Coming to Terms with Housing First
By John Ashmen
Very few issues have dogged traditional rescue missions in recent years more than Housing First. Looking only at the schematics, one might assume a sole reason why: Housing First steps around the conventional continuum of care, taking homeless individuals straight from the street and putting them into government-run or government-subsidized apartments.
If such a plot were to play out in the business world, it would be said that Housing First was cutting out the middleman (i.e., the rescue mission). And if this circumvention of their ministries wasn’t irksome enough, some mission leaders will tell you they have felt vilified in the process, being labeled outmoded and wrong-minded. As one AGRM member was told by a Housing First advocate, “Rescue missions are archaic. You perpetuate the problem; we solve it.”
Beneath the blueprints, there are additional, more substantive reasons why Housing First frustrates rescue mission leaders. Three of the more cogent differences relate to results, responsibility, and resources.
Government and rescue missions have fundamentally different definitions of success. Consequently, both seek and tout different outcomes. Government is concerned foremost with ending corporeal poverty, and thus tracks the number of people housed. Rescue missions have historically been called to tackle spiritual and relational poverty, matters that the government cannot and should not confront. Missions, therefore, herald heart changes among the indigent and debased, and enumerate those newly embraced within community.
I have no doubt that Housing First champions want for their new tenants what rescue missions work toward every day: lives transformed, families reunited, jobs acquired, and people returned to a productive life in society. Likewise, I know rescue mission devotees desire for the people they serve to someday soon have safe, clean accommodations they can call their own. The differences are priorities, timing, and conviction.
There is not a rescue mission leader alive who believes a freshly painted apartment can radically restore a pugnacious addict as can the wholly redeeming gospel of Jesus. Mission leaders see regeneration and its ramifications unfolding every day, and are vexed by claims that physical place can launch the same kind of change that spiritual renewal can. But such dogma is folly in a secular society that rejects absolutes—that is, until the Spirit of God reveals truth.
Let’s face it, counseling sessions and classroom encounters will never produce the same kind of numbers that mass relocation can. Rescue missions can’t compete with Housing First’s figures (e.g., 100,000 Homes), and they shouldn’t try. But they can—and should—still celebrate when poverty of any kind becomes a causality of the war that everyone is fighting.
In school, we hated it when our entire class was punished for the crime that one or two classmates wouldn’t confess. In a way, Housing First, is a colossal opposite scenario: All (in theory) of the homeless can get a free or low-cost abode (including the destructive and self-destructive) because it is the right solution for many. In fact, Housing First activists assert that housing is a basic human right, and cite United Nations documents as proof.
Indeed, inequity is a byproduct of the practice. But I think too many rescue mission folks have been more focused on the absurdity of rewarding the abusers rather than on the compassion of accommodating the unraveled. Salvation, we say, doesn’t have to be earned. It’s hard to refute the person who asks, “Why do we pretend that human dignity does?”
On the other hand, the approach of Housing First has a way of extracting personal responsibility from the predicament of poverty: “Somebody out there should be paying for my misfortune.” Government is creating a system that makes it hard to separate those who feel they deserve from those who are desperate to receive. And the rules of the game make “playing the system” easy to do and hard to inhibit. Housing First is slow to recognize (or at least address) issues such as the surge of people at homeless shelters who have a me-too mindset: “Those people got a free place, so why not us? All we have to do is show we’re divested and destitute.”
Rescue missions can’t spend dollars they don’t have; the government apparently can. When fortunes are wasted on government housing experiments that don’t succeed, rescue mission leaders lament the loss of valuable resources that could have funded their addiction recovery programs for the next five years. But such is life in an environment of social justice at any cost.
The temptation for rescue mission leaders to acquire government grants to fund rescue mission endeavors is strong and recurring. It can be done, but it takes a calculating technique—like that of a falcon attempting to partake of road kill in the center lane of a busy freeway. Enjoying the spoils without becoming carrion yourself requires canny intelligence and adept maneuvering. Some try and succeed; most ponder and abandon, resigned to have private donations remain their primary sustenance.
But alas, Housing First is also going after private donations as government funds are drying up. AGRM occasionally hears from rescue mission leaders whose leading local philanthropists have been pressed to switch their major gifts from the rescue mission to a Housing First project.
