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Giving homes to the homeless without preconditions

Hungry and Homeless, a photo by James Jordan

A woman asks for help in Chicago.

Advocates for ending homelessness reported good news this spring: the number of homeless people in the United States has been doing down for years. It’s a trend that the Great Recession slowed, but did not stop. Advocates credit a strategy called “housing first”: putting people in apartments without pre-conditions — like becoming sober, applying for work, or treating mental-health disorders — and then supporting them with social services.

The strategy cuts against a widespread impulse. Few things are less popular than handouts for the “undeserving poor.”

“Who is more of a poster-child for the undeserving poor than a street homeless person with alcohol and drug addiction and behavior and health problems?” says Dennis Culhane from the University of Pennsylvania.

Culhane's research showed that  leaving those undeserving poor people on the street was really expensive. For instance, they got sick and showed up in ERs. A 2006 New Yorker story by Malcolm Gladwell made just this point, profiling a man Gladwell dubbed "Million-Dollar Murray."

“That has inverted the whole argument,” says Culhane. “The fact that they cost society something has now made their cause deserving." 

Turns out, it’s also easier for people to get off drugs and get their act together when they’ve got a roof over their heads.

Which, put in those terms, sounds like kind of a no-brainer.  

“Doesn’t it?” says Michael Banghart, executive director of Renaissance Social Services, an agency that puts homeless Chicagoans in apartments. “It’s kind of — duh, it sort of makes sense.”  

Still, Banghart admits it took him a few years to catch on. In a year-end review, he asked: Who ended up homeless again? Duh, said the data: people who got kicked out for substance abuse. "We said, 'That’s not working,'" Banghart recalls. "We’re creating homelessness again if we just say, 'You know, if you’re not clean you’re gonna go back to the streets.”'"

Since 2005, the number of chronically homeless people nationwide has fallen dramatically.

Pinpointing chronic-homelessness numbers for Chicago is difficult, but over a recent ten-year period, the city almost doubled its stock of permanent supportive housing, the destination for people served by housing-first approaches.  

Like many cities, Chicago now gives first priority to the most vulnerable people: people who are homeless long-term, those who are mentally ill, and those suffering from addiction.

Still, it takes initiative for someone to get housed. Documenting eligibility requires paperwork and months of meetings with doctors and caseworkers.

Mark Scrimenti got an apartment through Renaissance, though some of his friends are still sleeping in the park.  

"I can give ‘em information," he says. "And they’re all like, 'I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.' But then wintertime comes and they’re underneath their blankets, shaking."

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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