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Housing First Won't Solve Our Problems

Emily Kingsley's picture

When I was researching for my internship at The Haven, one of the primary facts that I knew about the organization was that they subscribe to the Housing First model. This means that they provide housing as a first step towards ending homelessness. While earlier approaches saw housing as something to be gained once someone has reached benchmarks like attending treatment or getting sober, the Housing First philosophy is radical in its simplicity: Housing comes first, self-directed treatment comes later. Knowing that The Haven was grounded in this orientation to homelessness reassured me somewhat about my decision to work there. In my mind, working at a homeless shelter reeked of old fashioned volunteerism and problematic charity dynamics. However, I hoped that Housing First would at least gave me some cred in activist circles. It seemed like a progressive approach to an entrenched inequality, and it has stirred up a positive media response in recent years, like this segment on Jon Stewart, which provided my first introduction to Housing First long before I started working at The Haven:

Yet, as I went through my internship this summer, I started to develop a more critical perspective on the model—thinking about what it could and couldn’t do, and wonderingwhat criticisms of it might already exist. Indeed, this was a really interesting time to be working at a Housing First shelter. The approach is still new enough that when people in housing circles talk about it, it is treated as a glittery, cutting-edge policy draped in the optimism that it might actually end homelessness. Housing First certainly has done a lot of good; putting people into homes instead of jails or hospitals or forced treatment centers is not only more compassionate, but it has also proven to be more effective and more cost-efficient. This brief article from the National Alliance to End Homelessness offers a quick summation of these points and encapsulates many of the sentiments and slogans that I heard throughout the summer:

Overtime, though, I started to wonder what Housing First wasn’t doing. It all seemed too perfect, too straight-forward a solution, and I got the sense that something had to be missing. I began paying attention to what kinds of conversations that weren’t being had at The Haven, and this clued me in to a major missing link in the Housing First dialogue: Capitalism. Indeed, one thing that I’ve never really heard discussed in all of the Housing First hubbub is the inherent connection between homelessness and capitalism, or the fact that Housing First is designed to operate within a capitalism framework. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the magic of Housing First is that it is that it is designed to provide housing without challenging any financial or governmental institutions in the process.

By using government funds to rent homeless people houses in the private market, Housing First service providers are finding ways to squeeze the unhoused into the cracks of an inequitable system. These providers have been incorporated into the “shadow of the shadow state,” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it in her essay of the same title (Revolution 41). This phrase, originally coined by professor Jennifer Wolch, refers to “the rise of the voluntary sector that is involved in direct social services previously provided by wholly public New Deal/Great Society agencies” (Revolution 45). In other words, the shadow state is made up of non-profit organizations like The Haven who have taken on work that the government used to do itself. Instead of an official governmental body carrying out the Housing First game plan, the money is instead channeled to organizations at the state and local level that then disperse these funds themselves. 

There are certainly some benefits to this approach to homelessness. For instance, the government’s reach has been exponentially broaden by the creation of housing organizations and homelessness Continuums of Care (COCs) across the country who can dole out HUD funds to people in their communities. At the same time, there are some serious flaws that haven’t been widely addressed. When non-profit organizations are so fully reliant on government funding and HUD grants to support their work, they lose much of their agency and autonomy in decision making. As Gilmore observes, when these organizations “have had to conform to public rules governing public money…. being fiduciary agents in some ways trumps their principal desire to comfort and assist those abandoned to their care” (Revolution 46). The bottom line, then, is that Housing First non-profits are helping the government extend the life of capitalism by building a bureaucratic power house that can produce enough success stories to keep the public happy and  to maintain a sense that homelessness can be solved without forsaking capitalism.

This, though, is something I’ve just. Stopped. believing. Homelessness and economic inequality are part and parcel of the capitalist regime, and until we start confronting this reality on a broader scale (something many grassroots groups are already doing), I am doubtful that homelessness and housing injustice will be going anywhere. Housing First is in so many ways a significant improvement on punitive and paternalist programs that take away people’s agency by forcing them to check off boxes and fulfill requirements before they can even become eligible for housing. At the same time, I have become increasingly convinced that elevating Housing First to such an uncritical and venerated position is a bad idea. We need to think in broader, more interconnected, and more radical ways if the goal is long-lasting change and true housing justice.

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, editor. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Cambridge: South End Press, 2007. 


Marie Douglas's picture

Emily Kingsley, thank you so much! That's exactly it: homelessness is a result of capitalism. I was homeless from 10/2014 to 12/2016. Right now, I'm only 1 step beyond being homeless: renting a room in a not-well-maintained transitional housing building. I've got to come up with 550 a month for rent, I have ptsd from decades of abuse/neglect/racism and oppression, and I struggle to find a work environment I can deal with, long-term. I want to figure out a way to claim the right to live OUTSIDE of capitalism. It seems most of us are forced, by dent of where we're born, to follow the "rules" and live inside somebody else's lines. I am a being of the Earth, and I want to exercise my right to live directly with the Earth, taking care of my local ecosystem, while also providing my own food, shelter and clothing, from Earth, plants and animals. Thanks again for speaking out on this!