We need a national Housing First plan implemented as soon as possible if we are to effectively deal with the problem of homelessness in America. This is a story that explains why.
I became homeless in 2009 and out of necessity learned how to make the services administered through the Ocean County New Jersey Board of Social Services work for me. They included housing assistance provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), food assistance (SNAP) through the US Department of Agriculture, and cash assistance through the General Assistance program made available by the State of New Jersey.
I am now in permanent Federal Affordable Housing and no longer need social services myself. So I try to use my own experience to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless get the social services they need. Currently, Emergency Housing Assistance offered through the Ocean County Board of Social Services is not easy to qualify for. The bureaucratic process is difficult to comprehend, and negotiating through it when you are facing housing insecurity and are stressed out is exceedingly difficult.
For example, I was contacted by members of a local church in my community after they had encountered a young man who was homeless hanging out in a shopping mall. They had given him some new clothing, and now wanted to arrange for me to meet with him because I have experience in homeless outreach, particularly in Ocean County.
In meeting with the young man, it was immediately clear to me that he was in serious trouble, mentally and emotionally. He could not maintain eye contact, tell me what he did that day, or articulate any plans he had for getting out of his present situation. He was sleeping in the wooded areas at night where he couldn’t be seen, and then wandering around during the day trying not to be seen. In my experience, this isolation is a recipe for serious psychological and emotional damage.
I asked him if he wanted a room in a motel or shelter for the night. He enthusiastically said yes.
I called a three-digit number for an Ocean County Board of Social Services’ special-response unit that is set up to address emergency situations (although the county’s website says, “Funding is limited so assistance is not always available”). They have teams available to quickly come and pick up people who are homeless, give them shelter, and take them to a social-services office in their county the next day to see if they qualify for more permanent assistance.
I called them, but they wanted to talk with the young man, not me.
They ended up turning him down because he told them the truth: He’d been homeless for four months. Special Response ‘”responded” by saying that they only take people who have been homeless for two weeks or less.
So I arranged to pick him up the next day where he was living in the woods and take him to the Ocean County Social Services office myself. There, he applied and qualified for SNAP and General Assistance, which then allowed him to apply for Emergency Housing Assistance.
In order to qualify for Emergency Housing Assistance, however, he was also required to appear once a week at the Ocean County One-Stop Career Center, located on another side of town and outside the reach of public transportation; and a substance-abuse counselor who was also located far from the social services office.
I knew that he—and others like him who are chronically homeless—often can’t meet these requirements and therefore don’t receive the emergency housing they desperately need.
This is why we need Housing First.
Housing First uses a simple model that has been proven to work: It first provides people with housing, and then provides supportive wraparound services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. Housing First apartments are scattered throughout a community which helps formerly homeless reintegrate into their communities. Perhaps the most significant innovation is that Housing First doesn’t put preconditions on eligibility. Other approaches exclude people from receiving housing assistance because they suffer from mental illness, including addiction. Finally, Housing First saves taxpayer money over the long haul, reducing costs that are otherwise incurred by the public for stays at shelters, in jail cells, and emergency-room visits.
After our visit to social services, I discussed the young man’s situation with others in my homeless outreach network. We agreed that the best available alternative for him was to enter a 10-day shelter provided by a local faith-based group. From there he would be able to transition into an in-patient behavioral rehabilitation center that would—upon successful completion of their program—hopefully guide him into permanent housing.
The question all of this begs is this: Since only one in four low-income renter households receives federal rental assistance—and a lack of affordable housing is a leading cause of homelessness—shouldn’t we be devoting a larger share of our affordable housing dollars towards a nationwide, Housing First model?
It’s the right thing to do, and it saves money. What the hell are we waiting for?