Roberts: Put housing first, character second

This is the first of a three-part series on Housing First.

They are people who are broke, and broken. They have insufficient resources to sustain housing, and tattered lives with barriers that sometimes seem insurmountable. Some are dependent on substances that misdirect, others are overcome by mental demons. All are unable to stand on their own without some assistance.

They’ve fallen through the gaps of a society that has turned a caring eye away from them.

They are homeless.

We on the front lines of homelessness have worked hard to weave together a compassionate fabric that catches our hurting neighbors from falling into personal abyss. To do this, we changed our service paradigm to focus on getting people into permanent housing first.

For years, we had limited resources to help, and a broken service delivery system that left thousands of our neighbors unable to access permanent housing. The priority was to “prepare” people for housing, by making them “earn” their keys to their new apartment. They had to follow rules, stay sober and even do chores in a homeless shelter. I remember running a program in which we provided an emergency bed but made people sign “shelter rules” that made them find a job, save their money and live a life of good character.

This program worked for some people, usually those who probably would have figured out on their own how to get off the streets. But this “character first” approach failed miserably for people who were chronically homeless (on the streets for years) disabled or struggling with addiction or mental health issues.

These people were kicked out of every homeless program in the region and stayed on the streets for years, even decades. They are now the most visible people on our streets today. We justified this “character first” approach by labeling these people “service resistant,” or saying these people didn’t want to help themselves.

Thankfully, we figured out that if we just help people get into permanent housing and surround them with services to help them overcome their barriers, they will stay off the streets.

Some people thought this housing approach was too idealistic — lazy people would take advantage of the system to get “welfare housing.” Others thought prioritizing housing was brilliant. Whatever perspective people had, cities around the country began to permanently house their homeless neighbors, rather than just shelter them. And it worked.

People who once languished on our streets with disabling mental or physical health issues were moving into apartments, where social workers would visit them regularly. New apartment buildings were developed, so more and more of our homeless neighbors had a permanent place to live.

I wonder, however, whether rehousing our homeless neighbors is really the endgame. Are four walls, a couch and bed, true personal transformation? Or do we dare dream for better?

How do we instill a healthy state of humanity for people once stranded on our streets living lives that we would not even allow our pets to endure?

Those of us in the business of helping our homeless neighbors have for years worked to help people regain dignified lives. Granted, the chronological approach to this — services first, then housing — may have been backward. But transformation was paramount.

Physical transformation is certainly important. We want to get people housed, physically healthy and able to live on their own. But there is also internal, more personal, transformation. This is the character part of transformation. No, not some political moral definition of character. And, no, not teaching people how to follow rules when they are barely surviving on the streets.

I can picture people who were formerly homeless, compassionately helped back into housing. With caregivers coming alongside them, they are helped to reconnect into a community of people and develop healthy personal transformation. And build character.

With homelessness inundating cities across the nation, some political leaders want to go back to the days of providing shelter and instilling rules. Back to the “character first” housing second approach.

But if we truly want to end homelessness, we need to focus on first housing people, then providing the services that will build character.

Housing first, character second.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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