Are We Really Reducing Harm?

I understand that the Housing 1st push to provide Permanent Supportive Housing along with The Harm Reduction Model (allowing drug use in the privacy of one’s unit within Permanent Supportive Housing) is being touted From Washington D.C. to Los Angeles as the latest silver bullet to end homelessness, but has anyone considered housing options for those who want to remain sober and reside in a sober and safe environment?

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Both And

I believe that advocates for people experiencing homelessness have made a big mistake in taking sides in the Housing First struggle, pushing for an either/or approach to responding to and ending homelessness in the U.S.

This news article from Columbia, South Carolina also spells out the problem:

Columbia Phasing Out Backing of Homeless Project

By ADAM BEAM,  McClatchy Newspapers

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Columbia is phasing out its support for Housing First, the program that places the chronically homeless into permanent housing scattered throughout the city.

The program, which began in 2007, is operated by the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and the Columbia Housing Authority. Its contract expired in June but was renewed for another year.

But with a shrinking budget, council members have asked Housing First officials to begin looking elsewhere for the $247,166 it takes to run the program.

Housing First was a shift in the city’s homeless strategy, focusing on placing the homeless in private, permanent housing around the city instead of concentrating all of its homeless services on one comprehensive shelter.

But Housing First targets the chronically homeless, defined by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development as people who have been continuously homeless for a year or more or who have had four instances of homelessness in the past three years. It does not serve the larger temporary homeless population – folks who find themselves suddenly homeless after a job loss or an accident.

For that reason, the city has begun shifting its money back to a homeless shelter-based approach.

It continues to operate a $500,000 winter homeless shelter and has agreed to contribute $250,000 to the Midlands Housing Alliance, which is building an $11.7 million homeless center. Council members say they can no longer afford the money it takes to place Housing First’s clients into permanent housing.

“We’d love to, but you can’t serve as many people with Housing First,” Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said. “We still have an obligation to provide the winter shelter.”

While Housing First is expensive, it avoids one of the major pitfalls of homeless services by not having a homeless shelter. Instead, clients are placed in apartments evenly divided among the city’s four council districts. That’s a big selling point for local residents, who often oppose homeless shelters near their neighborhoods.

Most homeless services operate by first providing homeless people with job training, health care and mental health counseling before the ultimate goal of transferring them to permanent housing. But Housing First is the opposite, providing the permanent housing first, followed by the other services.

“We actually find that by providing housing first, you end up with people being clean and sober and people with employment and people with income and people with health care,” said David Parker, University of South Carolina’s director of research and assistant professor at the Department of Medicine who runs the Housing First program.

Since its inception, Housing First has placed 54 people into permanent housing. Of the 54, the average time they were homeless is eight years, Parker said.

The Columbia Housing Authority works to place the clients into permanent housing and train them on how to live in a house.

“The first person we moved in was 15 years on the streets. He doesn’t know how to clean an oven,” said Nancy Stoudenmire with the Columbia Housing Authority.  Currently, the program has 20 people in apartments throughout the city. Thirteen of them are paying a portion of the rent, Stoudenmire said.

Eight clients have successfully transitioned out of the program into independent housing, Parker said. They include a woman whose Housing First apartment was originally furnished by another local nonprofit organization.

“She was so grateful to that nonprofit for (buying the furniture) – she basically made a donation that would cover furniture for somebody else’s apartment,” Parker said. “We get to see a completely different side of homeless people than is often publicized.”

As for the future of the program, Parker and Stoudenmire say they are trying to find grant money to keep it going, including pursuing funding from the Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program.

If it is able to survive, Parker said Housing First also would help out other homeless service providers in the area.

Read more here.


I recently saw an opportunity for HOME funds to come down from the Federal Government to LA County, and in the description of the funding it mandated that these funds can only be used for Permanent Housing Opportunities.

At a time when we are facing the biggest need ever, and I mean the biggest need in the history of Union Rescue Mission’s 119 years, even bigger than the Great Depression, this restrictive description of the funding was difficult to hear.  Let me first describe the need. In 1933, there were 1.2 million people residing in L.A., and URM fed 133,000 meals.  Last year, there were 3.6 million people in the City of Angels, and we fed 1.25 million meals!  That is a 3 fold proportionate increase in need and services, and we are just 1 of many missions/shelters today, rather than being one of the only ones as we were in 1933!

We ourselves are struggling with how to divide our resources.  Do we move all of our resources to our Hope Gardens Family Center or keep all of the resources at our downtown URM emergency response?  Do we let public officials cry out Housing First only, move all resources to provide permanent supportive housing for the 20% of people experiencing homelessness who are the most chronically homeless and away from the 80% who are episodically experiencing homelessness or who are experiencing homelessness for the first time?

It may be an easy public policy decision to move all of the resources to Housing First only, but when you are on the ground, facing a tsunami of families with children, including one little 4 year old guy named Dorian, who is struggling with a terminal illness, it is a bit more difficult to make the decision to close the shelters/emergency responses down and move the resources to building only a few permanent housing units compared to the vast need. It is like picking a few drowning victims out of an ocean full of need.

If the full truth be known, in that 80% of people experiencing homelessness, there are many who, if their needs go unmet and they are denied emergency services, will in fact end up as the chronic homeless people of tomorrow.  Studies show that the adults experiencing chronic homelessness today were the children who experienced homelessness and poverty a generation ago.  They were sick twice as often, their self-esteem was hurt, they fell behind in school, they were in and out of foster care, and they became our chronically homeless people. That means that our children today experiencing homelessness will be our chronic homeless adults of the future, unless we quit the either/or approach and take a common sense, aggressive Both And approach like Union Rescue Mission’s own You Are The Mission 10 Step Initiative to end homelessness.

