Housing First, Versus the Slogan
Yesterday, I hung out in Oakland at a threatened encampment, and sat at their volunteer art table, working for hours on an infographic that can tell this story of the abuse of Housing First. We're always hating on Housing First as activists, and that is quite wrong, in an important way. Utah, for instance, is a kind of heaven relative to us vis-a-vis homelessness, with far higher levels of volunteerism per person, and far fewer homeless on a per-capita basis (we are one of the highest per-capita homeless areas in America.) Utah uses a version of Housing First (HF) approach that is pretty similar to what our officials like. ButHousing First is a powerful, flexible model that is designed to look very different in different places. Here, Housing First in Utah's form is toxic.
The term "Housing First" is not going away, and it's catchy, but for most of California at the moment, the phrase is completely wrong in spirit, and dangerous. We may spend the rest of our volunteer lives righting that wrong, which is built into our very language and basic conceptualization of the task at hand.
The Distortions of Rapid Rehousing and "Permanent Placement"
Let's start this deconstruction with the most watched and biggest abuse of statistics in our Housing First system, our success with permanent placement.
Rapid rehousing (RRH), which is subsidies for deposits and initial rent to get a conventional apartment, is a very active county program. Last year, it provided about 90% of the "permanent placement" the county did. In other words, we did virtually no permanent placement outside of RRH. Last year, the county claimed they placed into permanent housing a number of homeless people equal to a third of the people on the street! Catholic Charities crows incessantly about this number while they talk about how we're winning the battle against homelessness.
It's a fiction. RRH is designed for those who have good jobs or will get one soon, who just need a little help because of something temporary. Many get into the coordinated care system and aren't really homeless yet, or have only been homeless for days or weeks; almost none of them had to actually live on the street. RRH people are a completely different population than those on the street, those who pay far, far more of the cost of homelessness. They're couchsurfing, or with family temporarily, or still hanging on in their apartment while looking for a job, or they just lost their job and need to move, or they're in some other twilight state before falling to street life. I met my first street person two weeks ago who had ever been accepted into rapid rehousing (and she got evicted quickly). Whoever these 600 are, they aren't the approximately 1,800 who are suffering the most from homelessness, so placement of these people, while no doubt useful, has nothing to do with getting people off the street.
Evictions from rapid rehousing programs– almost 20% last year– have deadly consequences, because it ruins credit, and often dumps people onto the street with no more recourse than the others there. RRH may even end up creating more people on the street through evictions that ruin credit, even if it helps the majority of the program awardees by keeping them off the street. And, in a final knife twist, the county doesn't count many, maybe even most RRH failures as homeless again; we know that many of those 600 who were placed via RRH last year who they're crowing about are now homeless– but we have no idea how many, or who any of them are, because the reporting system is so limited and terrible.
Like all Housing First programs, rapid rehousing can be a miracle for the right person. I like the program. I just hate the high evictions, I hate siphoning money off from street people to care for those less needy, and I hate the county aggressively claiming permanent placement figures as a success. We placed 600 in RRH last year, and homelessness went UP; that should tell you that RRH is not fixing hardcore homelessness, but just cutting it off or staving it off for lots of people. Which is great. But let's not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that that 600 people "placed in permanent housing" through RRH has anything whatsoever to do with the core 1,800 we're trying to stabilize and protect.
Largest Budget, not Most Important
Simply put, housing has to be second in priority to basic care and basic shelter of those on the street and in other dire or risky circumstances. We can never let our officials forget that, especially because the slogan we all use seems to say something else. If you have a refugee camp where you let people die of starvation while you provide a small minority of the refugees perfect, amazing housing, you have a Housing First system that is similar to the spirit of what we have here.
"Housing First" as a slogan is accurate, however, in that the annual budget for building quality permanent housing and related supportive services should be high, probably higher than the amount we spend on raw care in most areas. "First" as in "largest budgetary allocation", because housing is expensive, and we need a lot of it. Not "First" as in "most important."
There are many occasions in life where the largest budget is not the most important line item. You can spend $1,000 flying to visit your mom, but the $12 gift of flowers you give her when you get there, or the gift of your time, might be far more important. Fire extinguishers are a tiny amount of a retail business budget, but "Fire Extinguishers First" makes a lot more sense when promoting a good workplace than "Business Lease First". We don't budget based on what's more important. In the same way, Housing First as a slogan is meant to motivate people to drive lots of money into housing and related services. That's it. It never meant "fuck care- that takes away from housing, so we can't do it."
What should be happening, as Alice Linn and others intimate, is that we evaluate at every turn how to address minimally acceptable levels of stability, because that is the most important value to address, not permanent housing, per se. It's the equivalent of buying that inexpensive fire extinguisher. Then we allocate what remains after that basic life care to permanent housing and related supportive services. All Housing First should mean as a useful slogan is that the dollars left over, after minimum acceptable levels of care, should be big, because we need lots of housing.
