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Addressing Chronic Homelessness through Policing Isn't Working. Housing First Strategies Are a Better Way.

The homelessness-jail cycle is costly for community budgets that fund public services and puts people experiencing chronic homelessness at risk. People with mental or behavioral health challenges need access to services, not jail time.

This piece was originally posted on Urban Wire, the blog of the Urban Institute.

Protesters across the country continue to raise their voices against the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, and many other Black Americans and against ongoing police violence, white vigilante violence, and broader racial injustices in the U.S. Advocacy organizations and protesters are calling on local policymakers to shift taxpayer dollars away from steady criminal justice budgets and toward remedying historical disinvestment in social supports, especially in Black communities and other communities of color.

Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, explained the movement’s call to defund the police on NBC’s Meet the Press: “So much of policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence. What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life for communities who are overpoliced and oversurveilled."

That overpolicing can be seen in how the criminal justice system is used to address homelessness, which disproportionately affects Black and Native American people (PDF) because of decades of public disinvestment in housing and systemic and structural racism in housing access, wealth accumulation, employment, and the criminal justice system. People forced to endure chronic homelessness (experiencing homelessness for an extended period) are more likely to interact with the police and face citations, arrests, and incarceration, trapping them in a homelessness-jail cycle.

But this approach isn’t working. On any given night, more than 96,000 people (PDF) experience chronic homelessness, and that number is increasing. The homelessness-jail cycle — in which people rotate in and out of jails, shelters, emergency rooms, detoxification facilities, and other emergency services — is costly for community budgets that fund public services. And it puts people experiencing chronic homelessness, who are more likely (PDF) to have physical or mental health challenges, at risk. People with mental or behavioral health challenges need access to services, not jail time.

Rather than continuing to address chronic homelessness through the inefficient strategy of policing, communities could fund housing services rooted in an evidence-based approach proven to help break the homelessness-jail cycle: Housing First. Investing in Housing First strategies would be a more efficient use of public funds and would address racial disparities in homelessness (PDF).

Evidence shows Housing First is a good investment for people and communities

In contrast to treatment-first approaches, Housing First is an approach built on the idea that safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing must be available before people can begin work on other challenges, like mental health or substance use disorders. Housing First programs — centering the principles of choice, empowerment, and connection to social networks — give people a stable home so they can improve other aspects of their lives.

Although Housing First can vary in implementation, the approach is often used in permanent supportive housing programs, which combine long-term rental assistance and supportive services designed to maintain housing stability. People experiencing chronic homelessness and mental health challenges often need these permanent supportive housing services to leave the homelessness-jail cycle.

Because of their position as first responders, police, jails, and other public systems can play important roles in identifying and connecting people to supportive housing providers in the community to address the housing and health needs of those experiencing homelessness and to interrupt the cycle of criminal justice involvement.

The evidence for Housing First and permanent supportive housing is strong. Studies have shown it increases housing stability, reduces time spent in shelters and experiencing homelessness, decreases arrests and jail stays, increases access to health services, and improves people’s quality of life.

Though the costs of supportive housing can range widely, some programs have estimated an annual cost of approximately $23,000 per person, with $12,000 in housing costs and $11,000 in services. Comparatively, a single Medicaid reimbursed mental health hospitalization in New York can cost more than $33,000 (PDF). In general, evaluations of supportive housing have found cost offsets between $9,000 and $15,000 a year, primarily in public health care and corrections budgets. One study found supportive housing reduced annual combined city and state corrections costs (PDF) by an average 55 percent.

But these programs are about more than just cost savings; they’re also about helping people find greater housing stability and improve their lives. A resident of a Housing First program in Denver summed up his experience by saying, “On so many different levels this has changed me, how I see things, how I see life, how I see the future. Stability is a thing that most people who are stable take for granted. When you’re homeless, you’re totally in survival mode — where do I eat, where do I sleep, am I safe. When you’re stable, those things matter, but not as urgent and not as overwhelming. People who are stable don’t really understand the mechanics of being homeless.”

Changing investment priorities can improve communities’ approach to chronic homelessness

Some cities, like Denver, New York City (PDF), and Seattle, are already using the Housing First and permanent supportive housing model successfully. But these programs, and efforts to provide housing stability to all people and communities, require more resources than any local government can marshal alone. To truly make a difference, the federal government would need to invest in programs with documented, rigorous evidence, such as Housing First, and shift significant resources to address the housing disparities caused by the US’s history of systemic racism.

Local governments can start making progress in addressing chronic homelessness by removing barriers to entry in existing homeless services programs, which often require people to tackle other challenges, like treatment and employment, before they’re offered a stable home. And governments can prioritize housing assistance resources for people forced to sleep outside.

But broader changes in budget priorities are critical to improving public investment in communities. Since the protests began, leaders in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Dallas, and New York City have proposed budgets or signaled plans that would shift funds away from police and toward services for Black communities and other communities of color. Investing in Housing First services to end chronic homelessness would help address the racial disparities in homelessness caused by decades of discrimination, save taxpayer dollars, and help people find greater stability in their lives.