Little Empirical Data to Support “Housing First” Strategy with the Homeless

(Editor’s note: Circling the News has heard that “housing first” is a priority for the homeless. After seeing so many mentally ill on the streets—and those who have drug problems or may be self-medicating—I looked for data to show the success of “housing first.”)

A homeless encampment in Brentwood lines the VA fences.

While covering the West L.A. Veterans Administration campus in 2014 for an American Legion newsletter, I reported an urgent need to house veterans.

Unfortunately on that campus, housing options were not available because the VA, which had not been closely scrutinized, had been prioritizing business leases. Most had little to do with veterans and included a farmers market, Richmark Agreements, Sodexho Marriott, Twentieth Century Fox, Westside Services, Los Angeles City (dog park), Breitburn Oil and Gas, Brentwood School, UCLA (baseball stadium), a soccer club, the Salvation Army and New Directions.

But that was to change because the government had been sued in 2011 (Valentini v. McDonald), and a new VA master plan was introduced in 2015. This plan promised that by 2020 there would be 5,000 housing units for veterans.

At that time, “housing first” was the homeless model that the VA planned to follow. I was advised to read a 2006 New Yorker article titled “Million-Dollar Murray” so I could better understand the concept.

In the story, author Malcolm Gladwell made the argument that putting individuals such as Murray, an alcoholic, into permanent housing would save society money and would help end homelessness. It was an interesting read and promoted a promising concept.

Over the past seven years, “housing first” has been the policy not only for the VA, but for cities and politicians trying to end homelessness.

The concept is simple: anyone living on the streets should be given an apartment, a hotel room or a tiny home, without any preconditions, such as signing up for substance abuse programs or agreeing to counseling.

After seven years of parroting “housing first,” I’ve only recently started to question the theory and wondering, does it work? Have there been studies to support it?

Millions and millions of tax dollars are being spent in Los Angeles to provide housing for the “unhoused.”

Individuals are each given a cubicle in bridge housing.


And now, L.A.City Councilman Mike Bonin wants to place tiny homes at beach parking lots and City parks — basically storage sheds on the beach for “temporary” housing (no more than three years). The idea is that these homeless individuals will eventually move to permanent housing.

The most recent study I found about the “housing first” concept was an April 2020 paper done by Senior Fellow Stephen Eide of the Manhattan Institute (“Housing First and Homelessness: The Rhetoric and the Reality”). The report notes that “no community has truly ended homelessness using Housing First, and certainly not any community facing crisis-level homelessness.”

In addition to pointing out lack of rigor in several earlier social studies that claim differently, Eide wrote that those studies lacked reliable data and definitions, and that some claims of Housing First success cannot be substantiated.

His report states, “It is crucial to parse claims about what is evidence based about Housing First and what is founded on humanitarian concerns, intuition, ideology, or some other factor.

“There is no evidence-based proof of Housing First’s ability to treat serious mental illness effectively, or drug or alcohol addiction. Housing First is not a reliable solution to social isolation, a very significant cause and effect of homelessness.”

Eide cites Columbia University economist Brendan O’Flaherty, one of the leading scholars of homelessness, who in a recent review of Housing First concluded: “We don’t know how to end homelessness. Not in the aggregate, anyway.”

In Los Angeles, the homeless are overwhelming streets; City officials and politicians call it a humanitarian crisis.

Who are on the streets? I’ve worked with the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness local homeless since 2016. I live in a community that has empathy for the mentally ill and for those down on their luck.  I’ve witnessed and written about many of the homeless interactions involving the task force social workers and local volunteers.

Over the past two years, an increasing number of transients have been coming here from out of state. Last week, the task force and LAPD encountered new arrivals from Minnesota, Arizona, Kansas and Honduras.

It appears many new transplants like the idea of living close to the beach and not having to work or follow rules. Of course, many others are mentally ill or in the throes of crystal meth.

Yet even as Los Angeles, with little affordable housing, continues to push Housing First, maybe it’s time for politicians to question if the current policy is working.

Stephen Eide, the author of the paper questioning Housing First, cites L.A. County’s Measure HHH, which authorized $1.2 billion in bonds to build thousands of permanent supportive housing (PSH) units. “. . . California’s experience has been increased investment in permanent supportive housing and increased homelessness. . . more investment in PSH does not necessarily lead to less homelessness.”

According to the report, “There is no evidence-based proof of Housing First’s ability to treat serious mental illness effectively, or drug or alcohol addiction. Housing First is not a reliable solution to social isolation, a very significant cause and effect of homelessness.

“Claims made on behalf of the campaign to end homelessness—that Housing First has ended veterans’ homelessness, chronic homelessness, or homelessness at the community level—are not based in “evidence,” as that term is normally understood, and they rely on a highly technical (and dubious) definition of “ending” homelessness.”

And the West L.A. VA? One only needs to drive by the VA’s perimeter to see hundreds of tents on the campus and hundreds adjacent to it.

As I mull over the crisis, I think that mental health help should be a priority.

And Housing First? We are told that developers who are addressing the ever-expanding need for housing, and nonprofits that cater to the homeless, are doing well. Yet the homelessness here continues to rise. Maybe Housing First isn’t the answer.

This is a proposed tiny home village for Eagle Rock Park.

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3 Responses to Little Empirical Data to Support “Housing First” Strategy with the Homeless

  1. Betsy Handler says:

    The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank, but, of course, you make no mention of this fact. NY City has a right to shelter, and, although not perfect, there are many fewer tent cities in New York. If you don’t believe Housing First is a good policy, what do you suggest? Jail? Deportation? Shipping folks to the desert?

  2. Sue says:


    If you can supply some stats that show housing first works, I’m happy to run them. My experience with the VA is what caused me to question the concept–the only people who seem to be doing well are developers and the homelessness continues to grow. I think mental illness needs to be addressed and it’s not. Look at Ruby (by the library), look at Timmy (who died on the streets), look at Margaret–all were offered housing and none took it. I’m just saying that maybe its time to tackle mental illness.


  3. Lynn Mack-Costello says:

    Further to the empirical evidence, the city has invested over $15 million on three tiny home parks so far with projected capacity of 500-600. I can find no numbers of how many homeless are actually using the 64 sq.ft. “homes.” Let’s not invest more money in yet another park until we see if anyone will use them!

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