If you have followed anything in the news about homelessness recently you’ve probably read about Housing First. Articles with headlines like, “This City Has a Novel Approach to End Homelessness” or “Radical Ideas on Ending Homelessness” grab attention, but Housing First is not as new as you may think.
Sixteen years ago Dr. Sam Tsemberis was working as a clinical psychologist, tasked with reaching out to those who were homeless and treating them with medications. The results were dismal, but at the time, no one had a better idea of how to reach people who were homeless. Dr. Tsemberis was not satisfied to stick with the same old approaches that were tested and failing. What if we reversed the order, he postulated, and rather than wait until interventions worked, got people housed first and then began the interventions to improve quality of life? The idea he had was radical—but made perfect sense. How could anyone take medications for mental illness regularly if they didn’t have a place to store them safely? How could a person work on addiction issues when faced with a hopeless future on the streets? How could a person heal from past traumas when they were at risk of fresh ones every day and night?
If a person has a safe place to call home, to set down roots, put the medications in a cupboard and food in the fridge, then they can start thinking beyond survival in the coming days, hours and minutes. Most of us in social services learned early on about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: food, water and shelter are the base of that pyramid, and without those things none of us can progress to the next level. And yet, the way our services were designed, we expected people to progress while constantly in crisis, wondering if their basic need for shelter might be filled, and for how long.
Dr. Tsemberis’s radical idea has grown in the past decade and a half. It has been replicated and tested and shown over and over again to have the best results of any other approach to end homelessness. Today, it is evidence-based best practice that is funded across the entire country. It is part of every national and state level training for practitioners and is boiled down into simple checklists. The reason that it still receives the tag line of “radical” and “novel” speaks more to our hesitancy to change than it does the newness of the idea.
Dr. Sam Tsemberis will be HERE, in Grand Rapids, speaking at 6pm, Wednesday, November 16 at Fountain Street Church. Do not miss this!
Event Information: https://www.facebook.com/events/171157259995834/