Now What: Housing The Homeless

10/22/2015 11:00 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2016

Homelessness is a very human problem that we've historically dealt with in a pretty inhumane way in this country. While there are a lot of individuals doing amazing one-on-one work, our overarching policies have historically relied on carrot-stick-type incentivizing that treats homeless people as a problem that needs to be solved, not as a group of people who need our help.

Even the verbiage is stilted in a way that takes the humanity out of things: we talk about "the homeless" in a way that makes individuals pretty faceless, and even refer to efforts to provide housing as "cleaning up the streets," in what seems to be a prioritization of aesthetics over someone else's basic need for shelter.

In this episode of Now What, we meet a psychologist and homeless advocate who is attempting to inject some humanity into our approach to homelessness.

Sam Tsemberis has pioneered a philosophy called Housing First, and the basic tenant is exactly as simple and transformative as it sounds. Sam believes that we've long been treating the symptoms of homelessness, not the root cause. He contends that what homeless people need first, before mental health services, addiction counseling, job training or anything else, is simply a home. And based on the results, he's absolutely right.

In the episode, we chose to focus largely on one person, Tony, and his story as he moves through the Housing First program. We think it's the best way to illustrate the truly transformative power of Housing First, but for folks curious about a more detailed dive into the program, we've compiled a quick Q&A below.

Who is paying Tony's rent?

The Housing Authority of County of Los Angeles (HACOLA) pays a portion of the rent with federal funding from Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Tony, and any other individual granted a voucher, puts about 30% of his income towards rent, and the voucher covers the remaining balance.

Is there a maximum rent he's allowed?

HACOLA has payment standard and will not rent over a predetermined amount, which they arrive at after evaluating rent medians in the surrounding area. The amount is different for each person based on their income and family size.

What are the terms of his voucher?

The terms of Tony's HUD VASH dictate that he must be compliant with terms of his lease, like any other renter, as well as VASH and the Housing Authority. The Housing Authority will conduct an annual home inspection and financial evaluation to make sure Tony remains within the low income bracket or median area income. Beyond that, a person can remain vouchered for life.

What are his obligations to the Housing First program?

Tony has no formal obligation to Housing First. His rental is governed by the terms of his lease, HACOLA and VASH. And if you ask Sam, his real obligation is to serve himself and reach his own goals.