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Five years in, advocates say Housing First model is effective, but not a perfect solution

Using a jacket as a blanket, a man sleeps on the floor while others eat breakfast at the Homeless Alliance's day shelter in October in Oklahoma City. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archives]

Using a jacket as a blanket, a man sleeps on the floor while others eat breakfast at the Homeless Alliance's day shelter in October in Oklahoma City. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archives]

Five years after it was implemented, Oklahoma City officials and advocates say a plan the city adopted for moving homeless people into housing has been the most effective approach to getting the city's most vulnerable people off the street.

But a lack of affordable rental homes and inconsistent funding have hobbled efforts to match housing with services for mental health, addiction and other issues.

The plan, called Housing First, prioritizes moving homeless people into permanent housing before addressing any other issues they have, such as addiction, mental health issues or unemployment. Once clients are in housing, advocates assign them case managers to help them address those other issues. Advocates use a questionnaire to assess how vulnerable each of their clients is, and those who are at highest risk are placed into housing first.

Oklahoma City adopted the model in January 2013. Since then, thousands of people have been housed under the plan, including about 1,500 homeless veterans and chronically homeless people, according to figures from the Homeless Alliance.

Today, 10 government agencies and nonprofit organizations in the city have committed to the plan.

But when the city adopted the model in 2013, a number of agency chiefs were skeptical, said Jerod Shadid, of the community development division of the city of Oklahoma City's planning department. The plan was a marked departure from the approach officials had been using before, Shadid said.

In years past, officials and advocates used a model called housing readiness, Shadid said. Under that model, homeless people would stay in shelters while case managers helped them work through substance abuse and mental health issues. Only when they were sober and had any mental health issues under control were they given access to housing, he said.

The problem with that model, Shadid said, is that it's difficult for the most vulnerable people to work through those issues when they're living on the street or in a homeless shelter. It's a more realistic goal when they're in a stable environment, he said.

Although the plan has been shown to be effective, it isn't a perfect solution, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.

Over the five years since the plan was adopted, the city has struggled to match housing with case management. A lack of affordable housing and inconsistent funding for case managers have created a kind of seesaw effect, Straughan said — when advocates have plenty of apartments available, they often don't have enough case managers, and vice versa.

That seesaw effect makes it difficult for advocates to address the problem of homelessness, said Meghan Mueller, director of community capacity building at the Homeless Alliance. Both parts of the equation are essential, she said.

Without affordable housing, advocates have nowhere to place people. Likewise, when agencies don't have enough money for case management, the case managers they have on staff are spread too thin and can't work as effectively with each client.

Ultimately, Mueller said, the best approach to addressing homelessness is investing in services for addiction and mental health, as well as affordable housing — services that make it less likely that people will end up homeless in the first place.

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›