What's going on instead, though, is a kind of opposite: minimal care is being shut down so that housing can be built. This is a Permanent Housing Only model. It's not like Utah at all: Utah first tries to take care of all their unsheltered, and then they place them in permanent homes when they can.
If you look at the budgeted services portion of the county's recommended HEAP state funds budget, you'll also see another gross distortion inherent in HF: the supportive services portion of the HF mandate is very expensive. In their budget, it's a bit over $1,000 per person per month.
It's true that many deserving people should have that level of care and expense. Those of us working in this field should all recognize that the budget for homelessness should be 3-10 times the size it is, just so we can take even decent care of this sliver of our population. But the relatively large size of that services budget item ($2 million, a sixth of the HEAP money, for less than 70 people for only 2 years) causes two dastardly things to happen in the real world.
First, our county builds or buys housing, puts unsheltered people in it, and they either don't include the services that are part of their HF model, or they include the services for a very short time, or they include a shitty version of the services. This is why conservatives who don't understand homelessness, and who like to emphasize "personal responsibility" as the way to beat homelessness, like compromising services and focusing on houses. You can make the housing, and then, while everyone isn't looking, relax on that expensive care portion of the model. They got housing, after all: if they're stupid or crazy enough to "give it up" by misbehaving and getting evicted, the thinking goes, that's their problem.
We know that, in fact, quality services are what keep people from getting evicted. But there's a lovely optics bonus in their attitude of prejudice against those evicted. People getting evicted from their permanent housing means you can put more people into those units, so your placement numbers into permanent housing can go up. So Sonoma is in this vicious circle at the moment, where the system ignores or makes very unclear how much eviction is going on, and what happened to those people. And the evictions end up being good news for the system, making Catholic Charities and the government shine.
The Vulnerability Game
The second problem is even worse. The high cost of services to their targeted population creates an amazing, astoundingly sharp distinction between winners and losers among the unsheltered. Who are these special few winners? Who are the 4% (~70) of the unsheltered who are getting 60% of available HEAP funding (after mandated youth service allocations)? Why would we even think for a second that that concentration of available monies makes sense in the fight for stability? Well, here are the ones with haloes, with golden tickets:
Families with children
"Very high vulnerability" people.
At first blush, especially if you're conservative, that all sounds great. Women and children in the life boat first. Many, like Catholic Charities and conservative officials, love to romanticize this little list. And, to be fair, it's fine to prioritize children in families (less than 1% of our unsheltered), or those with a high risk of death. Veterans, however, is a bullshit emphasis category, as far as I'm concerned, just conservative romanticism that extends "we support our troops" where it doesn't belong. Every unsheltered person, not just a veteran, has suffered enough in life; everyone deserves whatever veterans do in the way of basic life services and basic dignity. In my experience, the majority of vets handle homelessness much better than the average person, perhaps because of their training, or because of the resilient personalities attracted to the military. They also tend to get excellent medical care, and qualify for other services and housing that makes their vulnerability lower.
But it's that "very high vulnerability" phrase that is the toxic center of HF abuse. Shelter access in particular is deeply affected by this vulnerability bugaboo. The county doesn't take into account, in any way, how much an investment might help make a massive change in vulnerability. For instance (and crudely), if $5,000 could reduce someone's vulnerability from 17 on the scale to 9, they will get zero, because we don't fund people who have (high) vulnerability of 17, no matter what it's for. But if the money might reduce another person's vulnerability from 27 to 25, they get all $5,000.
There is no "bang for the buck" thinking about vulnerability that wedges itself into the system anywhere; there is only the care of those with the highest vulnerability. What that effectively means is that a $300,000 permanent home and $1,100/mo. for two years of services can easily be allocated for one person with a vulnerability score of 27– but taking that exact same money to transform 50 peoples' lives instead of 1, by buying heated tiny homes and basic life services for two years– that's impossible. A vulnerability score lower than that of the top 10% or so of the unsheltered shuts you out. Never mind that the vulnerability scoring is highly suspect (an important point I can't cover here), that the government thinks you're worth less than 2% of what a sick or drug-addicted person is, or that you're likely going to end up one of those very high vulnerability people in a few years if you don't get help.
Very related to this is the county's prejudice against "temporary" housing. As activists, we're trying to get people out of the cold, off the streets; we don't care how it happens, because we have an emergency mindset. Our friends are dying. A "bed night", or one person getting safe sleeping for one night, is most of what we care about. In contrast, our Housing First approach doesn't care about bed nights at all– unless you're very high vulnerability, and even then, HF only cares about that bed night if it's in a permanent home. Temporary housing for 50 is seen as taking away that 1 person's permanent housing, so it can't be allowed.
