Posted on July 20, 2010
I have asked Katie Van Arnam, VSH’s Director of Housing Access Programs, to write this week’s blog. Thanks, Alice
Is this household able to maintain permanent housing? Are they “ready” to be in their own place? Will they be able to “make it”? In my role at Virginia Supportive Housing, I hear these questions on a regular basis. My answer is always “yes”. I typically provide this response before I know any information about the situation and leave the individual asking me the question with a confused look on their face. In my mind, the issue is not “is this person sustainable in permanent housing” but instead, “does our community have a housing option that meets this person’s needs?”
Communities should have an array of options for those experiencing a housing crisis including outreach, prevention, emergency and transitional shelter, and affordable rental housing, and permanent, supportive housing. These options should be available to anyone who needs them, including those with physical disabilities and language barriers. Most importantly, the services and programs should match the needs of the household. Instead of blaming the person experiencing the crisis and saying “they will never make it in permanent housing” or “what did they do to get themselves here”, we should be looking at the services available in our community and asking why we do not have the capacity to meet this person’s needs.
VSH’s A Place to Start (APTS) program is a perfect example of this theory. This program serves single individuals with an extensive history of homelessness as well as a serious mental health disorder. By most standards, participants would not be able to “make it on their own” in permanent housing. However, the APTS program has proven otherwise. By matching the appropriate level of support services (in this case, intense service) to the needs of program participants, people are able to remain stable and avoid returning to homelessness. After operating for two and a half years, this program has shown a 98% success rate. This is for a group that most felt would not be “suitable” in permanent housing.
This housing first approach to ending homelessness is not unique to Richmond. According to HUD, more than 70,000 units of permanent housing as described above have been funded since 2001. Nationwide, the number of chronically homeless individuals has decreased by a third since 2005 (dropping to 112,000). Nationally, it is recognized that people may not “look ready for permanent housing” but they can, and will, make it in permanent housing if given the appropriate opportunity.
In addition to being the socially just thing to do, this matching of needs with services makes fiscal sense. The cost of homeless prevention, emergency shelters, transitional shelters, permanent supportive housing, and support services varies greatly. It is our responsibility to ensure that the most expensive programs are utilized for those who truly need them, and to then demand outcomes that justify the expense. In a recent article printed in the Washington Post, Dennis Culhane discusses five myths about America’s homeless. He discusses the role of emergency shelters since the 1980’s, and stresses that shelters have become “institutionalized way stations for lots of poor people with temporary housing crises.” He goes on to state, “To be in a shelter is to be homelessness, and the more shelters we build the more resources we divert from the only real solution to homelessness: permanent housing.”
I have urged my staff, and I am urging you to change your frame of thinking and begin to believe that anyone and everyone is able to “make it” in permanent housing. It is not our job to make that call. It is, however, our job to ensure that a wide variety of options are available.