One of America’s Poorest Cities Is Close to Ending Chronic Homelessness

It’s the latest city to reap the benefits of the Housing First philosophy.

(Photo: Keith Levit/Getty Images)

Jan 5, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Advocates in Buffalo, New York, working to end homelessness in their city are crowing about an exciting new number: 22. That’s how many chronically homeless people are living on the streets as of early January, and the number is still falling, according to Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York. That figure is down from the roughly 400 chronically homeless people living without shelter four years ago—and the success is largely thanks to a simple idea.

It’s a philosophy called Housing First, and Buffalo is the latest city to sing its praises. While researchers have studied homelessness for decades, advocates and governments were working on getting homeless people the services they needed until they were deemed stable enough to manage caring for their own home. But an almost embarrassingly obvious conclusion has emerged in recent years and changed the way some cities are helping people find permanent shelter: It’s hard to lead a stable life when you don’t have anywhere to live. Homeless people need homes.

“If you’re living on the streets, you’re just trying to survive the day—you’re not doing long-term planning,” Zuchlewski told TakePart. “When you give someone a home, you take that pressure off of them, and they naturally start to think, ‘How can I further improve myself?’ ”

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that nearly 27 percent of families in Buffalo live in poverty, ranking the city fourth in the nation for its poverty rate.

By getting people into permanent, subsidized housing as quickly as possible with the help of grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Zuchlewski and other advocates have found that people are more likely to stay off the streets than if they are made to wait while resolving other issues.

“There was an old belief that people had to be ready for housing—you had to be clean and sober, you had to be taking all your medication, you had to be seeing a primary care physician,” he said. “When you look at the general population, very few people are like that.”

In other words, it’s easier to address problems like substance abuse and mental illness with the aid of a caseworker after the most basic need—shelter—has been met. Participants in the program, which started in New York in 1992, are responsible for putting 30 percent of their income toward rental costs, and the rest is subsidized for them. How they live in their new homes—sober or otherwise—is up to the formerly homeless (though many apartment buildings participating in the programs have basic rules against noise and other disturbances).

Nationally, Housing First programs have an 85 to 90 percent success rate. (Success is defined as remaining housed for more than one year after initial placement.) Perhaps its biggest selling point for skeptics is cost-effectiveness. In Buffalo, for example, supportive housing costs roughly $50 per night, according to Zuchlewski. Meanwhile, a night in jail or the emergency room—where many homeless people wind up—could cost $150 or $1,500, respectively.

“That’s what really changed the tide,” Zuchlewski said of the cost savings. “If we can’t appeal to their hearts, we’ll appeal to their wallets.”