It’s not Housing First or shelters. It’s Housing First AND shelters!


We have a problem. A very serious problem that is getting worse. A problem that we created! A problem that is polarizing homeless services in communities when we ALL need to be working together to end homelessness. The problem is that the only conversation these days is Housing First, and people who have given their lives to setup and run shelters feel left out and offended. Because of this, the Housing First folks are creating their own opposition.

I get it. I do. When I first heard about Housing First I considered Housing First a miracle sent to us from the heavens. Housing First is the new shinny tool in our arsenal for fighting homelessness. It makes sense, and now that we have a few years of data to look at – Housing First is a proven method that helps save lives and taxpayer money. For a little while I was all about Housing First, and the fact that I lived in a shelter based program for over 7 years just reinforced my new-found love of the Housing First model.

Then a colleague opened my eyes to how shelters are needed to help create a system to get people off the streets into housing! In fact, shelters may be the most important first step of support, assessment and then placement.

It’s not Housing First or shelters. It’s Housing First AND shelters!

I have been working with homeless services for some time now and with a fair bit of traveling – I have yet to see anyone go directly from the streets into housing that would be defined as Housing First. There is normally a transitional (yup, I know “transitional” is a bad word these days) component of some kind while housing that actually fits the client is being found. I must stress that finding the right housing is extremely important. I have seen people placed in the wrong situations simply because it was the available opening, and that never ends good!

The other reason shelters are so very important is data shows that the majority of people experiencing homelessness do so temporally. Either from natural disasters or economic crisis or relationship problems, a large percentage of homeless people will not be needing services that long. Housing First works for the chronic homeless person, but for the people who are only in the state of homelessness for a short time – we still need shelters!

Michael McConnell once said to me: “we have a lot of pillars and no systems”, which is spot on. For us to end homelessness we need everyone to work together. That also means we all have to change.

Let’s be real: most shelters are horrible places, and there are a lot of agencies claiming they do Housing First but are just throwing people into apartments without the needed support services! Shelters need to be a place that provide people with dignity. Housing First agencies should not be placing people into housing unless the placement is a good fit, the apartment is actually furnished like a home should be, and most importantly – provide the client with services and tangible social interaction.

At the last NAEH conference this growing division of Housing First and shelters really became evident. The conversation by the people attending was all exclusive and not inclusive. I talked to a few people who run shelters and they were emotionally hurt.

My suggestion to the Housing First supporters is to include shelters in the conversation. By excluding shelters we are creating our own enemy. My suggestion to the shelter folks is to keep an open mind and to be willing to change from a one-stop model to a community based system that quickly gets people out of homelessness. In this short video I interview Jenny Niklaus, CEO of EHC LifeBuilders, a leading provider of services and shelter beds in Santa Clara County, about how they repositioned their shelter model to support Housing First.

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