Frequently Asked Questions about Housing First for Individuals and Families


National Alliance to End Homelessness

Solutions Brief | November 27, 2006

Is a Housing First approach appropriate for all people experiencing homelessness?

A Housing First approach that emphasizes a rapid return to permanent housing may not be appropriate for all people experiencing homelessness. While there is no definitive evidence one way or the other on the impact of transitional housing on housing outcomes for individuals and families, there are some individuals and families who may desire and benefit from a temporary stay in a congregate residential setting that offers intensive support to help individuals and families address specific challenges. For example, there is evidence that women and children who remain in a residential substance abuse treatment program will have improved employment and income outcomes and are less likely to relapse than women with shorter treatment stays. A transitional housing program that can serve as the residence for a structured substance abuse treatment program, therefore, can be expected to produce better outcomes for parents working to achieve sobriety. Similarly, some families may prefer a short stay in a congregate setting with on-site support as opposed to accessing rapid housing placement assistance. This may include women who have recently fled a violent relationship that may find the support of other women to be helpful well after safety issues have been resolved.

Given the comparative expense of the transitional housing model for individuals and families, it is appropriate for communities to target this intervention model for those individuals and families that face the most significant challenges, thus the richest services are targeted to those with the highest service needs. Given the richness of services in transitional programs as contrasted with other models, transitional housing programs should avoid erecting barriers or imposing service requirements that result in individuals or families with the greatest needs being excluded or terminated from services. Ultimately, a family’s decision to enter a transitional housing program should be made voluntarily and not because other housing options are not available to them.

A Housing First approach can be appropriate for a wide variety of individuals and families including those who do have intensive service needs. There is more flexibility in service delivery in the Housing First model as services can be tailored to match individual or family needs. While many programs offer time-limited case management services and focus primarily on linking the individual or family up other providers to meet their long-term service needs, programs serving chronically homeless people offer much more intensive services that are on-going. Programs can organize services to accommodate the population they serve including those with low- or high-intensity service needs and programs can taper services off as they are no longer needed. In all instances, it is helpful to maximize the use of the resources available in the community for provision of long-term supports of people who have experienced a housing crisis. This can reduce the risk of a subsequent homeless episode and it can allow scarce service dollars to be focused on those for whom other supports are unavailable.

What kind of housing assistance is recommended and how can you help individuals and families find housing when there is no affordable housing?

Housing assistance typically involves helping the individual/family identify appropriate housing options, negotiating with landlords, and intervening when problems develop after housing placement. Housing assistance may also include providing financial assistance for security deposits, rent guarantees, and housing applications.

Developing affordable, permanent housing resources is a necessary component of implementing a Housing First approach―this may involve marketing the program to landlords to develop a base willing to work with the Housing First program. Developing housing resources might also include working closely with the local public housing authority to dedicate housing resources—such as housing vouchers or other subsidies—to homeless populations.

Housing First providers may refer individuals and families to a wide variety of housing options, from private sector rental units to service enriched and permanent supportive housing programs. In some instances Housing First providers own and operate permanent, affordable housing.

While it should be recognized that locating suitable affordable housing is a significant challenge, it is even harder for individuals and families who lack the support in housing search, overcoming housing barriers and negotiating with landlords that Housing First providers typically provide. There is a pressing need to expand the supply of housing that is affordable to very low income people. In the meanwhile, Housing First providers must continue to develop and refine strategies to maximize existing housing opportunities to make progress in ending homelessness for the people they serve.

Almost all Housing First providers offer individuals and families some assistance to pay for housing. This can range from providing access to funds for security deposits and first month’s rent, short-term and shallow rent subsidies and long-term and traditional rent subsidies (e.g. Housing Choice Voucher). Since many Housing First models provide only short-term rent assistance, providing individuals and families with assistance to increase their income through earnings from work and public benefits is a significant focus of a Housing First services plan. Services may include benefit advocacy and helping individuals and families access intensive employment services.

How does the Housing First approach affect the provision of services?

A Housing First approach shifts the paradigm of service provision to homeless people. The goal of a Housing First approach is to minimize the time people are homeless, including time spent in emergency shelters and/or transitional housing. To accomplish this, the primary focus of services is to help the individual or family overcome housing barriers and find appropriate housing. Once the individual or family is in their new home, services focus on promoting housing stability, including working out any issues that might arise between the landlord and his/her new tenant. It is only after the individual or family is settled into their new housing that long-term service goals become the primary focus and it is not the homeless programs that provide these services.

In contrast, the model that has evolved in many communities, individuals and families often receives case management services and supports only while they are homeless and residing in shelter programs. The focus of services in those programs is to help individuals and families overcome challenges so they will be prepared to live more independently when they transition back into permanent housing.

Reducing the length of time families are homeless through adoption of a Housing First approach presents great cost-savings to homeless programs. The cost of the follow-up case management is a fraction of what is required to meet the comprehensive needs of the individual or family who remains homeless for a longer period of time. As a result, resources can be used efficiently and more individuals/families can be served with the same funds.

In a Housing First approach, individuals and families still require case management while they are in emergency shelters to resolve immediate needs. The initial case management in the emergency shelter often focuses on addressing the barriers that prevent the individual/family from re-entering housing. Other services are primarily offered after the individual or family has re-accessed housing.

Voluntary services are offered following a housing placement with the goal of promoting long-term housing stability and well-being. Minimally, Housing First providers offer home-based case management services for six months. Service delivery may vary in length or intensity, depending on the need and goals of the individual or family. With the exception of those who have experienced chronic homelessness, case management is expected to be transitional, therefore, linking individuals and families with on-going need for supports to community-based services is a focus of case management services

Is there a role for transitional housing in communities that have adopted a Housing First approach to serving individuals and families?

