The Real Deal New York

House Republicans want to kill a key federal housing policy. City Hall is not happy

Bush-era "Housing First" initiative is credited with reducing homelessness
By Konrad Putzier | June 23, 2017 10:35AM

From left: Ben Carson, homeless people outside Penn Station and Darrell Issa (Credit: Getty Images)

City Hall and several nonprofits defended Housing First, a federal policy guideline designed to help homeless people find housing, after 23 Republican lawmakers wrote a letter urging the Department of Housing and Urban Development to drop the policy.

“We fully support the homelessness prevention and rehousing approach underlying Housing First,” said a spokesperson for the New York City Human Resources Administration. “Without stable and appropriate supportive housing it becomes much more difficult for these individuals to consistently remain engaged in the health, mental health and other services they so desperately need, which will result in more people living on the streets.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the agency is working on a response to the letter.

Supportive housing projects following Housing First guidelines make homes available to homeless people without strings attached, such as drug or sobriety tests. The idea is that it’s easier for people to deal with substance abuse or mental health problems after they have found a place to live in.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations singled out Housing First as a key strategy in their push to end homelessness, and in recent years HUD increased funding for projects following the guideline.

But nearly two dozen House Republicans oppose it, arguing that by removing conditions attached to housing the policy doesn’t give homeless people with substance abuse problems enough of an incentive to sober up. “By implementing its preference for the Housing First model, HUD has removed any incentive for independent housing programs to operate under a model that includes mandatory services, accountability, or sobriety,” the group of Republican Congressmen led by California’s Darrell Issa wrote in the letter. They also claim that the guideline prioritizes services for “chronically homeless adults” at the expense of families.

Housing First proponents counter that the approach still helps chronically homeless people get their lives in order, and does so more effectively because people in stable living conditions are better able to find work or kick addictions. “We know it works,” said Giselle Rothier of the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, arguing that the program ends up saving taxpayers money by doing a better job of keeping people out of temporary shelters, jails and hospitals.

As of April, 61,277 New Yorkers were homeless, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to open 90 new shelters but faces still opposition from local residents. He has also been unable to close so-called cluster housing sites, which often subject homeless residents to dangerous conditions.

Nan Roman, head of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the Homeless First approach has been “instrumental in cutting down the number of homeless people” across the country.

HUD data shows how Housing First changed the flow of funds in recent years. Between 2009 and 2015 the annual amount the agency spent on permanent supportive housing projects rose from $926.7 million to $1.407 billion, and the sum it spent on so-called rapid rehousing projects rose from $13.2 million in 2012 to $198.4 million in 2015. Meanwhile funding for projects that offer supportive services but no housing fell from $132.1 million in 2009 to $48.4 million in 2015 and funding for transitional housing fell from $428.8 million to $172.3 million. While HUD has prioritized projects that follow Housing First guidelines, its recent funding notice points out that “HUD recognizes that there may be some instances where the Housing First approach is not appropriate for a particular permanent or transitional housing project.”

Housing First dates back to the research of Columbia psychiatrist Sam Tsemberis, who is credited for changing the consensus that supportive housing should be a reward for good behavior. “People thought this was crazy,” he told the Washington Post in 2015. “They said, ‘You mean even when someone relapses and sells all the furniture you gave them … [to pay for] drugs, you don’t kick them out?’ And I said, ‘No, we do not.’”

It’s unclear where exactly HUD Secretary Ben Carson stands on the Housing First policy, though past statements suggest he may view it unfavorably. Compassion, he explained in an interview with the New York Times in May, means not giving people “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.'”

The agency recently tapped former Trump Organization employee Lynne Patton to run its New York programs, though she has no housing policy experience.