Housing First

From civicintelligence

Alexander Chopra- Civic Intelligence 2011 Spring Housing First Movement


The Housing First Movement aims to reduce the harms associated with chronic homelessness, to both the homeless and society at large. Also known as the Shelter First Movement, they believe that people who are often turned away by “traditional” relief housing have a moral right to shelter regardless of personal preferences. Many shelters for the homeless encourage or require those who they house to lead a sober lifestyle, yet many people who suffer from chronic homelessness also suffer from serious drug or alcohol problems. These individuals often fall through the cracks in the system and end up institutionalized in the criminal justice system, involuntarily committed to detox facilities, forcibly entered into mental institutions or simply living on the street. The Housing First Movement is motivated to fill these gaps in the system and reduce the harms that come to those who lack shelter by giving them a safe place to live, and if necessary use drugs or alcohol. Proponents of Housing before rehabilitation believe that some individuals are destined to be lifetime users, and that while a focus on rehabilitation is best for most, there are a number of people who cannot or will not change, and these individuals are among those at greatest risk for harms associated with homelessness.


Housing First shows Civic Intelligence by attempting socially ameliorative actions that seek to address the concerns and needs of homeless advocates and individuals. A number of different organizations and social movements participate in the push to make Housing available to all, including religious and faith based groups, traditional homeless advocates and policy makers. The Housing First Movement aims to change perceptions of safe use spaces from that of “party houses” or “drug dens” to what they often times end up being- a safe, clean space for those who suffer from the diseases of drug abuse and alcoholism to live their lives in peace. The Movement aims to change attitudes by appealing to the moral imperative as well as the economic benefits of creating safe spaces. Through engaging these problems directly and pragmatically we can create a great benefit for these people and the community as a whole.

Housing First is oriented towards providing the best possible care for the greatest amount of homeless individuals. By using pragmatic and unorthodox approaches to foment change within the shelter community they seek to prevent harms from befalling those who would otherwise be left to the mercies of the justice or medical systems, or those who would be thrown out on to the street. Housing First seeks to change existing mindsets towards individuals who use drugs and alcohol habitually and to illustrate that they are in need of help regardless of the substances they abuse.

Organizations that are involved in the Housing First movement include groups and individuals from different spheres of society and government. These include faith based groups who operate housing and shelters, politicians as well as social scientists and psychologists. Faith based groups that are involved with the Housing First Movement include the group Catholic Charities of St Paul and Minneapolis who helped to found the “St Anthony Residence House” in St Paul, Minnesota, one of the first shelters built specifically for late stage alcoholics which allows them to drink on the premises. Governmental organizations include the State Senate Ways and Means Committee of the State of Massachusetts which created and later expanded a pilot program which established one of the first “wet houses”, where alcoholics and drug users can seek shelter without judgement or being forced to detox. Ramsey County, which encompasses the cities of St Paul and Minneapolis is another governmental organization involved with the Housing First Movement, also helping to sponsor the St Anthony Residence House. Some notable social organizations that are not of a religious nature to participate in the movement include The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, or MHSA and Pathways to Housing, or PHA, in New York City.

The Housing First movement actively engages with both the community, government, and potential beneficiaries. The MHSA has a multi-pronged structure which includes education, advocation for the rights of the homeless, and collaborating with the government and other organizations. Their mission statement proclaims as much: “We educate about the plight of homeless people; advocate for the strategic use of public dollars based on research and best practices; innovate approaches and technologies that provide more effective and cost-effective solutions to homelessness; and collaborate with all levels of government and the private sector to engage the public imagination in the effort to end homelessness.”(1) The Catholic Charities of St Paul and Minnesota, the group behind the St Anthony Residence House, also works in a number of spheres to change the conditions that lead to homelessness and poverty, and to take the best care possible of those who need help, regardless of substance abuse. These spheres include religious communities, governmental organizations and other homeless and poverty advocacy groups. “Catholic Charities' Office for Social Justice works with state lawmakers, Catholic parishes, citizens and other nonprofit organizations to advocate for the needs of those living in poverty.” (2) Engagement also occurs when these organizations educate chronic substance abusers to the existence of an alternative to living on the streets or being institutionalized.

