Housing First

Housing First sees housing as a basic human right and key in the recovery from homelessness and substance abuse. The initiative, pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis of Pathways to Housing NYC in the early 1990’s, breaks the cycle of mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness by providing housing and supports to fit clients’ needs.

Housing First works by giving clients a home, without requirements based on their sobriety. The initiative doesn’t only offer housing, but also supports for treatment and counselling. The goal is to get people housed and to help them get back into their community, through finding the home and services that best fit the client’s specific needs. These supports are often voluntary to create a sense of self-determination and choice in the client’s own life. The increased freedom doesn’t lead to increased substance abuse; the client is supported.

There are different types of Housing First homes to fit the varied needs of the clients, from helping a family initially stabilize in their new housing, to providing ongoing supports and counselling.

These different types include:

  • Single site These are units that have onsite services to provide maximum support to clients
  • Scattered site These units are in private market housing, with help of subsidies and supports. Teams, like Assertive Community Treatment teams, or case workers check up on a client’s status and ensure they’re able to maintain their housing.
  • Hybrid These units offer a mix of supported and affordable housing

These different types are not a continuum of care where clients must transition from scattered to single, or from treatment to sobriety to housing. Alternatives to the Housing First approach often require sobriety, treatment, or other conditions before clients can qualify for housing. Housing First sees clients as tenants, under the same tenancy requirements for all people: you must pay your rent, don’t destroy the property, and don’t behave in a way that will harm or greatly inconvenience other tenants.

People experiencing homelessness, substance abuse issues, and mental illness can live as independent members of the community, able to make their own decisions. Clients move on and grow when they can actively choose to participate in their own treatment in their own home. Housing first gives them a safe, permanent and affordable place to live, while giving them access to the supports they need to move on to a healthy life.

An excellent example of a program using scattered site Housing First principles is Streets to Homes. Since it began in June 2010, Streets to Homes has reached more than 130 people, helping them move from cyclical homelessness to housing. The Streets to Homes program was spear-headed by the Coalition and is now run by Pacifica Housing.