Conservatives’ Criticism Of Housing First Is Wrongheaded. Yes, Hugh Hewitt, That’s You.

Photo courtesy of Metro Free

(12-17-21) I’m a strong advocate for Housing First programs with wrap around treatment services that help Americans who are chronically homeless, especially those with addictions and/or mental illnesses.

Housing First recognizes that putting a roof over someone’s head is the first step to recovery. Common sense tells us that if you are psychotic and/or addicted it is much more difficult to overcome those problems if you are sleeping on the streets.

Unfortunately, Housing First is under attack by a cabal of conservatives. Most recently, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt launched an unwarranted diatribe against Housing First in The Washington Post. While arguing against passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better program now before the Senate, Hewitt warned that Biden’s bill would squander $170 billion earmarked for development of affordable housing if approved as passed by the House.

“Billions of dollars must not be captured by the radical advocates of Housing First, an innocuous, even just-sounding slogan concealing a counterproductive radical agenda hostile to the idea of placing any conditions on aid for the homeless,” Hewitt proclaimed.

Until I read that comment, I didn’t realize that I and hundreds of other parents and social workers who support Housing First are considered “radical advocates.”

Hewitt noted that he had become aware of Housing First failures after spending an hour speaking to Michael Shellenberger, a former public relations official turned journalist/author, who has penned a book blaming “progressives” for ruining cities, specifically San Francisco. Shellenberger assured Hewitt that the “problem is just going to get worse” if the government funds Housing First. Instead, federal funds should be directed to “traditional providers of shelter — such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities — ” because these “groups and other religious organizations serving the homeless insist that they abstain from drugs and alcohol.” Demanding sobriety and sanity as conditions for receiving government backed housing, Hewitt concluded, “would be a good start for putting the money to effective use.”

Those of us with a loved one who has an addiction and/or a serious mental illness recognize the shallowness of Hewitt’s argument.

True Housing First programs offer more than shelter.

They provide a treatment team and recovery services. A core principle of Housing First is that tenants with mental illnesses and addictions are treated like tenants who aren’t ill or addicted. They are treated with respect and they must follow the same rules as anyone else. If a tenant repeatedly acts up, becomes violent or violates other requirements, they can be evicted. The possibility of losing housing often is a motivating force in getting tenants to cooperate with a treatment team.

One reason individuals fail to recover is because there is no consistency in their lives, especially if they are on the streets. Having an apartment as a base and being seen on a regular basis by a treatment team – the same doctors and social workers – helps individuals develop personal relationships with caseworkers and those relationships often are what motivate someone to get better by establishing trust.

For the past 12 years, I have served on the board of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, whose mission is to support affordable housing and work to end homelessness. I have had the opportunity to interact and interview dozens and dozens of formerly homeless Americans who have benefited from Housing First. What I learned was that most individuals who are chronically homeless already have cycled many times through traditional programs without success because of their addictions and/or mental illnesses. A five-year evaluation and randomized control trial showed that a Housing First approach helped people stay housed long term and reduced public costs.

Overnight shelters are band aids that perpetuate homelessness

Hewitt’s image of overnight shelters is naive. Most shelters limit how many nights an individual can stay, many are dangerous, and few link boarders with treatment services. When I spent several months accompanying a social worker at Georgetown Ministries talking to people on the streets, I asked one man why he was refused to spend a night in a shelter. He pointed at his grocery cart filled with all of his worldly possessions. The local shelter required him and others to leave their carts outside before entering. If he did that, he feared everything that he owned would be rifled through, stolen or destroyed. “Would you leave the door to your house open when you are away?” he asked.

If shelters were an effective tool, homelessness would have been solved decades ago. I remember in the 1970s, spending time at a shelter in Tulsa as a reporter. The men who showed up seeking a bed were required to listen to an hour long sermon about the sins of drinking and using drugs before given cold sandwiches and directed to a cot. At 6 a.m., they were shown the door. From my days walking the streets in Georgetown, not much appears to have changed in fifty years.

Blaming the homeless

An underlying belief being espoused by Hewitt, Shellenberger, and other Congressional critics is that individuals who are chronically homeless have ended up on the streets because of their own actions. The chronically homeless are choosing alcoholism and/or drugs, or have become mentally ill and don’t want to do anything about their psychosis. Housing First, the critics argue, rewards bad behavior. The philosophy underlying this thinking is that “no one has a right to a government benefit unless they have proved themselves to be deserving or worthy.”

This thinking makes it easier to sleep at night because acknowledging that Americans who are chronically homeless are helpless in fighting their addictions and/or their mental illnesses pricks at the conscience and demands a helping hand rather than pious judgment.

 “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked.

According to Hewitt’s thinking, only those who are clean, sober, and not showing symptoms of their mental illnesses.  In short, he excludes those who need it most.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.