Advocates tout success of Housing First in fight against homelessness

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Traci Strickland is the director of homeless services at Prestera.

Jason Mansfield, a street outreach worker for the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, didn’t work in the field before the Housing First movement caught on. But homeless people he talks to — they remember.

“It’s a consistent thing where folks that have been outside for 10 years or more think that we’ll help them once they’ve already solved all their problems,” Mansfield, who works in several counties in the Eastern Panhandle area, said. “When I’m able to tell someone, ‘I’ll help you now and then we’ll help you solve your problems together,’ it’s like a whole new world to them. It gives them the opportunity to actually try.”

Homeless-assistance programs that follow the “Housing First” model focus on prioritizing people they say need them the most — the chronically homeless. And instead of asking that person who has spent years on the streets to first get sober, or get mental health treatment, or get a job, or solve whatever the problem may be, they solve the person’s most basic unmet need first — lack of shelter — and then offer services to help with the other issues. The West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, which does advocacy work and also offers direct services, follows the Housing First philosophy.

U.S. Rep Alex Mooney, who represents the 2nd District of West Virginia, recently signed a letter asking the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to abandon Housing First. HUD encouraged the model during the Obama administration.

In 2015, several advocates for the homeless in West Virginia reported that the Housing First model had contributed to a decline in homelessness in the state. Homelessness declined by 23.8 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development November 2015 Annual Report to Congress. Advocates with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness also said sending funding to the most effective agencies, and new outreach staff, had contributed.

On June 13, Mooney, R-W.Va., along with 22 other congressmen, signed a letter to Ben Carson, secretary of HUD, claiming that “HUD’s current procedures have put families, youth and children at risk, in addition to jeopardizing holistic-based programs that work to alleviate the effects of poverty by supporting sobriety, work, and accountability.”

“Under this policy, HUD now gives considerable preference based on a program’s commitment to using the Housing First model, placing programs that do not use that model at a severe disadvantage in receiving financial assistance,” the letter said.

A spokesman for Mooney did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Several organizations that offer assistance to the homeless in Mooney’s district said they know of no programs that have lost funding, or people put at risk.

They say Housing First has enabled them to spend money more wisely — on the people that need the most help, who are least-likely to secure housing on their own.

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“Housing First is basically just taking someone into housing without any pre-existing conditions,” said Zach Brown, executive director of the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. “The majority of times, we see people stabilize and they do get better.

“It’s really hard to work on any other prolific issue in your life if you’re worried about getting raped, getting beat up, somewhere to sleep. We can help them with a subsidy and get them into an apartment.”

Brown noted that fewer people are going into shelters, some of which are faith-based and don’t follow the Housing First model.

“We’re housing way more people than we ever have straight from the street,” he said. “I think [Mooney’s] doing it from, quite frankly, an uninformed place.”

Brown remembers the pre-Housing First days. He pointed to “weird mythologies” based on a “subjective moral view or how someone should or shouldn’t behave.” Those programs create barriers to housing like “preconditions of sobriety or behavior or basically ways to screen out people who really need our help,” he said.

“My job is not to make subjective moral judgments of who needs my help,” he said.

Brown also noted that organizations in New York City began following the Housing First model long before Obama came into office, simply because it worked.

“What he’s saying and what he’s supporting is something I fundamentally know is false,” he said. “I would not call myself an expert, but I’ve done it for a good part of my adult life and we are a business. There are business principles. It’s been fundamentally successful and fundamentally cheaper and fundamentally better than anything else we’ve done.”

Brown pointed to the costs of encounters with law enforcement, as well as emergency room visits, when people remain on the streets. Research has shown that public costs go down when people move from homelessness to housing. A 2009 study of 10,193 homeless people in Los Angeles County found that the typical public costs for residents in supportive housing was $605 and the typical public cost for similar homeless persons was $2,897, largely due to health care costs. In May 2015, the Charlotte Observer reported that a $1 million plan to put the chronically homeless in housing had saved the city $2.4 million.

“Someone on the street costs taxpayers four or five times more in tax revenue than if they’re actually housed, because when you’re on the streets, you deteriorate,” Brown said.

The West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness does the majority of work in Mooney’s district, according to Brown.

“No matter what comes out in terms of a political edict, we’re not going to stop doing Housing First,” he said, before clarifying that “if we’re told absolutely you must stop Housing First, then I’ll go find another job.”

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Traci Strickland, director of homeless programs at Prestera, doesn’t know of any local programs that have lost funding, although she also said that as federal funding has dropped, programs that follow Housing First are prioritized. A private shelter like the Union Mission’s Crossroads Men’s Shelter, which does not support Housing First, would not have been affected, she said.

She also noted that there has been a shift, nationwide, from funding for “transitional housing” to “permanent supportive housing.”

Transitional housing might mean a building that is staffed 24 hours a day, for instance, she said. Permanent supporting housing, she said, is not free housing. “It’s subsidized housing with supports,” she said.

“That’s a shift I would think most people would support, because transitional housing has been shown to be more expensive than permanent supportive housing,” she said. “There’s nothing that can be done in transitional housing that can’t be done in permanent housing as far as supports.”

Strickland also leads the Kanawha Valley Collective, a group of organizations that works together on housing the homeless. In the Kanawha Valley, Housing First has helped get 173 veterans and 126 people experiencing chronic homelessness into housing since January 2015, she said.

“It has reduced the number of individuals that are experiencing long-term homelessness,” she said. “It is taking individuals that are kind of defined as the hardest to serve and the most resistant to services and helping them get housing, which is not to say there’s still not more to be done. We have not ended homelessness. We have not gotten to a point where homelessness is rare and brief. But I know that we have gotten some individuals who are well-known in cities across the state, we have got them housed and kept them housed.”

At the Charleston-based nonprofit Covenant House, they have housed 42 chronically homeless people through a Housing First grant over the last seven years, according to Ellen Allen, executive director.

“There used to be people living in shelters for months,” she said. “I would encourage [Mooney] to visit communities where Housing First is working very effectively.”

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Mansfield, the outreach worker from the Eastern Panhandle, would know where to go.

He knows lots of homeless people and how to meet them where they’re at.

Sometimes they’re hiding in the woods. Sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight. Then he builds a relationship, and if all goes well, helps them find housing. He is also charged with prioritizing cases.

“If you come up to a homeless person and you say, ‘Hey once you get a job, we’ll offer you a place to live,’ they’ll say, ‘I stink, I can’t get a job, I can’t go to a job dressed like this, smelling like this, with no address to put on my resume. Would you hire me?’ The obvious answer is no,” he said.

He doesn’t understand how fiscal conservatives could sign that letter.

“If you say we’re going to help people who’ve already helped themselves, what we end up doing is throwing resources at people who don’t need them,” he said. “The same people would never say let’s give a bunch of stuff to people who don’t need that stuff.

“The only alternative to that is Housing First.”

But he also knows there are programs that still don’t use the model.

“The problem I see most significantly is that the people who need help the most never get help, and the people that need help the least always get help,” he said.

“It’s like if you went to an emergency room and you said everyone with a stubbed toe, you have a good prognosis and we’re going to help you, but all you heart attack people, you’re a lost cause already. Why didn’t you eat right?”

Reach Erin Beck at

erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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