So What Do We Do with Housing First?
It’s a sad commentary on our faith when Christians are known more for what they oppose rather than what they support. In the marketplace, gospel rescue mission leaders are known to assail Housing First. At one time, I was willing to lead that charge. But I have come to realize that Housing First is a great solution for many people, like that single mom with two kids (and a cat) who had no idea three weeks ago her family was going to be out on the street. At the same time, I will be the first to point out that for every person like that, there are two more who need a life change before they need an address change. But I am rethinking how that should be expressed.
The bottom line is that rescue missions need to come to terms with Housing First. The members of AGRM also need to agree what programs and services beyond sheltering need to be offered so as not to keep people chronically homeless, bound in a system of dependence. And then AGRM needs to establish best practices to see those programs and services rapidly replicated with great success.
Going forward, rescue missions need to:
- Recognize that Housing First is not the real enemy. It is an imperfect system, sanctioned by a conflicted government that is trying to do the most good without the advantage of Christ-centered values. And even though more than a few Housing First advocates outright reject our tenets and mock our methods, we need to save our daily salvos for the one who enslaves and destroys souls. AGRM, meanwhile, will scan for landmines and watch the flanks.
- Help produce reliable data. A rescue mission CEO once told me it was ludicrous to engage Housing First proponents about our concerns if all we had were emotions and assumption. The government responds to research and statistics. AGRM can only get half of its members to respond to even the simplest surveys and data-collection efforts. Because of our size and outreach diversity, we need to be in the 80 percent response-rate range. Watch for information about the next survey and plan to participate…please!
- Expand the definition of success. In evangelism, it’s called follow-up—making sure a new believer is joined to a body of disciples and has opportunity for spiritual growth. In restoration, it’s called housing—making sure that the rescue mission experience doesn’t end with a prayer and a pat on the back. Every rescue mission, regardless of size, needs to have a housing component—its own or one that is the result of a strong partnership with another organization.
Going forward, HUD and aligned government-funded agencies need to:
- Be transparent. Let’s be honest. A lot of government-sanctioned programs have failed. Some ten-year plans to end homelessness are in their second or third decade. Rescue mission leaders are on the front lines. Together, they have centuries of experience with hungry, homeless, abused, and addicted people. They clearly see that Housing First is not a perfect plan. They are affected by the ramifications of miscalculation and are disturbed by the waste. Build trust by telling all the truth all the time. We don’t care about your politics. Rescue mission leaders want to be part of your solution, not part of your problem.
- Take us seriously. Rescue missions are not going away any time soon. The demand for the ministry we offer is greater than ever. In many metropolitan areas, we are the biggest providers of social service. In some places we are the only game in town. We don’t just have ministers, pastors, and priests on our staff, we also have MDs, PhDs, and some of the most experienced clinical social workers anywhere to be found. Our passion for the poor is second to none. Yes, we are faith-based, but you need us at the table. Rescue missions can come alongside and provide the spiritual counseling, when requested, for individuals and families recently housed.
- Make a place for us at the table. There are so many things in so many communities on which we should be collaborating. We need you at our event; you need us at yours. We need to share insights and inspirations. This country is already divided on too many issues. Let’s show what collaboration on critical issues really looks like.
It’s good to see that in some areas of the country, the pendulum is already swinging back toward the realization that shelters are an important part of the solution for undergirding the poor and ending homelessness. I believe we will be seeing more of this as the deficiencies of various Housing First ventures continue to surface. But we cannot point unfriendly fingers; we must speak the truth in love. Again, we want and need to be part of the solution.
In the not too distant future, AGRM will bring together a diverse group of members—a task force—to prepare an official association position paper on Housing First that the association and its members can use when communicating with government and the media. Following that, another team of experts—including government officials, city planners, and nonprofit law attorneys—will be assembled to advise members who run afoul of local politics.
Most of you only have to look out of your office window at 4 p.m. to know that the workload is overwhelming. We can’t handle it all. As the AGRM president, I am calling us to maintain our values, communicate the life-changing gospel in word and deed, continually improve on our methods, and be wide open to any collaboration that blesses the poor and powerless.