Grace Can Lead Us Home - Housing (Pt. 2)

2022-09-25 Word Count: 1528 Reading Time: 8m

Housing-first Model

In the previous post, I followed along in chapter two covering the idea of the merit-based housing model. In this post, I want to continue with chapter two into an alternate housing model: housing-first.

This part of chapter two details an article written by Malcolm Gladwell on homelessness, in specific Gladwell focuses on an unhoused man named Murray in Reno, Nevada with a very costly addiction to alcohol.

Examining from a cost-benefit perspective, Gladwell determines that city funds would be better spent on housing "Million Dollar Murray" than it currently spends on Murray's "constant arrests, hospitalizations, treatments, and other adjacent expenses." These are costs that city already has to cover. The argument being that if the money is spent one way or the other, it would be better to spend it toward housing Murray and providing basic care than it would be to cycle him through "jails, hospitals, and sobering centers."

The gist of Gladwell's argument is that cities are already budgeting and spending money in various ways that end up being used (inefficiently) on the worst offenders. The better, and cheaper option would be to simply spend that money housing them as the basis for their treatment.

While Nye states he wouldn't put this reason anywhere near the top of his list on rethinking approaches to homelessness, he admits that it is a powerful argument against the first question all politicians would ask, "How would we pay for it?"

I would argue in short that when comparing merit-based or housing-first options, consideration must be given to this simple idea: housing is treatment.

Housing is treatment

Based of the work of Dr. Sam Tsemberis, abandoning the merit-based housing approaches, housing-first is built on the following principles:

  • Consumer choice: The individual experiencing homelessness has options as to the type and location of the housing. Additionally, services like mental health support, addiction treatment, and medical services are constantly offered but always voluntary.

  • Community-based: Housing and services are rooted in the local community, not sent “somewhere else.”

  • Mobile support services: Services are nimble and can be brought to the participants when possible, rather than requiring them to seek them out.

  • Permanent housing: Participants have their name on a lease, and are able to keep their housing for as long as they want it—housing is “a human right, not a privilege to be earned.”

  • Harm reduction: Rather than mandating transformation for problematic behaviors or realities, the focus is on minimizing and mitigating the harm that results from these behaviors.

    These values align with the demands of grace: that love is freely given and noncoercive; that people are met where they are, not where we wish they would be. I don’t know whether the pioneers of this model have roots or attachments to faith, but I see the love of God permeating it all the same. This is one of the fundamental reasons I believe this model works. (p. 59)

Citing Finland and Houston, Nye shows examples of how housing-first methods have either eliminated or reduced by half a particular subset of their unhoused population such as "veterans, youth, or chronically unhoused" returning these populations to a status of "functional zero".

The only expectation of the housing-first model is that people pay 30 percent of their income for rent. This percentage being understood as the maximum amount any individual or family should spend on housing and still be able to meet other necessities. And what if a person has zero income? Then they pay zero for housing while working with a case manager to secure a job. All voluntary.

I can see a major point of contention here is people being incensed to give something free with no strings attached. I think Nye would argue that coercive programs, services required as a condition of housing, do not provide genuine transformation. That a person willfully engages in changing, while having the stability of not worrying about housing, is the most effective method to not only help people experiencing homelessness, but also seeing long-term results.

When individuals themselves are not willing, free participants in their care, it is almost impossible for meaningful change to take place. Just because we give housing first doesn’t mean we default to the methods of the merit-based model, leveraging housing to produce the change we want to see in a person. Treatment has to be chosen without coercion or threat in order to be truly effective. (p. 60)

All of this leads Nye to declare:

For people experiencing homelessness, housing itself is the most meaningful intervention for virtually all other ailments. (pp. 60-61)

In the end, addressing those experiencing homelessness with programs that get them into housing is the first step, not a conditional step, toward those same people beginning to tackle issues relating to health, addiction, or other ailments.

Nye continues:

In this way, housing ends homelessness. Housing provides stability whereby people with other barriers and vulnerabilities can work on them more effectively. With services provided, those barriers and vulnerabilities can be managed, minimized, or eradicated in ways that are all but unimaginable from the streets. When people feel safe, they can truly flourish. (p. 61)

Implementing housing-first models can functionally end homelessness.

Theology of Land and Housing

Using biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann's The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Nye draws out the concept of how important land is in the faith of the Hebrew texts. Furthermore, the idea of how we understand our relationship to land, either by receiving it as a gift or grasping it to possess, undercuts the discussion of how we see the resources we manage.

The warning of scripture being that those who seek to grasp land rather than understand it as a gift, are the likely to lose it.

Bailing Out The Boat

Despite serving a huge number of unhoused people, The Center, where Nye works, struggles against an ever increasing deluge of the unhoused being added to their numbers every day. Basically, more water is pouring into the boat than can be bailed out.

The author then turns his attention to one particular issue: evictions. Millions of people are evicted every year in the US. And in those preceedings:

90 percent of landlords are represented by lawyers, whereas 90 percent of tenants are not. The ability to evict with impunity often puts tenants in a precarious power dynamic, leading to underreporting of poor living conditions or exploitative practices. (pp. 63-64)

Power dynamics at play are a very critical part the issues surrounding the unhoused. Nye shares the story of Christine, a sixty-five year old woman whose family was evicted from their Atlanta home at three in the morning. Having their belongings tossed on the front yard and being ordered to leave, they spend the night in their car. Recounting that they have no place for her family to go, Christine then says:

“When they came for me at three in the morning, they didn’t have a place for me and my family to go, but the animal shelter came because they knew that there were dogs there. They came with a place for my dog.” (p. 64)

Nye points out that if we treat housing as a profit-driven enterprise rather than a basic need or human right, evictions will run rampant. Given that many US and Canadian citizens are spending 50 percent of the income to stay housed, evictions are a real threat to the stability of many.

The author then states that interrupting the cycle of homelessness before it begins is and entry point for Christians and churches.

Nye admits that while housing-first models are great at ending homelessness, there is little it can do to prevent it.


The author concludes this chapter with a look at Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition to various housing opportunities. Even by purported supporters of those wanting to address homelessness.

Regarding political actions that have led to our increasing homelessness situation, Nye writes:

It’s hard to explain the current homelessness crisis without focusing on key policies of the 1980s. The Reagan administration gutted most funding for public housing and aid programs, causing an astronomical loss in the country’s supply of low-income housing that was never replaced. Additionally, the administration removed or minimized social safety nets for the most marginalized. The net result was an increase in people at risk of homelessness, and fewer affordable units to house them. Many sociologists and historians mark this period as the beginning of homelessness as we know it today. (pp. 65-66)

I find it hard to listen to certain detractors about how bad things have become in regards to homelessness and yet would like to see things return to some sort of 80's utopia where things were better. Those same people hardly ever desire increase funding for public housing or social safety net programs.

In the end, Nye questions whether churches, who traditionally own large buildings and segments of land, could do more to help alleviate the housing needs for those facing eviction and related circumstances.

Categories: homelessness review