It's that narrow-minded rejection of mass stability that we're fighting, and the reason we are is because our officials don't get down to the encampments with us and talk with those 50 we're shutting out for the 1. My friends are not real people to them. As is always the case with conservative notions being used in situations where they don't belong. there is far too much distance between the suffering and the decision-makers. If we employed just half of the HEAP money for villages, my calculation shows that we can house about a third of those on the street, and support them for two years. That's without donations and volunteers involved, who are an integral part of this gig. All of the HEAP money being used for villages would house 2/3 of the unsheltered. Now that's making a difference!
Volunteerism and Donation
A hugely important way that all this distortion and abuse of the unsheltered affects our county is that our officials constantly spurn the urgency of volunteerism and donation as key to our success with homelessness. Shelter is simply too big a problem for government to handle alone. Yet the county can't possibly work on even its share of caring properly for the unsheltered while they are fighting our federal lawsuit the way they do, insanely defending their neglect of the basic rights and needs of roughly 85% of the unsheltered (the 3 categories above they emphasize are about 15% of the unsheltered population, with veterans 2/3 of that, at 10%.) Government official silence and police sweeps teach everyone in the county, especially conservatives, that our shelter problem can't be fixed, and that those who disagree are "a few noisy radicals" who should be ignored. Charity gets lost in the picture as essential, as central. By making us who work on providing basic life services the enemy, officials are necessarily silent at every turn about how incredibly powerful it is for citizens to turn toward their unsheltered and help out in simple and small ways. Even the Christian churches in Sonoma county do very little to serve the homeless. And I can't blame them. If the leaders you respect and depend on for guidance on how to help locally ignore the vast majority of the unsheltered, and furiously disparage those who speak best for them– would you help?
Citizens can group together and brainstorm on neighborhood solutions; they can support one-eighth a person's basic expenses in a tiny home with $30/mo.; they can teach education classes, or bring meals, or adopt a friend interested in their vocation or hobby. They can offer odd jobs, interest, rides, and otherwise drag dignity and hope into the picture. These are all things that are being done in Utah and many other caring places.
Philanthropy by large donors is especially hurt with officials' neglect. Almost all large donations happen by fundraisers working in tandem with caring officials who help with publicity and legitimacy– so virtually no money is being spent on the Sonoma county unsheltered by caring, wealthy people. Why would a wealthy person help the enemies of officials they want to influence and please by, say, funding tiny homes the officials have made plain they hate?
All this, without even us activists realizing it, is part of the county's Housing First approach. When officials do their very best to scatter and never speak about the unsheltered, we lose their leadership, guidance, and example to guide our citizenry. We have largely lost the battle before we even start, because informed, caring leadership cannot be absent in this struggle.
Shelter Crisis Declaration
One constant refrain from officials has been that they can't provide tiny home and other villages on public land because of the liability they take on. Thanks to the recent shelter crisis declaration, that objection is no longer true. The shelter crisis declaration prohibits the government from being sued for anything they do to "mitigate the shelter crisis," unless they are grossly (criminally) negligent, and it allows them to waive "any and all ordinances" that get in their way. What I'm trying to get across right now, to anyone who will listen, is that we should be pushing to use alternative, very inexpensive building methods to build multiple units of permanent housing on public and private land, while we can put lots of pressure on the county to waive "any and all ordinances" to get it done. We can provide them permanent housing, and stop this abuse in the name of siphoning money away from permanent housing.
I'm not sure that Survival First is the right universal catch phrase to contrast with HF– maybe. We do have to clarify the various toxic elements hiding behind the deadly simplicity of our Housing First slogan and approach. Adrienne and I and many others have used Stability First. We're trying to elevate the concept of stability (emergency housing, initial case management, basic life services, eliminating criminalization.) The notion of stability is powerful, we've found, in that it helps one think of a set of basics pretty easily, at least with a tiny amount of training; it's not totally intuitive to the uneducated, though, so using it is more instructive than intuitive.
Survival may not resonate with the public as well as it should, either, because I believe they find it unbelievable that survival is the true context of this battle. But like Stability First, using it provides an opportunity to expand on the concept uses, i.e., how death really happens on the street, both to individuals we know, but also in general much, much earlier in life than with other citizens due to conditions and tragic circumstantial changes that occur on the streets.
I suspect we're stuck with using a plethora of slogans and approaches to assail this HF battlement. Let's try these and any other handholds we can work, and come up with signs/graphics that help get the care-vs-housing abuse and distortion across.
Care AND Housing
Stop Making Housing the Enemy of Care
Housing First, Not Housing Only
Hey "Housing First" Junkies: First Address the UN and Commission on Human Rights Declarations, Settle Our Federal Disabilities Suit, Then Go Build Expensive Housing.