Let’s start with the premise that housing is a human right. Nobody should be without an adequate, fixed dwelling place, in just the same way that nobody should be without food or water or—as we’d say in the United States—the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The depravation of human rights, in addition to putting The Hague on the map, is offensive to human rights-minded people (which, by the way, and this should go without saying, but it doesn’t: Human rights depravation should be offensive to everybody, but alas, some will never be convinced). At any rate, the notion that housing is a human right has lagged behind other human rights issues more readily described as human rights issues, particularly in the United States.
In recent years, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development has changed its policies and funding priorities so they recognize the right that all people have to be housed. For HUD, this began with attention to the sheltering and housing of chronically homeless men, women and families. HUD’s definition of "chronic homelessness" is very specific, but it delineates the ways it can provide housing for people on the streets who are most difficult to house. Most often, these are single adults in long-term homelessness. Think 15-plus years. Accompanied by a long-term malady of some kind. Think addictions and/or physical and/or mental health diagnoses.
This fairly new national focus on sheltering and housing people who are chronically homeless begs the question, "What was it like before?" The approach that agencies, churches and halfway houses took was linear. At least on paper, that made logical sense, but it failed to fully make a connection to human rights. Generally, the progression looked like this: homelessness—emergency shelter—transitional shelter—an occasional stint in something like a halfway house or group home—permanent housing.
Emergency shelters often look like a big room with a bunch of cots, and in most cases, they serve as a place to get people who live on the streets out of the potentially lethal natural elements. Sometimes, they include bologna sandwiches, nasty coffee and relatively ineffective service provision—"ineffective" mainly because the staff member-to-homeless person ratio is such that limited staffs sometimes have their hands full just keeping their wits about them. Let alone actually helping people get off the streets.
Transitional shelters were a bit smaller, and the service provision was more effective in that staffs could actually meet with the homeless people their shelters served and assign them tasks that would ostensibly prevent regression. The idea with transitional shelters was that at the end of a person’s stay, s/he would be totally ready to move into permanent housing and would never return to the streets again. Those people who were not exactly ready for permanent housing could spend a little more time prepping in a group home-type environment.
And then on to permanent housing. Quite often, when somebody made it to this step, they dropped off any and all service providers’ radar screens. They were homeless. Now they’re not. Why would we or they need to stay in touch?
This entire process was based on a couple of wrongheaded assumptions that inadvertently ran counter to the housing-as-human-right belief. The first was that homeless people were fundamentally incapable of making decisions for themselves. No matter the severity of the homelessness or the circumstances surrounding it, staff at any of these stages knew better than their homeless clients exactly what they, their clients, needed. If the homeless people we serve, so the thinking went, could get out of homelessness by themselves, they would have. But they didn’t. So they can’t. So we’ll take over.
The second assumption was that people move through life in a linear and orderly fashion. But for what person, homeless or not, has that ever been true? But in this model, very little accommodation was made for people who backslid, relapsed, lost jobs, succumbed to illness, succumbed to prejudicial treatment, ad nauseam. If a person was knocked off/fell off his/her path, s/he was usually subjected to some kind of unrighteous judgment on the part of service providers. Instead of "We can try again," the message was "We told you so."
Fortunately, things have changed. The new model, now mandated by HUD for all organizations that receive HUD funding, is homelessness—improved emergency shelter—permanent housing. Get people off the streets. Allow them to catch their breaths in emergency shelters. Place them in apartments. Then—and this is the crucial difference from the former model—surround them at home with all the services they may need: Case managers, recovery specialists, counselors and other service providers now spend time visiting clients in their homes. Any problem anybody ever had is much less of a problem when a person does not also have to worry whether s/he may die on the streets.
HUD calls it the "housing first" model, and compared to prior models, it’s much more conducive to the right that all people have to housing. HUD has given itself no small task by beginning with people who are chronically homeless, but from a human rights perspective, this does make sense. After all, the more chronically homeless a person or family is, the more likely they are to die before obtaining housing. It's certainly a sobering thought that Americans could or would or do die on the street. But the changes HUD has recently implemented will go a long way to not only alleviating this breach of human rights, but to changing the national consciousness about how we address homelessness in general.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.