Annas Omar

Prof. Dochterman

Writ 150

14 November 2020

Should We Take a Chance on the Housing First Approach

According to the United Nations, about 1.6 billion people around the world live in inadequate housing (Ojiambo). That is one-fifth of the world’s population that is living without a place to call home. Homelessness is a global issue that plagues every nation, including the United States. However, the success of a few nations in addressing this issue, gives us a glimmer of hope, that the same can be done here in the United States. In tackling this crisis, the US can look to countries such as Japan and Finland, which have had a significant decrease in their homeless populations over the past decade. America is far behind in addressing homelessness when compared to these countries because our approach is not robust enough to tackle a problem of this degree. Even some of the most affluent cities in America have difficulty in addressing the increase in homelessness over the past few years, including my hometown of Irvine California. Like many cities in America, Irvine has criminalized homelessness, all while providing no shelters or housing facilities. But would constructing more shelters even make a sizable dent against the homelessness crisis in Irvine and in America in general? I argue that although constructing homeless shelters would be an improvement compared to the current model in Irvine and other major U.S. cities, lawmakers must implement a permanent housing program for the homeless, in order to give them the much needed stability they need to become self-sufficient citizens.

The first step to discovering an effective solution to the homeless crisis in America comes from first understanding what causes many Americans to become homeless in the first place.

The economic globalization in America has resulted in an unequal distribution of wealth and stagnant increases in wages. An academic journal titled “Globalization and homelessness in the USA” explores the possible role of globalization in creating an unequal distribution of wealth and stagnant wage increase in America. In her journal, human rights activist Cheri Honkala, details the profound effects economic globalization has had on the United States and writes that “increasing numbers of human beings are pushed out of work and into poverty, while a group of investors have gained fortunes of unprecedented magnitude” (Honkala). Honkala argues that the economic globalization over the years has created an unequal distribution of wealth in America, where the majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. In return, the overwhelming majority of Americans are forced to live off of sub-standard wages and often live in inadequate, or no housing at all. Although Honkala oversimplifies the issue to an extent, there is no denying that globalization has played a significant role in increasing the wealth gap in America.

Middle and lower class Americans have seen no real gains in income as a result of globalization, while the wealthy in America have experienced substantial gains. Not only has the increased interdependence of world economies created a wealth disparity in America, but it has also prevented the average American from earning a living wage. How so, you may ask? The simple answer is that, the few who own the majority of the wealth in America have no incentive to pay their workers anymore than they already do. A study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition further analyses the role of economic globalization in wealth distribution and surveys the effects of American workers being paid substandard wages. The study found that “nowhere in the United States can someone who works 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent” (Arriaga). The stagnant wage increases, coupled up with the unequal distribution of wealth as a result of globalization, has created unprecedented problems for low income citizens. Across the United States, the prices to buy or rent homes are rising faster than the rate at which the minimum wage is being increased, and as a result, some low-income families are forced into precarious living arrangements, while others are forced to become homeless. Instead of addressing the glaring lack of affordable rental housing or the stagnant increases in wages, many cities across America are choosing to criminalize homelessness.

Current policies aimed at addressing homelessness in cities across America are inadequate and further exacerbate the crisis. For example, In my hometown of Irvine, California, there is no designated shelter to house the homeless. Instead, all of the homeless people within the vicinity of the city are shipped off to neighboring cities like Santa Ana. Similarly, some major cities in America have rolled out measures to criminalize homelessness in an attempt to deter it. For example, the city of Los Angeles attempted to make it illegal to sleep in your car, while the city of San Francisco successfully passed a proposition that banned setting up tents along city streets, back in 2016 (Keeling). This policy is extremely harsh, considering the fact that the city of San Francisco lacks enough shelter beds to house their entire homeless population.While the San Francisco city officials may have had the intention of keeping their city safe, laws that criminalize homelessness address none of the structural factors that contribute to homelessness. It is evident that most cities across America are ineffective at addressing the homeless crisis in America, so where can we look to for guidance?

Understanding the differences and similarities in how different nations go about addressing homelessness is important because it gives us a wider perspective on what solution would be best to implement at home. Therefore, I believe the best way to address our homeless crisis in America is to adopt the solutions that have worked elsewhere. An article titled “Four Countries The United States Can Look To When Fighting Homelessness,” by Justin Salhani, features some of the nations that are best at addressing homelessness: Finland, Japan, Canada, and Denmark. According to the article, the Japanese government has implemented a government-led initiative that gives their homeless “temporary housing provision and employment advice” (Salhani). Their initiative has been so successful, that their capital city’s 23 central wards, home to almost 38 million, only have a few hundred homeless people. Similarly, in Canada, numerous provinces have been providing their homeless residents with “permanent housing,” in a program active since 2009 (Salhani). Other countries mentioned in the article like Denmark and Finland, have some of the lowest percentage of homeless people, and the author of this article largely attributes their success to their housing first programs.

