have shown that Housing First participants are more likely than others to report reduced usage of alcohol, stimulants, and opiates. Housing First programs are more effective at increasing utilization of community-based services, as well as outreach to and engagement of clients who are not yet adequately served by the public mental health system. Housing First is supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Q: Housing is expensive, even I have to work hard to keep my housing. Why should some people get a free voucher and have it easy?

It's true, housing is expensive. A recent study found that housing is now unaffordable for a record half of all American renters. One car accident, an unexpected rent hike, one visit to the emergency room, a child's illness, the loss of a job---Life is unpredictable. And with the cost of housing rising, it feels like a looming threat. Perhaps we all are now acutely aware of how homelessness could happen to any of us. But that's not right either. Nobody should ever have to feel the threat of homelessness. We deserve better. 

We all want better futures for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Without the stable foundation of secure housing to build our futures, our families, and our dreams on--how can any of us thrive? Housing represents stability, peace, a human connection, the possibility of a quality education, of a meaningful democracy. If we create systems that prevent homelessness, as well as uplift the most vulnerable in our communities, it makes all of us stronger and richer. 

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Reliable Resources to Learn More about Housing First:

Homelessness is unacceptable and solvable.
However, even with nearly 40 years of expertise serving this community, we know we can’t do it alone.

Thank you, for walking beside us and supporting our mission. If you believe in Justice, now is the time to take a stand. Donate today.

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