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“Housing First” Requires More From Us

November 19th, 2021 by dk

I almost never return quickly to a topic I’ve covered. Word limits don’t allow much depth. A weekly slot is built for breadth. So many issues impact our lives and conversations. I try to touch as many as I can. But rules are made to be broken, so I’m back for a second bite from the proverbial apple.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that we will never solve homelessness if we view that population as a monolith. I divided them into seven groups. To sum up that essay in a single paragraph, here are my suggested (constantly shifting and overlapping) categories: mentally ill, addicted, distressed, opportunists, confused, predators, and sympathizers. (If you didn’t read the original column, we’ll add a link at the end.)

Readers offered me more than the usual amount of feedback, which I always appreciate. Since crudely lumping people into overly simplistic subsets seems to be the order of the day, responses fell into one of three themes.

The first group thanked me for that slicing and dicing, because it gave them permission to be fractionally less upset when they passed by the tents under bridges and along thoroughfares. Each felt sympathy was appropriate for some but not for others.

A second group wanted to roll up their sleeves, but wondered how best to proceed. Many liked prioritizing veterans, especially if assessment strategies could then be replicated in the larger unhoused population. They noted that assessments this nuanced and continuous will be very expensive. Prioritizing veterans could prevent social services from getting overextended, at least until funding can be substantially increased.

The third group of readers likewise asserted that assessments will be exorbitantly expensive, but they also saw them as unnecessary. Giving priority to any portion of those in need is demeaning to the rest. Other nations (where some of these readers live) have found it cheaper to put a roof over every head than to assess the population as intensively as the problem requires.

I’m bringing the responses into public view to make it a discussion. A fortnight ago, I argued that the varied causes of homelessness defy any single solution. Today I’m noting that our responses to the problem are similarly variegated. Comic strip Pogo’s wisdom endures: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.”

Experts determined decades ago that “housing first” is the most cost-effective way to end homelessness. Life on the street induces its own trauma. That becomes intertwined with the originating cause or causes. Remove this complicating factor by adding a locked door and some reliable warmth, and things settle down. Those seven categories I proposed become much less fluid. Assessments remain necessary, but they can be less intensive/expensive.

This is the point where we have to look in the mirror. Are we willing to give opportunists and predators a pass because it’s cheaper to house them than to isolate them by assessment? Is our resentment of that possibility more than we can handle? Then the problem will remain unsolved. And we’ll know why.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at Read Kahle’s earlier column on this topic at 

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