Housing first is a homeless assistance program that provides homeless people with permanent housing with no strings attached. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the goal of the housing first policy is to provide “permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness,” and to serve as a “platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life” (Arriaga). The program usually consists of two sectors, a permanent housing program, and a rapid re-housing program. The permanent housing program is aimed at individuals with chronic illnesses, disabilities, and substance abuse-related problems. In this program, chronically homeless individuals would receive supportive services and long term rental assistance. On the other hand, the rapid re-housing program is aimed at more able homeless individuals and gives them short-term rental assistance and supportive resources. Both of these models are designed to give homeless individuals much easier access to housing, so that they can eventually become self sufficient. But is this approach really any different than homeless shelters?

Permanent housing programs are more effective alternatives to homeless shelters, because they offer homeless individuals increased stability and the freedom to earn a living. According to the CEO of the Y Foundation, an organization that provides permanent housing for homeless people in Finland, “It was clear to everyone that the old system wasn’t working [and] we needed radical change” ( Kaaniken). CEO Juuha Kaaniken, believes that the previous system of placing homeless people in shelters was inefficient, and never really helped homeless people gain the stability they needed to get a job and become independent. Why is that, you may ask? Shelters often have schedules, curfews, and strict guidelines in place, that become obstacles for homeless individuals who intend to work a stable job. In an NPR interview, David Pirtle, a member of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, agrees with Kaaniken’s assertion that homeless shelters are ineffective, and he adds that due to the strict curfews at most shelters, “you have to be in line at 4:30 in the afternoon to be able to get your bed back” (Pirtle). This rule requiring homeless people to be back at the shelter in the afternoon in order to be admitted, is obviously not practical for those who want to work. Those individuals are essentially forced to choose to be sheltered and remain homeless, or attempt to work a job while living out on the streets. What the housing first approach does differently is, it allows homeless individuals to get on their feet in the privacy of their own home, and with no constraints or limitations on what they can and can’t do. In theory, the housing first policy sounds like it offers homeless individuals a stronger foundation to make the push to self-sufficiency, but is the housing first policy really more effective at helping more people exit homelessness?

Recent studies show that on average, housing first programs do significantly better in transitioning homeless people to becoming self-sufficient citizens. The Chez Soi project, funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, conducted a study that compared individuals who received typical treatments at shelters, and those in the housing first program. They found that “over 80% of those who received Housing First remained housed after the first year” and for many, “the use of health services declined as health improved.”(Garret). On the other hand, less than 15% those at shelters were reported to have a stable living condition after a year (Garret). These staggering results from the study illustrate that an overwhelming majority of individuals placed in the housing first program gained stability and independence, especially in comparison to shelters.

Not only would the housing first approach yield better results when compared to homeless shelters, but it is also cheaper. According to the former secretary of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) “between shelters and emergency rooms and jails, it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets” (Scott). When homeless people live on the street, they use more emergency services compared to when they live in shelters or in long term housing. A study conducted by The University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research (Hill), reaffirms the secretary of Housing and Urban Development’s claim that sheltered homeless people use more taxpayer money, due to their more frequent need for emergency services when living out on the streets. However, the study goes further, and analyses the cost of placing homeless people in permanent homes versus shelters. To conduct the study, the University of Mexico followed 95 participants in Albuquerque’s housing first program. The study found that “participants cost about $1 million LESS than before entering the program, a roughly 15 percent cost savings” (Hill). This means that the housing first policy would cost about $14,000 less per person. With the housing first approach being more effective at ending homelessness and cost ineffective, it only makes sense that this approach is adopted in place of homeless shelters, but how exactly will States be able to find enough homes to place the hundreds of thousands of people that are homeless in?

The increasing numbers of inadequately housed people do not necessarily imply that there is a lack of suitable housing. In other words, an increasing number of Americans are inadequately housed, not due to a shortage of physical homes, but due to a lack of affordable housing. An op-ed written by a professor at the University of British Columbia, William Rees, links homelessness and income inequality and conveys that the true reason as to why there is a housing crisis is not due to the fact that there aren’t enough homes, but because only a few people control it, thus giving them the power to increase prices as they wish. According to Rees, there are “25,000 empty houses and condominiums in Vancouver; 11,195 more in Surrey, 5,829 in Burnaby and 4,021 in Richmond” (Rees). Reese lists the amount of vacant properties there are throughout numerous cities in Canada, to illustrate just how widespread the housing crisis is. This problem is not limited to Canada, however, but is present in most developed countries including the U.S. In fact, According to 2018 census data, there are more than 1.2 million vacant homes in California alone (Lazzard). But why exactly is this important to know? The abandoned housing could be utilized by cities to help mitigate the housing crisis and construct permanent housing facilities. There is simply no reason for there to be hundreds of thousands of unhoused Americans when there are so many vacant properties. Local governments need to levy harsher punishments on vacant property owners, and expand their eminent domain authority (the power that gives the government the right to take private land for public use under certain circumstances). Local governments can also incentivize homeowners to rent these vacant properties.

