Last summer, Ivan Nelson moved into a low-barrier homeless shelter in Vancouver after his addiction to crystal meth cost him his job. The shelter didn’t require him to stay clean, so he didn’t. He fed his decade-long habit daily among other residents who were doing the same. Eventually, he was booted out for violating curfew.
A month after leaving, Nelson wandered north to Longview’s Community House, where the drug-free atmosphere and his own willingness to quit finally helped him kick meth for good.
“In my mind, the expectation of success is what leads to it,” Nelson, 35, said of Community House, which requires residents to maintain sobriety, submit to regular drug testing and do chores.
“If you anticipate that (people) can successfully become clean and become productive members of their society, and you set them up with a program where they can attain those goals, you have a higher success rate,” he said. “It’s an entirely different mindset.”
But Nelson isn’t against shelters that accept residents without preconditions — a philosophy of the Housing First model. He said a variety of approaches are necessary for aiding the homeless population.
Nelson’s experience highlights a local and national debate about how best to combat homelessness.
Cowlitz County, which is spending $2.4 million this year on homeless programs, gives preference to those that follow the Housing First model. Housing First centers on providing homeless people with housing quickly and then providing services as needed. Supporters say it’s a proven approach that saves money in the long run and keeps people out of shelters.
However, critics say Housing First is ineffective and draws homeless people and drug addicts to the area. County support for the model has become a hot-button issue in the campaign for two county commissioner seats. Skeptics here and across the nation say the emphasis on Housing First is undercutting other proven approaches to homelessness.
“We’ll always try to take the easier path. Most humans will,” Frank Morrison, Community House executive director, said of the low-barrier approach. “I think if we crack the door, the door becomes wide open for some people, and they’ll just use the system. So don’t crack the door.”
The Housing First model stresses getting housing for people as quickly as possible — then providing supportive services. That can mean finding people permanent supportive housing, rapidly rehousing them or providing short-term rental assistance. Programs that follow this model have few barriers to entry. Participants are not tested for drugs, though low-barrier shelters prohibit them on site.
Love Overwhelming, which runs the controversial Kelso shelter, is among places that follow Housing First principles, though it’s not the only one. Lower Columbia CAP’s low-barrier housing program also abides by some Housing First principles.
Nelson said the low-barrier approach is helpful to those who aren’t ready to get clean, but it shouldn’t be funded at the expense of shelters that follow different methods.
“The crisis doesn’t take place when you fund one (type of shelter),” Nelson emphasized. “The crisis is our budget is limited and putting all of our funds or even the vast majority of our funds into one type of shelter or the other just doesn’t work. It’s not serving the population.”
‘Holding people accountable’
Melissa Taylor, planning manager at Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, said the county gives preference to shelters that follow the Housing First model. She says it’s an “evidence-based” method for meeting federal and state benchmarks for reducing homelessness.
Numerical goals aren’t outlined on a federal level; however, Taylor said Cowlitz County is in the process of determining its own.
Taylor said the county doesn’t yet have enough data to determine the effectiveness of Housing First. She said it’s difficult to gauge its success because not every program in the county strictly follows Housing First principles. For instance, 2014 and 2015 homeless system data include numbers from Community House, which does not follow the Housing First approach.
She said the model is attractive because it removes people from the streets and saves taxpayers money. One chronically homeless person, for instance, costs taxpayers about $40,000 annually for costs such as emergency medical care and jail time, Taylor said. By contrast, it costs between $12,000 and $18,000 to house a person and provide supportive services.
Keeping people housed also keeps them out of the shelter, freeing it up for others, she said.
“Saving money on people that are not as vulnerable allows (the county) to spend it on those who really need it,” Taylor explained.
Morrison questions whether the model saves as much money as people say. He said he supports the three-tiered approach to homelessness endorsed by Ralph DaCosta Nunez, president and CEO of Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness in New York.
Unlike the Housing First model, Morrison said the three-tiered approach recommends immediate rehousing only for those who solely need housing. A Housing Second option is recommended for those who may need education or job training, and a Housing Third option is geared toward those who struggle with other problems, such as addiction or generational homelessness. It focuses on treating their problems.
“I think that if they used the three-tier system, there would be ... way less money wasted because you’re holding people accountable and you’re caring about people instead of leaving someone to self destructiveness and supporting that,” he said.
He said Housing First is just one of many approaches that can be applied to ending homelessness.
“Like Dr. Nunez says, when (people) ended up homeless, weren’t they in a house at sometime before that? And weren’t there services out there available as well? So what makes you think that giving them rental money (is going to change them)?” he asked.
As of the 2016 “Point in Time” count — the county’s way of tracking the number of homeless people in the county — there were 222 people living in shelters and 134 people unsheltered.
Since 2011, when Housing First was implemented, there’s been a 42 percent increase in overall homelessness in the county (however, it’s down 22.3 percent since 2006).
Those who support Housing First said keeping someone housed is better than letting them languish on the streets, where they’d use emergency services and crowd shelters.