Transitional housing can play a very important role in ending homelessness. Unfortunately, transitional housing is not always used strategically in a community’s response to homelessness. Instead, it is often a “waiting area” for individuals and families who primarily require only housing they can afford to end their homelessness and prevent a reoccurrence. Transitional housing providers, responding to this need, are unable to target their services to individuals and families for whom a residential setting with supports can be most beneficial.

Adding a Housing First approach to a community’s homeless system can help transitional housing be more efficiently and effectively utilized. By helping the majority of homeless individuals and families to move more rapidly back into permanent housing in the community, more intensive site-based service programs can be targeted to those who require and desire them. This may include women with children fleeing domestic violence that do not feel ready to live independently and would prefer the support of other women in the residential setting or individuals in the early stages of recovery from alcohol or drug addiction who require time-limited on-site supports and services to maintain sobriety.

For individuals and families who are moved back into permanent housing quickly, bypassing long stays in emergency shelter and/or transitional housing, many of the services traditionally provided in “transitional housing” programs are instead provided during a “transitional period of time” after the move to permanent housing. Housing First providers develop an expertise that is valuable for individuals and families who are preparing to exit transitional housing programs. This includes helping individuals and families overcome barriers to housing, navigate the transition into their new home and neighborhood and shoring up supports available to household members over the long-term. As a result, developing a strong relationship between transitional housing providers and Housing First providers can help the whole homeless shelter system work better.

In some instances, transitional housing providers are Housing First providers. Typically, the transitional housing units are integrated into the community that the individual/family can remain in over the long term. While the lease may be in the name of the transitional housing provider initially, there is an expectation that the individual or family will become the leaseholder, typically at the end of the transitional housing program. In short, there is no expectation that the household will move; however, there is the expectation that the household will became the sole lease-holder, with responsibility for the rent. This avoids the disruption of forcing a family to re-establish supports the providers has helped them establish in their neighborhood which can protect the family from future housing disruptions. In order to be true to a Housing First approach, there is no expectation that residency is conditioned on acceptance or compliance with services. The goal is to help individuals and families’ access housing they can remain in as early as possible – minimizing the trauma of housing disruption and homelessness.

Why are permanent supportive housing and more intensive Housing First interventions reserved for people that experience chronic homelessness? If it is an effective intervention, shouldn’t it be more broadly available?

Many are concerned that the richest intervention – permanent supportive housing and Housing First models that offer on-going, intensive services – is being reserved for a subset of the homeless population, when other groups – including families and individuals who do not have a disability or have experienced chronic homelessness could benefit from this model. In contrast, Housing First programs for families typically offer services that range from six to twelve months and many of these programs provide only short-term rental assistance.

A community’s commitment to ending homelessness typically shifts the discussion on how to allocate resources. There is a focus from the services provided while an individual or family is homeless to strategies that have demonstrable results in preventing or ending a homeless episode. There is also a necessary discussion on how to use existing resources most effectively to produce the best system-wide result. With a limited amount of funding available, communities must assess investment opportunities and the outcome of those investments in ending homelessness.

On one end of the continuum, permanent supportive housing and other housing models targeted to chronically homeless individuals offer intensive, long-term and specialized services in addition to long-term rental or housing assistance. It is a comparatively expensive but effective intervention (and as research has demonstrated, when targeted to the chronically homeless individual it is less expensive than allowing such an individual to remain homeless). On the other end of the continuum, programs are demonstrating that they are able to end homelessness through prevention or rapid re-housing strategies at a smaller cost.

The right approach is to provide a mix of interventions and housing options that can meet the variety of needs homeless individuals and families have. The challenge is identifying the right mix for the community. The first goal, of course, is to prevent homelessness whenever possible. The range of housing and service options available (including stays in residential transitional housing programs) can be targeted based on individual and family needs. Given stable and affordable permanent housing, and access to resources and services in the community, the majority of homeless individuals and families are able to maintain their housing and attain improved social and/or economic well-being. Experience has shown that homeless individuals and families are often more responsive to interventions and support from a permanent housing base, whatever the permanent housing base may be, i.e. an apartment leased in the community at-large, service-enriched housing, and/or permanent supportive housing. Of course, there are some individuals and families who cannot avoid subsequent homelessness and housing instability without on-going intensive services and supports. It is for this population that the more intensive, long-term services programs should be reserved.

What do we need to consider when developing a Housing First program?

Each community will need to assess its existing resources. A Housing First approach can be adopted by one agency or it can be accomplished through the collaboration of agencies with each providing specialized services. The questions that communities should evaluate are:

  • Which individuals/families experiencing homelessness should be targeted for Housing First services?
  • Who will be responsible for referring and assessing individuals/families?
  • Who can provide individuals/families with housing assistance, including:
    • Help overcoming barriers to accessing affordable housing such as addressing poor credit, eviction history, lack of move-in funds;
    • Locating subsidized or affordable units in the community;
    • Developing greater affordable housing resources by working with landlords, public housing authorities, etc.; and
    • Serving as a resource to landlords following a housing placement for problems/issues that may develop.
  • Who will provide the case management services to the individual/family, including:
    • Time-limited and transitional case management immediately after the move,
    • Longer-term case management for individuals/families with special needs, including linking individual/family with community resources to meet those needs; and
    • Helping to resolve crises that may evolve following a housing placement.
  • What funding resources are available?
  • What outcome data elements should be captured?