Beyond Housing First


If there is one thing Californians agree on, it is that we have to do something about the inhumane drug addiction and mental health crisis proliferating across our cities and towns. The situation is dire for those most in need of help, and the status quo costs the state and local governments billions while having little to show for it. Furthermore, the crisis undermines public safety by straining local fire departments, law enforcement agencies and other emergency response resources.

Although widespread acknowledgment exists that the current approach needs to be improved, there is no consensus on the best path forward. For example, one popular strategy among homeless advocates, “Housing First,” is based on the idea that everyone living on the streets is entitled to permanent housing, even before addressing any outstanding mental health or addiction issues. While this sounds nice in theory, in practice, “Housing First” is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse concerning treatment, recovery and, ultimately, housing stabilization.

This is not to suggest that housing isn’t a critical piece of the puzzle in solving California’s homeless crisis – it is. Let me be clear in stating that I strongly support policies that encourage housing development of all types – including rent-stabilized and permanent supportive housing. Lowering the cost of housing is also a critical factor in ensuring folks don’t end up homeless in the first place.

But the problem with “Housing First” is that it prioritizes permanent housing without considering the steps one needs to take before safely and responsibly living in a stable housing situation. In other words, “Housing First,” by deprioritizing drug treatment and transitional shelter, lets perfect be the enemy of good.

Inhumane Living Conditions

If one needs evidence that housing alone is insufficient in addressing drug addiction and mental health, one needs to look no further than this alarming deep dive by the Los Angeles Times into the collapse of the Skid Row Housing Trust.

Once a darling of local LA media and homeless advocates, the Skid Row Housing Trust was a non-profit housing provider that owned and operated over two dozen residential buildings in Downtown Los Angeles. But, according to the LA Times piece, a series of managerial failings and poor financial decisions led the Trust’s Board of Directors to vote to break up the organization last October.

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Adam Mayer is an architect and interior designer based in California, and founder of Studio-AMA. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamNMayer

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