Viewpoint: Housing first approach proves successful

The D.C. General family homeless shelter, located at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE, is slated for closure. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

Fourteen years ago, Pathways to Housing DC introduced a new approach to ending chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C. – a problem that for decades seemed intractable. At that time, few in our area had heard of “housing first” or understood the impact it would have in such a short time.

Word spread quickly about this proven approach to housing people that some labeled “the hardest to serve” individuals: chronically homeless men and women living with mental illnesses. In our experience, it wasn’t that people were hard to serve. The challenge was that the homeless services system was not offering people what they were asking for: housing – first. Instead of requiring people to be “clean and sober” or “ready for housing,” Pathways literally offers housing as the first solution to ending homelessness. By arranging for housing in apartments scattered throughout the community, Pathways fosters choice and self-determination. Then we give clients a path to address their underlying mental health, medical challenges and addictions on a voluntary basis. We also provide employment and education services, all focused on helping clients integrate back into the community and be successful.

Today, our Housing First model has proven to be the most effective and efficient approach, literally ending chronic homelessness for nearly 90 percent of participants. That is double the success rate for programs that require individuals to get clean and sober and take psychiatric medications prior to receiving housing. In other words, while preserving our clients’ dignity and promoting their self-sufficiency, our Housing First approach saves taxpayers millions of dollars annually on such costs as shelter, food, jail, hospital emergency room visits and endless trips through the court system.

Recognizing the effectiveness and cost savings of the “housing first” approach, the District has made record investments in permanent housing and services in recent years. As we get closer to ending homelessness in our city, it is critical that the D.C. Council continue to provide funding for the services needed to achieve the mayor’s goal of making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. These include: housing vouchers, street outreach services, and the case management and behavioral health services people need to stay in housing. We also need continued investment in employment, prevention and diversion programs so we can ensure no person ever becomes homeless in the first place.

Pathways is grateful to the D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness for their ongoing commitment to innovative and cost-effective solutions to ending chronic homelessness in the District. In addition, we are grateful to the many nonprofit service providers, individual donors, foundations and businesses who believe that nobody should live or die without the dignity of a home in Washington, D.C. We will only end homelessness by bringing together all of these partners.

A example of this partnership is the ongoing work of our street homeless outreach programs in Northwest Washington’s central business district, which would not be possible without the ongoing direct funding and support we have received over many years from our partners at the DowntownDC and Golden Triangle business improvement districts (BIDs). The BIDs have brought countless business and community partners together to help Pathways address and meet the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in our neighborhoods. We truly could not do this without them.

By employing the most innovative strategies and with the backing of organizations that are in the fight with us for the long haul – rather than looking for quick fixes – we are making big strides in an ongoing quest to end homelessness, “one person at a time.”

Not that long ago, men and women living for years on the street with serious mental illnesses had little hope of living independently. Today, we are within reach of ending chronic homelessness. The solution is simple: provide housing first, and the rest will follow.

Michael Allen is a resident of the Palisades and board chair of Pathways to Housing DC.