New national homeless plan cracks down on ‘housing first,’ puts more emphasis on rehab programs

San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 19, 2020

By Kevin Fagan


A new national strategic plan on homelessness is mostly a get-tough document that is already rankling experts and program managers who favor giving hard-core street people housing with few conditions so they’ll stay inside.


The plan, titled “Expanding the Toolbox: The Whole-of-Government Response to Homelessness,” was released Monday by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the main federal agency guiding homeless policy and advising the president.


Much of it contains suggestions that homeless-aid agencies already support, such as calling for more mental health treatment and affordable housing — but the flash point comes when it calls for a sharp rewrite of the technique called “housing first.”


That approach, which places homeless people into housing before they are sober or successfully treated for mental illness, is not as successful as it should be because there are no requirements for those coaxed inside to participate in programs to overcome their problems. Instead, the plan argues, enrolling in rehab — if a person needs it, which many chronically homeless people do — and becoming healthy should be integral to staying housed.


“The big picture is that the status quo is not working, and homelessness is increasing across the board,” interagency council Executive Director Robert Marbut, who led creation of the 29-page plan, said Monday. “We need change.”


Marbut said that simply giving homeless people housing without requiring any rehab they need is like enrolling in a rehab center and not requiring participation or progress.


“How can you make progress like that?” he told The Chronicle. “Yes, we should house people quickly, but then have some requirements so they can improve and perhaps become self-sufficient.”


The report points out that unsheltered homelessness in the United States grew 20.5% between 2014 and 2019 to 211,293 persons, while supportive housing and emergency “rapid rehousing” with permanently subsidized beds rose 42.7%. This result, the report contends, demands a different approach because it seems creating so much housing should have reduced homelessness, when it actually grew.


That significant rise in homelessness came after 2013, when federal policy emphasized the no-requirements housing first approach after years of progress in reducing street homeless numbers, he said. Marbut also said federal funding for homeless programs has doubled in the past decade to $6.7 billion a year, which he contended further supported his point.


“Stakeholders must consider innovative ideas and reject the notion that there are any sacred cows,” the new plan says.


Though the council is only an advisory body and the plan lays out no funding proposals, its proposals weigh heavily in influencing funding decisions at federal agencies.


“Expanding the Toolbox” is Marbut’s first major imprint on national homeless policy since he was appointed in December by President Trump.


Marbut has made stiffening requirements for retaining housing an emphasis of his for many years, as he created and advised homelessness programs throughout the country as a consultant and program leader. When he was appointed, many homelessness advocates said they were worried that he would strongly push that approach.


Releasing the new plan a few weeks before election day is tight timing, considering it may be rendered moot if Trump is not re-elected.


The housing-first model has been a linchpin of national and many state and local programs, including those in California and San Francisco, for more than a decade, and the current federal approach toward homelessness was largely shaped by the Obama administration. So dramatically redefining it would be a hefty lift under a Democratic leadership.


Reaction from San Francisco officials was muted as they waited to see what effect the plan might have.


“San Francisco is committed to a Homelessness Response System built on a foundation of equity and has long been an advocate of housing-first approaches,” Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said by email.


Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C., said the new plan “really mischaracterizes housing-first,” and is wrong-headed in saying an increase in beds should match a reduction in homelessness. The real driver for the rise in homelessness has been skyrocketing housing prices and other poverty-inducing factors that far-outstripped the supply of aid.


Requiring people to participate in programs will only result in residents getting kicked out of their housing, and there aren’t enough alternatives to them simply going back to the streets, she said.


“Most of the recommendations in the plan are pretty benign and very vague,” Roman said. “People should be employed? Yes. We need more housing? Yes? People should get more services? Yes.


“But it’s not really a strategy. There’s no description of what the federal government should do to make those things happen. It’s mostly an attack on housing first.”


Although Marbut guided its creation, the new plan was compiled with input from dozens of organizations — from the 19 federal agencies that constitute the council, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development — to nonprofits including the National Head Start Association.


And there are elements in the plan that will probably please more-liberal advocates of homeless policy. One is the pronouncement that “mental health services need to be significantly expanded,” and that there should be more focus on treating dual diagnosis conditions of substance abuse combined with mental illness.


The other is the recommendation — slightly surprising considering Trump’s heavy emphasis on law and order — that instead of arresting or citing homeless people for quality-of-life offenses such as sleeping in the street, there should be a greater emphasis on getting people services.


“When appropriate, utilize multi-disciplinary homelessness outreach teams,” the report says. “Divert people from the criminal justice system, while supporting long-term stabilization.”

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