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Housing First Doesn't Work: The Homeless Need Community Support

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Homeless advocates from 36 states are gathering this week at the Beyond Housing Conference sponsored by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH). Institute President and CEO, Ralph DaCosta Nunez, opened the conference by explaining the agency's intent when they named the event. Nunez said, "There is a lot of misunderstanding about this issue," that goes beyond homelessness.

Nunez should know. He served as Mayor Koch's Deputy Director when New York City first started tackling the issue of homeless families. He explained that the city's initial approach was a rush to find housing. Families burned out by their homes, or those who lost housing after paying a big medical bill were relatively easy to help. And the numbers were workable. Thirty years ago there were 800 families a year. Nunez said they worked with their re-housing model, but when that number jumped to 5000, they realized the problem wasn't going to "go away." It wasn't even going to "level off." Additionally, and because of a change in direction the federal government took in the 1980s, the situation of homelessness went from a problem to a catastrophe. Today, there are 12,155 homeless families in New York City. Nunez told the group, "Tonight, 55,000 men, women and children will sleep in shelters all across the city."

After praising the War on Poverty for the enormous impact individual programs like food stamps or head start made mitigating poverty, Nunez, a Professor at Columbia University, opined that while the programs were right on, public policy was all wrong.

With commentary that would make any civil rights advocate cringe, Nunez explained that three public policy implementations alienated the average American voter. He pointed out that these were voters who overwhelmingly supported Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society reforms. Nunez explained that the programs had "good intentions," but "poor methodology."

Nunez believes the first mistake made was instituting hiring quotas. People who wanted reforms to help the poor found themselves in line with workers who could cut in front of them as the Great Society attempted to level a playing field made unequal by age old discriminations. Decisions for hiring included consideration of race and past oppression. Unemployed contemporaries vying for available jobs didn't find these affirmative action qualifications germane when it came to competing with the socially underprivileged, if it meant that they themselves remained out of work.

The second mistake was the location of public housing in middle class neighborhoods. As Housing and Urban Development (HUD) started building low-income housing, their efforts to build those homes outside the poverty zone alienated the same middle class voters who had voted for the reforms. The NIMBYs -- an anagram used to describe these folks and formed from the phrase "not in my back yard" -- wanted to help the poor, just not in their own neighborhoods.

Nunez said the third and final methodological mistake was bussing. As part of education reform, poor kids were bussed to more affluent school districts and kids from those well-to-do neighborhoods were bussed to the poor kids' schools. Nunez contended that bussing really annoyed families who often purchased homes precisely because of the school district, and then learned that their kids wouldn't be allowed to attend those schools.

Nunez described the Reagan Revolution -- President Ronald Reagan's political strategy of offering to "get government off your back" -- as a brilliant exploitation of the disgruntled feelings these reforms had caused.

And while the War on Poverty worked, bringing the number of people living in poverty down from 19 percent in 1960 to 10 percent in 1980, reversals over the last 34 years have devastated those gains. Nunez reminded his audience that the reversal wasn't the doing of any one political party. According to Nunez, welfare reform -- a legacy of President Clinton's administration -- "threw another rock in the boat" exacerbating the increasing poverty rate.

Today 16 percent of Americans live in poverty and those numbers are growing. This week's ICPH conference hopes to train 500 advocates from all across the country to understand the underlying causes of homelessness and empower them to go back to their communities with a renewed "Beyond Housing" approach to ending homelessness.

Nunez chided the federal government's current Housing First model. Nunez said that it is all that's left after the other poverty fighting programs have been underfunded or eliminated. Destined to fail, as New York City's own recidivism statistics prove, Nunez described Housing First's one-size-fits-all approach not as "public policy" but rather as "public stupidity."

Nunez encouraged the room to ask: Are people without homes homeless? Are people without homes and with mental illness homeless? Are people without homes and victims of domestic violence homeless? Are people without homes and without educations homeless?

If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the answer, Nunez points out, can't be just homes.

Nunez recommended a three-tiered solution. He said "of course Housing First," for families and individuals who just need housing. But there also needs to be a Housing Second option for folks who need education or other job training and placement assistance. Lastly, there needs to be a Housing Third option for individuals and families with problems that compound their job and/or housing situation. Those requiring the Housing Third model often have other complicated challenges including substance abuse, generational poverty, and mental or physical illness.

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ICPH provides data and assistance to providers nationwide at no charge.Folks interested in changing poverty and homelessness dynamics in their own communities can access staff and statistics at the ICPH website.

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