Mend Housing First, Don’t End It

by Jordan Davis

My name is Jordan. I have purple hair, a nose piercing, I sometimes curse off the Board of Supervisors, and I’ve flirted with cocaine use (though I never purchased it, never used it in my unit, and don’t do it anymore). I am also a Housing First success story, and it saved my life.

What is Housing First? It’s the idea that homeless people can best recover if they are rehoused with wraparound supportive services, instead of having to “earn” it. I spent only five months in a Navigation Center before I was placed into housing, after which  I was appointed to a commission, got gender confirmation surgery, was able to go vegan, led an activism campaign for permanent supportive housing, and got to recapture parts of my youth, such as going to shows. While there are many people who have done a lot more than I have done, engaged with more services, and even gotten gainfully employed, the primary metric of Housing First success is staying housed—and that is what most of the approximately 10,000 tenants in supportive housing in San Francisco do every night.

But, I get upset every time I doom scroll on X, formerly Twitter, and I see so many ugly trolls, some of whom are influencers or candidates for elected office, saying that we should end Housing First because of the fentanyl crisis or certain horror stories about tenants that get amplified. In reality, despite the many issues in the City’s permanent supportive housing, there are success stories that have been ignored—even if they’re just stories about remaining housed. Sometimes, in these debates, we have to be grateful about how many people are not on the streets.

I find it dissonant that in a city that votes overwhelmingly for Democrats, a party that believes in trusting science in challenging climate change and developing vaccines, there are a group of Democrats and independents who are willing to reject sound social science in favor of gut feelings and repeat exceptional horror stories. Often this is done to push a “treatment first” or “shelter first” modality, often known as the staircase model.

Let’s say that the City decides to implement a staircase model, where homeless providers conduct gatekeeping for permanent supportive housing. What will be required of homeless people to get housing? Who decides who is worthy of housing? Will gatekeeping exacerbate disparities based on race, gender, and disability? How can we trust the policy makers not to move the goalposts? Would providers add extraneous requirements that are irrelevant to housing success? Would someone in a congregate setting be refused housing based on issues that arise only in congregate settings? Will shelters allow clients to have the relative freedom of bringing pets, partners, and possessions, as well as no curfews like the first Navigation Centers—or will they impose all sorts of restrictions on people? How will the City regulate and hold nonprofits running the shelters accountable ? 

As a neurodivergent person, I know that I would never survive a staircase model-based setting:, The gatekeepers would do anything to prevent my success.

Study after study has shown that Housing First works. Even when there are shortcomings, there are better approaches than the staircase model, such as increasing wraparound services, like Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing does. Also there might be independent variables, such as housing costs or limitations on rent control. As for addiction, well, if one had to sleep in the rough or deal with restrictive congregate settings, I wouldn’t blame them for doing drugs; I’d worry about how they can access treatment after being rehoused.

I know I’ve criticized how San Francisco runs permanent supportive housing, but I certainly do not want to end Housing First. I say, “mend it, don’t end it.” Houston substantially cut its homeless population by streamlining its homelessness response system and holding nonprofits accountable for delivering results. In addition, Houston did not rely on run-down hotels in economically disadvantaged parts of town. If we continue to make sure that housing includes culturally competent services and use existing resources to ensure dignified settings for residents, then our city can create a system that continues to improve housing outcomes.