Love Overwhelming Program Coordinator Caleb Luther said housing someone can be as simple as providing extra money to sign a lease. The nonprofit recently helped rehouse a family with just $20 needed to change a marriage license.
“We could have said, ‘Let’s get you into a shelter, and we’ll get you all setup in shelter, and then we’ll talk about that ($20),” he said. “Instead, we said ... ‘Let’s get you this $20.’ We did. They were housed the next day for 20 bucks. The shelter was reserved for somebody else.”
Chuck Hendrickson, Love Overwhelming executive director, said diverting people from shelters prevents them from becoming entrenched in the “shelter culture.”
“The greatest predictor of becoming homeless is if you’ve been homeless before because you start to get in the mindset of ‘If I’m in trouble, I’m just going to go to shelter,’ ” Hendrickson said.
Keeping people away from a shelter is the goal of Housing Firest, especially for families with children, he said.
“We want the thinking of ‘I’m going to avoid shelter as much as possible’ because it doesn’t matter what shelter it is. It is a hard place to be, and you become entrenched in this chaotic survival-mode lifestyle,” he continued. “We want to avoid that and get you into permanent housing as soon as possible.”
A sense of purpose
Nelson used drugs heavily during his eight-week stay at the Vancouver shelter, Share House, last summer. The lax surroundings made it easy to continue using.
“If you have an addiction and you know that they are not going to hold that against you in any fashion, then it’s kind of enabling,” he explained. “They state you may not use drugs, but they’re not doing anything to stop you from using drugs there.”
Morrison said guidelines at shelters like Community House create a sense of purpose for residents.
“When people have nothing to wake up to go to and accomplish and feel good about the day, they’re going to feel useless, purposeless and so it really leads them down a road of despair and hopelessness,” he said.
He said the majority of those that come to his shelter have a dirty urinalysis when they enter. Sixty percent of the residents at Community House struggle with addiction; however, they must take regular drug tests to ensure they’re maintaining sobriety. Residents also must do chores, such as working at Community Closet, the shelter’s clothing distribution center.
“If they’re not willing to go put in a couple hours a week in at the store, then I know they’re not serious about their recovery,” he said.
Morrison acknowledges that there is a need for Housing First. It serves those that don’t require drug counseling or job training and simply need a place to stay. But the county needs to broaden its support for homeless programs that take other approaches, he said.
He is among those running for county commissioner, which he has said is in part to ensure the county equitably funds local housing support groups.
Community House forfeited county funding earlier this year after deciding not to comply with coordinated entry — a federally mandated process. Community House said in a statement that coordinated entry “is a dysfunctional system that is not timely in helping the homeless.” Under coordinated entry, Community House was required to send residents to Love Overwhelming to screen clients for housing assistance eligibility and direct them to services.
Even if they did comply, Morrison said he believed the county was going to substantially cut its funding. According to a project renewal review conducted in November 2015, the Cowlitz Housing First! Coalition gave Community House poor reviews.
For example, the shelter received low to modest scores for assisting “people with removing barriers to housing.” According to notes on the review worksheet, the coalition wrote that “it sounds as though they actually create barriers to clients.”
Morrison said he believes the low ratings would have undercut funding for Community House.
However, Taylor said multiple agencies in the county received low scores — not just those that didn’t meet Housing First criteria. She said only three of the 43 criteria considered in the review relate to Housing First.
Five projects didn’t receive county funding for 2016 based on their low scores: Cowlitz Community Network’s CCN Life Skills, Community House’s shelter, Longview Housing Authority’s Landlord Incentive program, Love Overwhelming’s Urban Rest Stop and Lower Columbia CAP’s Housing Retention Team.
In 2016, the county allotted about $662,000 to Love Overwhelming programs, including $195,000 to its Kelso shelter. It gave out more than $2.4 million altogether to programs.
“It is not necessary for a project to follow the Housing First model in order to have good outcomes in these categories,” Taylor said in an email. “But it does help achieve results.”
‘A new rock bottom’
Morrison argues that low-barrier shelters and programs like Love Overwhelming create a “new rock bottom” for the homeless population. It doesn’t give them a sense of purpose to get clean.
“The next spot for some of them is death by an overdose,” he said.
However, Hendrickson argued that recovery is different for everyone and that just as there isn’t a “blanket approach” for ending homelessness, there isn’t one for recovery.
Luther said people often believe that if someone hits rock bottom, they’ll be desperate enough to change, but “that’s just not how it works. It has worked like that for a few people whose stories you hear, and then there’s this thinking (that) that’s the way it should be for everybody.”
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Hendrickson added, “There are some people that say Housing First doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for everybody. Well, it’s the same thing with recovery.”
Nelson, who has been subject to both approaches to treating homelessness, said there’s room for more than one approach.
“This has never been an ‘Us vs. Them’ issue,” he said. “This is an issue of we have a certain amount of funding, and where do we put that funding?”