As Columbia, South Carolina realized, you can’t turn your back on the multitudes to help a few, but I believe that unlike Columbia, our decision needs to be to step up and provide the much needed help of permanent supportive housing for the few, while still doing everything we can to address the needs of many, and not let one precious human being experience the brutality of life on the streets.

To read more about this subject, check out this article by Ralph Da Costa Nunez, “One Size Does Not Fit All

As always, I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


Housing First Push

Lots of folks are pushing the Housing First model as a solution to homelessness. Recently, an LA County Supervisor encouraged the business community to move all of their resources into Housing First and away from other, as one spokesman described, “archaic” models.

I fully support Housing First as a fabulous option, and indeed support the County’s Project 50 program, and even the planned Project 500 directed at placing the most chronic, physically and mentally challenged homeless people in our city into permanent supportive housing.

However, I need to share that the Housing First model is part of the solution to homelessness and that a continuum of housing is the answer to homelessness.

Let me start by explaining what we do at Union Rescue Mission. Some folks describe us as simply a shelter. We are much more than a shelter. We are the oldest rescue mission in Los Angeles—one of the largest, if not the largest rescue mission in the U.S. We are the only mission in downtown Los Angeles that houses single men, single women, women with children, two parent families with children, and single dads with children. In addition, we are one of the few in the County that accepts teenage children.

We provide meals and shelter to perhaps more people than any rescue mission in the U.S. Many days we provide nearly 3,500 meals! Many of those who eat at Union Rescue Mission live in the Housing First-permanent supportive housing that surrounds us on Skid Row. We provide emergency shelter and meals to 260 single men each night. We provide emergency shelter and meals to 200 single women each night. During the rainy winter months from December 1st to March 15th, we double our number of emergency guests through a partnership with EIMAGO, our public benefits charity, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

We also provide emergency shelter and meals to 35 single moms with 60 children each night. During the winter months this last year we saw, through our partnership, 7 times the number of homeless families coming to our winter shelter sites compared to the year prior. These are folks that would more than likely be on the streets each night, if not for Union Rescue Mission.

I would be the first to agree that shelter and meals alone are not the solution to homelessness. Shelter alone would mean the mere warehousing of precious human beings made in the image of God. However, at their worst these shelter beds provide a roof overhead and a waiting area for entrance into permanent supportive housing opportunities. At their best they provide a staging point for an opportunity for entrance into a long term program that could change their life.

When it comes to life transforming long-term program opportunities, Union Rescue Mission again leads the way among Los Angeles providers and in rescue missions throughout the U.S. We have 170 single men in an intense 1 year training program. These men attend hundreds of programming hours in classes on relationships, overcoming addictions, anger management, Bible study; hours in our Learning Center; in physical education; in work therapy and volunteering throughout the Mission. Then they proudly graduate in a cap and gown after successfully completing their year commitment to the program. If you doubt the transforming power of this program, please attend our upcoming Men’s Graduation on Sunday, June 28th, at 3 P.M., in our URM Chapel.

After graduation, our men have the option to move into a 6-12 month transition phase for securing a job and saving money as they prepare to move out on their own. We have 60 men in this transition phase. This totals over 200 men in our programs. We have 16 single women in our 6 month, life transforming program as well. This includes many of the classes mentioned above, but focused on women’s issues.

This Fall, when the economic downturn hit hard we launched Project Restart, a mini-program of sorts, to house and assist 2 parent families and single dads with children who are new to homelessness. The goal is to launch them quickly back into employment and housing. We currently have 15 families and 34 children in this program on our 5th floor.

We also have 30 moms and 60 children at our long-term, transitional housing program at Hope Gardens Family Center. This facility provides a safe environment for single moms and their children. Moms have the opportunity to save money while they further their education and career skills in order to gain employment and provide a home for their children. Hope Gardens also provides permanent supportive housing to 22 senior ladies. These precious elderly women have finally found a permanent home, bringing their cycle of homelessness to an end.

I share all of these statistics to say, URM is much more than a shelter! URM is a continuum of housing within the much needed continuum of care.

The Housing First model—permanent supportive, forever subsidized care—is certainly the best model for people who are physically and mentally challenged; for those who will likely never recover from the devastating effects of homelessness. These precious folks make up about 10 to 20 % of people experiencing homelessness. This percentage also includes families with parents who are debilitated, or families that, for whatever reason, decide to pass up on a life-changing opportunity like Hope Gardens Family Center. They are those that choose instead to move to permanent supportive housing, or, what I would describe as, “Survival and Subsidy.”

The next 60%, the largest portion of people experiencing homelessness, are struggling with a mountain of issues. But those issues may very well be temporary, or at least not insurmountable. This is where life-transforming programs take the stage. Long-term, intensive programs at places like Union Rescue Mission, Los Angeles Mission, Weingart Center, Midnight Mission, and even our own Hope Gardens Family Center, provide folks an opportunity to work hard and a chance to turn their life around.

The final 20% are folks like our first-time homeless families in our Project Restart program. They have, through a series of misfortunes, stumbled into homelessness. They possess job skills and resources to quickly get back on their feet, get back into the job market and into the normal housing market. Housing First’s permanent supportive-permanently subsidized housing would not only be inappropriate for them, but it would in the end be debilitating to their genuine well being.

I would argue that there is a need for this entire continuum of housing as a solution to homelessness. I also recognize that we certainly need to make the shelter experience as short, as welcoming and dignity affirming as we can, given the limited resources.

Affordable housing is a part of the continuum of housing that I have not mentioned, and it is a vital part of the continuum that must be enhanced so that folks in the 80% final two categories I discussed will have a housing option after completing their life transforming program, or after completing a program similar to our Project Restart.

Thanks for listening and please weigh in with your comments!
Andy B.