The Insidious Side of the ‘Housing First’ Model?

I have great respect and appreciation for the Housing First model. The proposition of Housing First, overly abbreviated, is as follows: the most effective way to constructively help a person address complex health and psychological challenges requires providing a stable and safe place to live. Until this safety and stability are in place, all the interventions in the world — medical, financial, psychological, etc. — are likely to fail in the long run. This logic makes intuitive sense to me, and from what I can tell, there is a significant and growing body of research to back it up.

While I support Housing First in principle, I also wonder if there is an unintentional yet insidious dark side to the model. The dark side happens at the level of unconscious bias: when we preach housing as the critical first step for health and stability, we might also be positioning and normalizing an economic standard of accommodation as a prerequisite for participating in mainline society. From this perspective, one might imagine scenarios wherein Housing First unintentionally reiterates the stigma of homelessness itself.

Put it another way: a great many people like me who advocate for Housing First also happen to have homes ourselves. It doesn’t take rocket science to hypothesize how we might have some assumptions about the relationship between housing and a ‘normal role’ in ‘respectable society.’ What am I trying to get at here? Underlying class assumptions. Housing First indirectly reinforces an idea that ‘success’ in society involves living in a house. Get every person in a house — whose metric of success is this? ‘Housing as solution’ is an assumption that, in a perverted, roundabout way, potentially exacerbates prejudice against ‘the homeless’ — the very people that Housing First wants to help.

If your health and ability to participate in your society is so wholly dependent on living in a house, should we blame you, the absence of a roof, or the caste that excludes people without steady accommodation? And if by giving you a shelter we then grant you access to the privileges of the housed, have we changed anything about the structure of exclusion that privileges us folks with roofs? Does upgrading you into my caste solve any of the underlying inequities?

This post is only one critique of Housing First, which is promising in many more ways than encapsulated here. The volume of research that ties health and overall well-being to secure housing seems reasonably indisputable, at least so far as I can tell as a non-expert in the field. I’m confident to say this constitutes a fact: it is healthier to have a dry, warm, and safe place to live than nowhere to live. On these grounds, I will advocate for housing unabashedly. And yet, at the very same time, I hold this conflict: I’m aware of the normative class assumptions lurking in the shadows, no less in the shadows of my well-intentioned advocacy.

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