Michael Kimmelman in the NY Times:
During the last decade, Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, has moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into apartments and houses. The overwhelming majority of them have remained housed after two years. The number of people deemed homeless in the Houston region has been cut by 63 percent since 2011, according to the latest numbers from local officials. Even judging by the more modest metrics registered in a 2020 federal report, Houston did more than twice as well as the rest of the country at reducing homelessness over the previous decade. Ten years ago, homeless veterans, one of the categories that the federal government tracks, waited 720 days and had to navigate 76 bureaucratic steps to get from the street into permanent housing with support from social service counselors. Today, a streamlined process means the wait for housing is 32 days.
Houston has gotten this far by teaming with county agencies and persuading scores of local service providers, corporations and charitable nonprofits — organizations that often bicker and compete with one another — to row in unison. Together, they’ve gone all in on “housing first,” a practice, supported by decades of research, that moves the most vulnerable people straight from the streets into apartments, not into shelters, and without first requiring them to wean themselves off drugs or complete a 12-step program or find God or a job.
There are addiction recovery and religious conversion programs that succeed in getting people off the street. But housing first involves a different logic: When you’re drowning, it doesn’t help if your rescuer insists you learn to swim before returning you to shore. You can address your issues once you’re on land. Or not. Either way, you join the wider population of people battling demons behind closed doors.
Some people object to the "housing first" approach because it seems unjust; isn't it unfair to give housing to people when so many others have to struggle and scrimp to find or keep it? There are thousands of people in America who don't have their own homes but stay off the street by crashing with relatives or what have you, and many of them have jobs; why should we help people at rock bottom over them? But the cold, hard logic is hard to refute. Homeless people cost cities a ton of money in medical care and police time, and the presence of homeless camps makes some city dwellers cranky enough to leave for someplace else. Homelessness is a problem cities need to solve, or at least reduce, in order to thrive, and by that metric no other policy comes close to "housing first."