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Housing first, but not housing only: The 5 principles to resolving homelessness in Santa Cruz

Presented by Housing Matters
Housing Matters

Ending a person’s homelessness doesn’t stop at finding that person a stable place to live. In fact, housing is really the beginning of someone’s journey out of homelessness.

Santa Cruz County has committed to building more affordable and low income housing over the next several years, including Permanent Supportive Housing for those with ongoing and complex medical needs. But an often unseen yet critical step in ending someone’s homelessness is helping that person (or family) integrate socially into the community.

The ability to form strong social bonds—whether with neighbors, friends, church groups, or co-workers—can often be the driver that keeps a person housed over the long term, according to Tom Stagg, Chief Initiatives Officer for Housing Matters in Santa Cruz.

“How do you transition someone from an encampment, where maybe they had close ties, or from a shelter, where they may have been living previously, to start to form those social connections out in the larger community?” It’s a question that can be easily overlooked in debates about how to resolve homelessness, says Stagg.

Yet fostering that sense of belonging is an important consideration for case managers working with people who have previously experienced homelessness. It’s also a core principle of Housing First, an evidence-based approach to resolving homelessness on which Housing Matters bases its programs.

Fostering connection

For someone who is newly housed, simple activities, like visiting a local coffee shop, or a park, or the neighborhood library, can help someone who may have previously felt unwelcome in these places to feel a sense of acceptance and normalcy. This sense of feeling “seen” is key to helping people recover from the traumas associated with living unhoused, says Housing Matters’ Stagg.

“It’s not just the room or apartment, but everything that goes around it. It’s the neighborhood… are they situated where they want to be? Can they find local job opportunities or job training? Can they join a church if they have a spiritual practice? Or participate in activities that are meaningful to them? You want to be able to help them put it all together so that they are viewed as a neighbor and a community member, and not just someone who used to be homeless and that’s all they are.”

— Tom Stagg, Chief Initiatives Officer for Housing Matters

”We all need community,” agrees Ray Bramson, Chief Operating Officer for Destination: Home, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness in Silicon Valley. “Once people are housed, rebuilding that social safety net helps them stay housed.”

In fact, making sure people have ample opportunities to socialize with neighbors and build social connections has become a best practice in developing Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), says Bramson. Things like communal meeting spaces and community groups; holiday events and BBQs for residents; and links to local activities in the neighborhood are all now seen as vital components of PSH services.

However, creating opportunities for social bonding outside of PSH settings can be a little more challenging. “In scatter site [housing], you need to be much more intentional about how you build community,” he points out. “This is where introducing a person who is newly housed to someone with lived experience can be very powerful.”

Social studies

The impacts of social inclusion and community integration strategies in Housing First programs are inherently difficult to measure. Buta 2016 review of several clinical studies that focused on social inclusion found small but statistically significant gains in the lengths of time program participants remained housed based on their self-reported participation in social activities.

Other studies that measure the overall impact of Housing First programs report undeniable gains in terms of length of time housed. ACanadian study that followed 2,000 Housing First participants across five cities for two years found participants in Housing First programs stayed housed twice as long as participants in Treatment First programs. Housing First programs have also been shown to be more cost-efficient for communities, reducing costs associated with hospitals, emergency response teams, and shelter care.

But just having a place to live does not guarantee social inclusion, or housing stability says Housing Matters’ Stagg. Through increased awareness, acceptance, and small gestures of acknowledgment, everyone can help their newly housed neighbors feel like they belong—which can go a long way toward helping them succeed. “When people are housed and stable, that increases the quality of life for everyone in the community,” says Stagg.

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The five principles of Housing First

  1. Immediate access to housing: People experiencing homelessness are given housing with no barriers to entry—no mandated “housing readiness” programs to complete or behavioral health requirements to clear. Still, says Stagg, the language used to describe Housing First models can sometimes cause confusion. “In practice, ‘immediate access to housing’ is affected by the supply of housing. What ‘immediate access to housing’ means is that you don’t have to take extra steps like getting medical treatment before being eligible for housing NOT that housing itself is immediately available.”
  2. Choice and self-determination: People are allowed to decide where they want to live, and what kinds of services they need. The idea is to support people as they make their own decisions rather than dictate their life choices, says Stagg.
  3. Recovery orientation: Participation in clinical services or abstinence programs is not required. Instead, people work one-on-one with case managers to define their own goals for self-care and stability, and then work toward those goals step by step.
  4. Individualized supports: Wraparound services, including counseling and healthcare, are offered as needed (and requested) to maintain housing. People may need other services to stay housed, such as child care or in-home care, and case managers may also help facilitate those supports.
  5. Social and community integration: Support teams and volunteers provide information about local employment opportunities and neighborhood activities and educate people about community resources such as parks, libraries, grocery stores, and bus lines.