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Hansen: Rethinking the approach to homeless

November 17, 2011|By David Hansen

Over the last 100 years, technological advances have revolutionized entire countries, but over the last 1,000 years, social advances have done little to fundamentally change homelessness and hunger.

In Laguna Beach, the homeless issue is a known quantity. Every night, the 45-bed shelter in Laguna Canyon is filled to capacity.

There is always a waiting list. Those who don't make it sleep elsewhere — usually outside. Occasionally, especially on cold, rainy nights, they manage a bed in a local church with the help of volunteers.

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Local religious and civic leaders are trying to change this approach, with an eye toward the long view.

The current model is based on an archaic U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reward system, where the homeless have to prove themselves by getting sober, for example, then working through various stages to demonstrate stability before actually receiving housing and social services.

The new model, Housing First, reverses the process. As the name implies, the first step is to get the homeless sheltered.

"The answer to homelessness is housing. The answer to hunger is feeding," said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, which staffs the Alternative Sleeping Location under contract with the city.

"Housing First is saying, 'I realize that you are a person with untreated mental illness right now, but you're still a human being, and you're a person who deserves to have a roof over your head, and we're going to help you with that,'" she said. "And hopefully, when you take away those daily stressors of where am I going to eat, where am I going to sleep, you're going to become more able to address the other underlying issues in your life."

Religious leaders back this approach, citing greatly improved outcomes and better, more humane treatment.

"Housing First, I think, is hugely important," said Kent Doss, minister of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach. "It's the whole teaching people to fish rather than giving them the fish, and giving them the opportunity to help themselves, which they'll never be able to do, unless they have a stable place to come home."

BJ Beu of Neighborhood Congregational Church is also a strong supporter of Housing First and has worked closely on homeless issues around the country throughout his tenured ministry.

Beu said the success rate for transitioning the homeless in the HUD model is 20%; in the Housing First model, it's 80%.

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