Learning About Housing First

I managed to pop into the Gordon Avenue Supportive Housing and Emergency Shelter open house at Coquitlam City Hall last night. I didn’t have much time to look around since I had to run to the Golden Spike Days Society AGM but from what I observed, the architectural plans and programming seem to be on track and the hosts (which included staff from the City, BC Housing and representatives of RainCity Housing, the non-profit organization responsible for operating the project) were optimistic about an early 2015 opening day. Some of the plans can be found here. They’re quite thorough and include some definitional terms that the general public may be unaware of (i.e. the difference between transitional housing and shelters). I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to check it out because it falls in line with what I’ve been researching for the past little while.

I’ve recently been reading more about Housing First through chapters of an ebook after addressing it in my dissertation as a means to ending further violations of human rights- basically, the idea being that the provision of housing to the homeless, without any conditional factors, can improve their human rights and well being. It is in contrast to a treatment-first approach where treatment for substance abuse or mental illness is given before being moved into stable accommodation. These are the elements of the Housing First philosophy (Homelessness Hub):

  1. No housing readiness requirements. Individuals and families are not required to first demonstrate that they are ‘ready’ for housing. This approach runs in contrast to what has been the orthodoxy of ‘treatment first’ for homelessness, which suggested that people who are homeless should be placed in emergency services until they are ‘ready’ for housing (having received access to health care or treatment).
  2. Choice. Key here is the idea that clients are able to exercise some choice regarding the location and type of housing they receive. As we will see below, choice may be constrained by local availability and affordability.
  3. Individualized support services. Some people, once housed, will need minimum supports, while other people will need supports for the rest of their lives, ranging from case management to assertive community treatment. A key philosophy of Housing First is that people have access to the supports they need, IF they choose.
  4. Harm Reduction. Harm reduction aims to reduce the risks and harmful effects associated with substance use and addictive behaviours for the individual, the community and society as a whole, without requiring abstinence. In Housing First, this means that absolute sobriety is not required (though as part of the spectrum of choices, people may choose ‘abstinence only’ housing) and a tenant cannot lose housing because of substance use.
  5. Social and community integration. Part of the Housing First strategy is to help people become socially integrated into their community and this requires socially supportive engagement and the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities. If people are housed and become or remain socially isolated, the stability of their housing may be undermined.

Canadian initiatives for the program are spread out throughout the country and are rapidly growing. Despite regional variations, all Housing First programs should be seen to comply with the core values of the program.

I understand that some may be initially skeptical about whether poor and marginalized individuals would be able to live independently without help but it’s important to realize that the principle of Housing First falls in line with the right to housing as embodied in ICESCR and ratified by our government. An essential part of implementing the program includes disseminating knowledge about it which may include myth-busting. Especially in regards to reports of failures, stereotypes about the ability of those needing help to remain in secure housing and some forms of NIMBYism. It’s helpful to assert that Housing First works.

But it doesn’t end at the provision of housing- establishing steady housing seems to be in line with harm reduction philosophies. The provision of services through staff and partnerships provide the rehabilitation and integration part of the program. Team interventions are the essential part of most programs which progress the ‘treatment’ stage of Housing First by way of either Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), which consists of multidisciplinary support teams accessible to individuals, or Intensive Case Management, which takes a case management approach to developing integration plan. As described in RainCity Housing’s newsletter, they’ve been active in establishing ACTs team which has positively influenced the lives of many of their clients. Wes, a participant in the program asserted that it brought him “out of despair” and was elemental in providing him with the tools to secure an occupation and give him the confidence speak out at public conferences about Housing First.

Of course, the most troublesome part of the program seems to be lack of affordable housing. Housing First proponents insist that consumer choice cannot be sacrificed, yet, how are we supposed to offer affordable housing when the prices of property in cities such as Vancouver are soaring. While Vancouver has attempted to implement the program within the city (with much success as seen at The Vivian), the report doesn’t deny that this will be challenging for future programs especially due to the initial costs. Of course, in terms of scattered housing, landlords can be brought on to the table with incentives such as guaranteed rent and damage coverage but it doesn’t help the problem at large. Learning about Housing First has encouraged me to view the current housing condition in Vancouver as positively disabling. While rental supplements can help some individuals, there’s no doubt that changes need to be made in the way housing is distributed among the city in order to make the most out of Housing First.

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