A ‘Housing First’ Approach to Homelessness

By Corey Carlisle

As the name implies, “housing first” is an approach to homeless assistance that focuses on providing permanent housing solutions to people without preconditions or requirements that mandate a person graduate through a series of service programs or prove “housing readiness” before they can access housing. The model reverses more traditional programming in that it views the client’s basic needs—such as food and a place to live—as paramount to addressing peripheral challenges such as substance abuse or finding a job.

Housing first supporters say the approach benefits a range of individuals and families facing both temporary and chronic situations resulting in homelessness. A key component of these programs is the provision of either long- or short-term rental assistance, and supplementing optional supportive services, which are found to be more effective when the person chooses to engage. The goal is to help the individual or family obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency and keep them housed.

A fact sheet prepared by the National Alliance to End Homelessness cites multiple studies showing that this approach can save communities between $20-30,000 per housed person. That’s because they are less likely to use emergency services—such as hospitals, prisons and emergency shelters—than those who are homeless.

New York City’s largest provider of homeless outreach and supportive housing, Breaking Ground, houses approximately 4,000 people each night at one of their facilities and places more than 500 individuals in transitional or permanent housing each year. At ABA’s 2018 Annual Convention in New York, Breaking Ground President and CEO Brenda Rosen joined James Dittbrenner, SVP for community development at Sterling Bank (a $31 billion institution headquartered in Montebello, N.Y.) to discuss Breaking Ground’s highly successful supportive affordable housing model that pairs beautifully designed housing with wraparound services designed to help people maintain their homes for the long-term.

Meanwhile, to better serve the Seattle area’s growing affordable housing and homelessness epidemic, $717 million Sound Community Bank negotiated an ongoing partnership with Plymouth Housing Group (PHG) in 2016. The Seattle-based nonprofit takes a housing-first approach to tackle homelessness, which affects approximately 11,000 people across King County. Through the unique partnership, which includes support for PHG’s overall fundraising efforts, the bank subsidizes the salary of one employee at PHG who assists over 1,000 clients across 14 buildings throughout the city with calculation and payment of rent and other bills. This helps residents regain stability and heal from the trauma of homelessness without the tremendous financial pressure that occurs during the transition out of homelessness.

In June, PHG announced a new capital campaign that aims to raise $75 million to build 800 units of permanent, supportive, housing for people experiencing homelessness. The campaign, which has already passed the halfway point to its fundraising goal, will allow PHG to double the amount of households they serve and establish an endowment for maintain the existing facilities they operate.

Want a closer look? During the 2019 ABA Annual Convention in Seattle, on Oct. 28, the ABA Foundation will host an on-the-ground tour showcasing how banks are leading community revitalization efforts throughout Seattle. The tour will highlight how partnerships between banks and community organizations are tackling affordable housing, and other issues facing the city. Participants will have the opportunity to see first-hand how these collaborations are stimulating the local economy and transforming the lives of people in and around Seattle.