Some Thoughts About Housing First

I have been hearing and reading about the Housing First approach to aiding the homeless for over a year now.  As I understand it, this approach started in Utah.  The research on it is very positive, and the program is being replicated around the nation – including Lubbock.

The Housing First approach began when the State of Utah figured up the actual cost in dollars that homeless people manage to squeeze out of public funds.  The homeless do this mostly through healthcare and the justice system.  You see, your local emergency room must treat every person that comes in whether they are insured or not (right at the root of the high cost of American healthcare, and thus “Obamacare,” btw).  This does not mean that they will receive first class service with limitless options as though they were royalty, but when you consider that even being seen at all by a doctor costs a lot of money, you know that the homeless are costing “the system.”

Think of it: A homeless person gets a sniffle with fever and aches.  What does she do?  Stay home in bed?  Call in sick and take cough medicine?  No.  That’s what you and I do.  The homeless person tries to ride it out in the cold weather until they become very sick, and then they call an ambulance.  By this time the illness has gotten far worse, the treatment costs far more, and the system silently bears the burden.  What started as a cold, is now and ambulance ride, several doctor’s visits, a 2-5 day stay in the hospital, and YOU are going to pay for it.

The scenario I describe here is just one thin slice of the whole picture.  There are multiple needs like this, some not even involving healthcare or law enforcement per se.  And when you multiply these factors hundreds of times for people who already have poor health and limited options, the cost to “the system” becomes staggering.

The cost to build a modest housing complex that could comfortably support 100 street homeless drastically reduces that cost to “the system.”  Suddenly, a homeless person has a bed to stay in when they are sick.  They recover from the flu and don’t develop pneumonia.  They don’t call an ambulance or go to the ER with nearly the frequency.  They don’t go to jail for public intoxication or public urination and such petty crimes.

Getting the picture?

That’s Housing First.  Saving money is what drives it.  We can drastically cut costs by actually providing decent housing to homeless people regardless of whether they are lazy drunks, drug addicts, or just down on their luck.  Those questions about the roots of poverty do not apply to this paradigm.

And the truly amazing part is that once the Housing First approach is in place, research shows that a significant number of these homeless people turn their lives around!


I thought we needed to be worried about When Helping Hurts!  Hmmm…

So, it appears that rewarding bad behavior actually helps people get better?

Well, I don’t know about that… really, but the old ideas and correlations are not holding up to scrutiny.

To be honest, I am not exactly a Housing First enthusiast.  I would prefer a Home First approach.  I don’t think Housing First is really going to be the end of poverty, though I do like it better than pretty much all the other ministries that have been tried.  There is no doubt that homeless people from the streets find a deep sense of rest, security, and dignity from which to turn things around amid the Housing First approach.  But Housing First, in my opinion, does nothing to help the homeless have a HOME.

Don’t get me wrong, here.  Four walls and a roof are vitally important!  They play a key role.  But I have seen numerous street people achieve indoor living and fail at it – even when it was not given to them.

As a church-man and a Bible-man, I want to see these people incorporated into the family of God.  I don’t think American independence honors that.  Housing First gets fantastic results, but it is only a half goal for which to strive.  It holds an ideal that these people will cost us less.  It still looks at PEOPLE and sees MONEY.  That is dehumanizing down at the root, no matter how otherwise humanizing it appears.

With a concern that we should strive to be like the church of Acts 2:44-45, I propose Christian ministers look at homeless people and see PEOPLE there in need of a HOME rather than MONEY getting sucked into a black hole.  No.  Those PEOPLE should be a part of US – the people of God together living as the Body of Christ being discipled to exhibit INTER-dependence.

While I applaud the Housing First approach for its huge discovery that When Helping Hurts is a bunk approach and for all its worthwhile impact on poor people’s lives, I think it falls short of a God-honoring ministry in the truly BIG picture.  And so, I still advocate bringing these people into our churches and HOMES as a means of discipleship and of changing the culture at large rather than a few street peoples’ lives.



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