Housing First

By Jared Berg

We walk past them slumped in the enclaves of buildings on our way to work. We ignore them as they shout at nothingness as we exit the Link. We avoid stepping on needles as we head to a concert at Neumos. We go about our lives but Seattleites know we have a problem: mentally ill, drug addicted, homeless people. Last year’s annual “One Night Count” estimated that there were 10,688 homeless people in King County, up from last year. It’s hard to estimate how many of these people have mental disorders or substance abuse issues, but national averages tell us it’s high. For two years, I worked at a psychiatric hospital with most of our clients homeless and addicted. A former client explained to me that it’s impossible to be sober while on the streets. Drugs dull your situation as well as protect you (uppers keep you awake at night to guard your belongings and downers allow you to sleep during the day when it’s safer). It’s hard to keep doctor appointments and refill prescriptions when you don’t know where you are sleeping that night.

Seattleites have combatted this problem for years. We have been dutiful liberals and voted to increase our property taxes to pay for solutions. A ten-year plan has lapsed. Our mayor declared a State of Emergency to open more funding sources. And yet homelessness continues to increase. Barbara Poppe, a consultant on Seattle’s homelessness problem, stated in her report last year that Seattle did not need to spend more money, but spend wiser. Since then she has stated that Seattle’s unresponsiveness has increased homelessness and would likely need more funding. She stressed that Seattle needs to stop the Band-Aide fixes, like tent cities, and take action. So what does work? Look to Salt Lake City which, according to the Director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, reduced homelessness by 72% from 2005-2015 by implementing a Housing First (HF) strategy. HF provides housing to homeless individuals without stipulations, such as taking their medications or being sober. Multiple studies, including one conducted by researchers from NYU and Columbia, have found HF to be effective. Although HF participants were less likely to seek treatment for their mental illness and/or drug abuse, they had lower rates of substance abuse and lower rates of leaving the program than those in more traditional programs. Another study conducted by NYU and Pathways to Housing found that after two years those in HF had the same rates of mental disorders and substance abuse as those in the other programs, who waited longer for independent housing and had a higher drop-out rate. This means HF provided more people with independent housing quicker, had similar or better substance abuse and mental health rates, and had fewer people drop out of the program.  

Housing First is also cost effective. Estimates vary on how much homeless individuals cost the system, but generally the figures range from $30,000-40,000+ per person per year versus roughly $10,000 per person per year to provide housing (see Economic Roundtable of Los Angeles, 2009, for example). When people are homeless they often are hospitalized more, have longer hospital stays, have more incarcerations, and need more services (such as shelters). HF would reduce the prevalence of these services, and in turn combat crippling mental disorders and substance abuse issues.

Seattle’s policies are not working. We need Housing First to help individuals that need stable shelter in order to receive treatment for their mental needs. This not only is the moral route, but also the economic path. Contact Mayor Murray and your city council member (www.seattle.gov) and demand that our money be used more efficiently and humanely. Give people the dignity of their own homes. Until our civic leaders make the right choice, donate to nonprofits that are already providing HF programs, such as the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC).