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ANDERSON: Housing now! But what if we're wrong?

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April 03, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” — Winston Churchill

PART ONE

"We've been trying to do the right thing, but the things aren't working," St. Catharines' City Councillor Brian Heit said, framing an argument about the street entrenched problem in a recent regional Canadian article. But the article then goes on to call for more money for exactly the same thing: more shelters, more services, more housing. But are these things working? Is it perhaps time to look at the root suppositions we've been operating under?

Service providers (non-profits whose mandate is to care for the street entrenched) have locked onto the “Housing First” strategy, first popularized by Sam Tsemberis through the organization Pathways to Housing in the 1990s. In effect it argues that the key to chronic homelessness is quite simply to provide housing as a first step along a continuum to breaking out of whatever problem has put the individual in this estate.

The thesis goes like this: street people, many of whom are addicted to drugs, are in crisis, wondering where their next meal is coming from and trying to survive at a very basic level. Clearly this state of crisis precludes getting a job and moving on with their lives, much less breaking out of addiction. Therefore, providing a warm bed and a roof over their head removes them from the existential crisis they are in and allows them to work on the root causes that put them in the situation they're in. So far so good.

Further, many studies have shown a correlation between trauma and street entrenchment. This is the work that must be undertaken once housing has removed the individual from a state of existential crisis. 

What Housing First usually means in the context of the street-entrenched population is free or very low cost, state-sponsored housing, ranging from temporary shelter to long term subsidized housing. As it has evolved in British Columbia, the strategy calls for “low barrier” entry to housing, meaning that one can claim housing regardless of alcohol and drug inebriation and with no commitment to seek treatment of any kind. In theory this satisfies the Housing First prime directive of first being safe and warm, and only then moving on to treatment or life goals. It is a seductive, logically coherent thesis with much to recommend it in theory. 

What are the root assumptions that lie behind this thesis?

First, that all street entrenched folks want the same things socialized, rational individuals want; second, that the housing “crisis” has made housing unaffordable for the poor and destitute; third, that advancement to what socialized, rational individuals consider 'normalcy' is desirable through the eyes of the street entrenched; and finally, that government help is the only – or at least best - route forward for the street entrenched.

Theoretically then Housing First, as a step along a continuum of help that ends at full recovery and entry into the world of the normal, has much to recommend it. It might even work, if implemented as such, but we'll never know. Why? Because for the most part the “continuum” doesn't exist.

Sure, we're busy supplying the roofs, but for the most part we've stopped at that stage. For people with psychological issues we've more or less walked away after closing up our institutions, for the addicted we've bogged down in “harm reduction” (and some argue enabling), and for those who simply need a hand up, we're supplying disincentive handouts.

What if we're doing more harm than good, not only to the street entrenched, but to society writ large? What if we look a little closer?

— Scott Anderson comments and analysis from a bluntly conservative point of view.


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