California’s Housing-first Policies Work, 1980s Homelessness Strategies Don’t Work Now

Housing-first programmes in California helped tens of thousands of people leave homelessness behind in a single year. However, in recent months, a vociferous minority of state leaders has advocated for a rollback of our housing first legislation, which prioritises providing permanent housing to those experiencing homelessness without first forcing them to attend programmes or treatment.

While the current repeal attempt failed, it lends credence to claims that housing-first policies are ineffective. An editorial published in the Sacramento Bee recently made the case that California’s “housing first” strategy was doomed to fail since it was aimed at helping people who were already homeless, such as moms recovering from substance misuse.

However, the CARE Court proposal under consideration by the Legislature would force people with mental illness into institutional treatment without providing them with any means for housing, which is counter to the very premise of housing first policies. Nearly 20% of the inmates at the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation do not have a place to live, but they will be permanently exempt from these regulations.

Some of the most successful strategies for addressing homelessness in Los Angeles and San Francisco revolve around the idea of housing first. In addition to decades of empirical evidence, the model’s success in getting people off the streets demonstrates its efficacy.

What did not work, on the other hand, were the decades-old policies that traumatised the vulnerable and built needless impediments to housing. In 2016, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 1380, enshrining the housing-first model throughout the state. This followed the success and bipartisan consensus of the housing-first approach in other states, as well as the Bush administration’s adoption of housing first as a national practice.

Since then, those who view homelessness as a moral failing have been the primary voices speaking out against such initiatives. However, putting the onus of responsibility for homelessness on individuals and families who are experiencing it, rather than on the real external issues like our state’s housing affordability crisis, is unfair and counterproductive.

It’s a well-known fact that the number of homeless people in California has increased significantly over the past few years. Tents and encampments have sprung up all over our neighbourhoods, and we’ve all seen them. Nevertheless, the claim that removing housing restrictions will lead to a rise in the number of homeless people is not only false but also a hazardous fallacy that might seriously set back efforts to improve people’s living conditions.

Multiple studies have shown that families who attend housing first programmes are more likely to receive treatment, decrease their drug and alcohol usage, and shorten their hospital visits. Tenants can reduce their utilisation of inpatient psychiatric institutions by voluntarily engaging in therapy. Large drops in the national homeless population have been observed since 2007 when federal housing first policies were implemented.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s three-year “Housing Options Study” found that families who received housing-first services not only ended their homelessness for good but also saw decreases in family separation, domestic violence, substance use, school absences and behavioural issues among their children. Connecting homeless and child-welfare-involved families to housing-first supportive housing, as programmes like “Keeping Families Together” have done, has been shown to result in a high rate of successful family reunification.

Evicting families from transitional housing when parents relapsed or broke regulations did not mitigate family separation or increase kid well-being, the same study found when looking at approaches from the 1980s. The study found “no evidence that this innovative strategy achieved its goals any better than did leaving families to find their way out of the shelter,” even when families obeyed the rules of traditionally harsh transitional housing programmes.

Slipping back into old habits is normal during the healing process. A person’s chances of staying sober, in treatment, or abiding by court orders all plummet, and their chances of survival are significantly lower when they are driven back into the streets following a setback. State and municipal lawmakers ought to be guided by data. The best approach to addressing homelessness is to prioritise housing.

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