We used to think providing a freshly-cooked meal for the hungry and a warm bed for people living on the streets was the solution to addressing this country’s homelessness. We thought this “Good Samaritan” approach to helping those who were down and out was a divine mandate.
But when homelessness increased dramatically despite compassionate responses, many experts turned to a new paradigm for resolving this country’s extreme poverty. Today’s modern approach is called “Housing First,” and the approach requires giving the most hurting people on the streets direct access to apartments, along with case workers to support them after they move in.
Communities across America have embraced this approach, acknowledging that a decades-old shelter system is just not the way to resolve homelessness. And, in recent years, studies show that Housing First is working. More housing is being built, more rental assistance is being provided, and more people are getting off the streets.
But front-line agencies and care workers agree that passing out house keys and providing volunteer support does not end a person’s homelessness, especially if he or she has been living on the streets for many years.
Last year, PATH moved more than 2,000 formerly-homeless people and family members into their own apartments throughout Central and Southern California. Staff members, faith groups, and celebrities carried tables, chairs, and beds into these apartments so our newly-housed neighbors would move into real homes, not empty apartments.
We memorialized these celebratory events with a picture of everyone smiling around a sign that declared “I Made it Home!”
You would think we could pat ourselves on our backs, knowing that we just moved a person off the streets and into a home.
But we are worried. Not only because there are so many more people who still need to be housed, but also because these newly-housed neighbors need more than just a furnished apartment.
We are worried about loneliness. About the temptation to return to their old lives. About an isolated life with no intimate relationships. A furnished apartment with no links to the outside world is not the end of one’s homelessness, it is just bringing a hurting, disconnected person off the streets and into an apartment.
A weekly visit from a case worker, or even a case management office in the building, does not create an intimate, supportive community for a person who has been isolated on the streets for years.
Last month, representatives from the Aileen Getty Foundation met with 120 of our case workers. Getty and her team are promoting a “post-Housing First” approach to resolving homelessness.
They are creating a new model where we help our homeless neighbors, both unhoused and newly-housed, create a sense of belonging in a world that is becoming less relational and more technology-based—a world that is becoming colder.
Imagine living in the hills, hidden from people, for years and years. You cannot just move into an apartment and assume your life will change overnight, even if a case worker visits you every Tuesday afternoon.
New relationships need to be created, healthy habits need to be formed, and a community of people—whether neighbors or support groups—need to embrace you. These are the transformative solutions for a disconnected person who has been isolated on our streets.
Housing is certainly the foundation for a healthy, changed life. Yes, housing should be first. But what follows is more than clinical support services. A person’s homelessness will finally end when he or she belongs to a supportive community that embraces him or her as its own.
Housing first. Community next.