Intelligence in the Housing First Movement is exhibited by their adaptive, unorthodox approach to solving the problem of chronic homelessness. The movement is attempting reconcile two positions that on their face, seem to be contradictory. They seek to unite those who support increased support for the chronic homeless and those who wish to reduce government waste or misdirection of funds by making the process of housing the homeless more efficient. According to the Boston Globe “A landmark 2002 study by Culhane found that providing housing and other assistance to the homeless could bring down nonhousing expenses almost enough to pay for itself. The study followed mentally ill homeless people between 1989 and 1997 and found that each permanent supported housing unit saved $16,281 a year in public costs for shelter, health care, mental health, and criminal justice, offsetting most of the $17,277 cost of housing and other services.”(3) This approach allows for a broad spectrum of political and social organizations to get behind increasing housing for the chronically homeless- a large percentage of which are chronic alcoholics and drug users, according to a 2003 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Study: “38% of homeless people were dependent on alcohol and 26% abused other drugs.”(4)

Outcomes generated by the Housing First movement include facilities all across the United States, including those in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Washington State, and other cities. According to the American Journal of Public Health, among some of the facilities run by Pathways to Housing have a retention rate of nearly 80%, compared to 20 percent among similar facilities. (5) The Housing First Movement is also changing attitudes with regards to forced care, in many areas where opposition to “wet houses” was once fierce, there has been tolerance of the centers. A prime example is 1811 Eastlake, a facility in Seattle. After 6 years of challenges by locals against creation of the center, it was built and now has won numerous awards, including the Maxwell Award for Excellence in 2008 which is given out by the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Partnership to End Longterm Homelessness.

Resources for the Housing First Movement are largely provided by the government and through the efforts of Social and Religious organizations. Many Housing First related projects are funded due to existing displeasure with the effectiveness and costs of traditional housing and detox facilities. By using money more efficiently, with a higher success rate, agencies that provide housing without relation to drug use can co opt federal and state monies that would be otherwise directed towards less effective organizations. Through social organization volunteers time and lobbying efforts are also pledged to the movement. Religious groups, including Catholic Charities also donate time and money to the organizations in many cities.


The state of the Housing First movement is strong, and growing fast. Due to the ability of the logic and intelligence of the movement to cross social and cultural lines it is able to spread faster, and with more support than many programs aimed at relieving the plight of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Taking a common sense approach to fighting homelessness and substance abuse has led to the program spreading across the country and garnering praise and awards along the way. While the premise sounds dubious at first- giving substance abusers a safe space to use and be sheltered makes moral and financial sense. It empties our jails and clears our streets and frees up much needed social funds while at the same time allowing adults to make their own choices regarding their body and their health.


Three patterns used by my example are Community Networks- due to a broad swath of the community uniting to solve a social ill, I.e government, civil society, and religious society. Shared Vision is another pattern represented by Housing First, due to a great deal of groups and individuals coming together to improve civic intelligence in the anti poverty/homeless sphere. Social Responsibility is another pattern, due to the movement stepping up for homeless and impoverished people and drug/alcohol abusers who often can't stand up for themselves.

1. Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance; “Why We Do What We Do”,2011 http://www.mhsa.net/matriarch/MultiPiecePage.asp_Q_PageID_E_4_A_PageName_E_whatpolicy

2. Catholic Charities of St Paul and Minneapolis; “Core Mission”, 2011 http://www.cctwincities.org/mission_statement.aspx

3. Boston Globe; “First Things First”; Florence Graves and Hadar Sayfan, 2007 http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/06/24/first_things_first

4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; “Substance Abuse and Homelessness”, 2003http://homeless.samhsa.gov/channel/substance-abuse-and-use-548.aspx

5. American Journal of Public Health, “Housing First, Consumer Choice and Harm Reduction for Homeless Individuals With a Dual Diagnosis” ; Tsemberis, S., Gulcur, L. and Nakae, M., 2004