Saturday, November 14, 2015

Affordable Housing will NOT Solve Homelessness

A lot of people are talking about affordable housing as a means to end homelessness, and while it will certainly improve the chances of people on the street, it will barely make a dent for many of the homeless-- here's why:

When I was a case planner and a housing advocate, I worked with hundreds of people to try and find housing.  Some were fortunate, and we managed to get them into supportive housing, or negotiate with landlords to allow a tenancy.

Most of the landlords who accepted my clients, however, were slumlords, and they had little respect for their tenants.  The slumlords wanted to keep their buildings full, so they allowed tenants to stay if I endorsed them, and if I promised to mitigate any conflicts.  Often, my client would have to be completely honest, revealing health issues, criminal records, or bad credit or renting history.  This personal information can all be obtained today anyway.  Take for example this site, which allows a search by a person's name, revealing how many times they have appeared in criminal court, and information about the charges being dealt with.  It's a horrific amount of information for a homeless person to reveal, but there are 6 landlords I can think of off the top of my head who will run your name through this site before they rent to you.

So my clients had to extend themselves beyond what a normal renter does, and be up front about any shady history they may have had.  This also impacted their tenancy, because if a person was accepted under these shaky terms, and if there was any "trouble", (bringing bottles and cans home from binning, lots of visitors, the smell of marijuana, etc) the landlord would call me and ask me to remove them. I usually tried to mitigate the trouble, but it was very difficult when the tenants were already viewed in such a bad light.

These are just some of the challenges faced by the homeless.  If there are 400 chronically homeless people, and you build 400 bachelor units that cost $500, you would simply make life easier for students and seniors, because they will look a lot better on the tenancy application.  Homeless people will stay homeless if they can't pass a tenancy check, which in my city, always includes the submission of your social insurance number for credit checks.  Oh, you are free to not give them your SIN number, but then they just say "we decided to go with another tenant."

So market housing is off the table for people with poor credit history, and not surprisingly, people who live in poverty often have a compromised credit history.  People in extreme poverty can also have addiction issues as they try to cope with their circumstances, and criminal records (because of course judges like to make "no drinking" orders as part of probation).

But, you might say, we can just build supportive housing, right?  This is the well-intentioned but false belief that supportive housing is somehow unconditionally approved.  It is not, at least not in my city.  We have a "Centralized Access to Supportive Housing"  portal (the "CASH" program, ironically) which governs ALL of the supportive housing in town, and they have very stringent criteria.  First, clients are expected to reveal all criminal histories, including charges, time served and upcoming court dates, past evictions, mental health issues (including treatment and prognosis), they need to have a secured, verified income, AND they need to have me (or another advocate) endorsing the application.  It is much, much harder to secure non-profit or supportive housing in my city than it is to find market housing.  Quite often, I would submit an application to CASH with my client for due diligence, but most got housed through wheeling and dealing with slumlords.  If my client was lucky enough to pass the CASH criteria, and secure supportive housing, the battle was still not over, because if there were any problems, they would be evicted for "the safety of the other tenants," and the next CASH application they submitted would have a clear mention of this eviction...

Welcome to reality, I'm glad you could join me.

What can I tell you at this point?  What do we need to do to save people who are in grave danger on the streets?  I'd like to remind you of how overwhelmingly successful the "Housing First" strategy is(click here if you don't know of it), the idea that you simply give keys to a person on the street, and then support them in their tenancy, rather than screening people. Why is this program so successful?  I will tell you why I think it is.  Housing First is successful because it is unconditional.  If you scrutinize people, some will not pass the screening, and those people will become chronically homeless.  No matter what criteria you use, you will have to exclude some people in a system of scrutiny.

So here is my solution:

Housing First
Education First
Employment First
Health Care First, etc etc

I hope this list makes sense in this context. I am not saying that any of these components should have priority-- though housing is perhaps the most important--  I am saying that we need to lower the barriers, screening, and scrutiny of people who have experienced homelessness.  I was one of the most successful housing advocates on the various teams I was employed on for one very large reason: I never said no. I accepted each and every client as a potentially fabulous tenant, no matter what state they were in, or what they had done.  I trusted them. The enemy is not the lack of affordable housing, it is the lack of trust between the "haves" and the "have nots."

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