The greatest roadblock in the way of the housing first policy being implemented is not its cost, nor its practicality, but convincing everyday Americans. Generally, residents in cities across America tend to vote against proposals that are aimed at assisting the homeless. Even hundreds in my hometown of Irvine turned out to protest the Orange County board of supervisors’ proposal to build a shelter in 2019. One of the residents at the protest, Angela Liu, is quoted in a Los Angeles Times article as saying, “I really don’t know where they can go but Irvine is beautiful, and we don’t want it to get destroyed” (Liu). If residents like Liu feel so strongly against the construction of homeless shelters in their city, how can they be convinced to sign off on the constructions of permanent housing units in their city? What measures would put citizens like Liu at ease?

In order for the housing policy to be implemented, the residents must know that it poses no threat to their community. Any constructions of permanent housing units would therefore need to come with strict measures. For example, these housing units and health facilities should be constructed at locations far from residential neighborhoods, such as the abandoned marine base in Irvine. Also, Incentives should be provided for addicts to engage in rehab treatment, and non-invasive tracking programs need to be administered to track chronically homeless patients. If these precautions are taken to uphold the safety of the immediate community, I believe that the construction of a homeless shelter would gain the support of many Irvine residents.

Many tend to believe that the housing first policy is a radical concept, but that could not be farther from the truth. For one, this policy has already been implemented in a few States, one being Utah. The State of Utah saw a dramatic decrease in its homeless population after implementing this policy over a decade ago. An article titled “Utah was once lauded for solving homelessness — the reality was far more complicated“ attempts to underscore the positive impacts of the housing first policy, in reducing homelessness in Utah. The article mentions that there was a slight resurgence in homelessness in Utah over the past decade, and attributes that rise to a flaw within Utah’s permanent housing policy. However, the author of the article, Bethany Rodgers, also writes that “it’s been more than 10 years since the opening of Palmer Court, the last major project to house chronically homeless individuals” (Rodgers). Although the author of the article attempts to cast doubts in the effectiveness of the housing first policy, this admission of hers makes it clear that the policy was not ineffective, but that the city officials failed to continue to construct adequate housing units at the rate needed to achieve functional zero chronic homelessness. If anything, the slowing down in progress against homelessness in Utah over the past few years shows that any solution would need to be implemented for the long term, and that there is no quick fix to this complicated issue.

After having analyzed the possible solutions around the globe, I do believe that the housing first approach would be the most effective and practical solution to implement today. However, the resurgence of homelessness in Utah shows that this policy will only work if city and state officials across the U.S. make solving homelessness their number one priority. So far, American lawmakers have not proved their ability to work together to implement effective solutions, so it is on us ordinary citizens to do as much as we can to address this crisis before it gets out of hand.

Bethany Rodgers · Published: May 11 Updated: May 11, 2020, and Inc. is a 501(c)(3) public charity and contributions are tax deductible. twitter Follow @BethRodgersSLT Donate to the newsroom now. Donate to the newsroom now. The Salt Lake Tribune. “Utah Was Once Lauded for Solving Homelessness — the Reality Was Far More Complicated.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 11 May 2020,

COLLARD, CAROL. “Community Impact: The Community Impact On Homelessness.” CaringWorks, Inc., 2020,

Dunn, James. “A Systematic Review of Outcomes Associated with Participation in Housing First Programs.” A Systematic Review of Outcomes Associated with Participation in Housing First Programs | The Homeless Hub,

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Hilf, Aaron. “Research Reveals Big Economic Benefits to Housing Homeless Population.”,, 25 Oct. 2016,–10-reveals-big-economic-benefits-housing.html.

Keeling, Brock. “San Francisco Votes to Confiscate Homeless Tents, Fails to Pass Funding to House Them.” Curbed SF, Curbed SF, 10 Nov. 2016,

Lazzaro, Jakob. “Could Vacancy Fines Ease California’s Housing Crisis?” CalMatters, 13 Mar. 2020,

Salhani, Justin. “Four Countries The United States Can Look To When Fighting Homelessness.” ThinkProgress, 29 June 2016,

“Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters.” NPR, NPR, 6 Dec. 2012,