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LONG BEACH HOMELESS COLUMN:Understanding Long Beach’s ‘housing first’ approach to homeless crisis

Published: 4/3/2023

In Kelly Colopy's eight column on the homelessness crisis, Long Beach Health Department & Human Services Director talks about the importance of a "housing first" strategy to help solve homelessness.

Take a read below. This column first appeared in the Press-Telegram

Colopy: Understanding Long Beach’s ‘housing first’ approach to homeless crisis

What people who are experiencing homelessness have in common is their lack of a sustainable residence where they can live, sleep and take care of their basic needs.

But when it comes to addressing the wide and various needs of these individuals, there is not a “one size fits all” strategy. Cities and counties have struggled with the best approaches for helping people who are experiencing homelessness, particularly when there may be other challenges that exacerbate their ability to maintain long-term housing, such as substance misuse, unemployment, disability and mental illness.

For years, the city’s Homeless Services Division, in partnership with several community agencies, has worked closely with residents to help get them connected to services intended to address their immediate health and social needs, an important step in helping them transition to more stable living environments.

The recent emergency proclamation on homelessness by the city has bolstered this effort, laying forward a strategic path to support more people and reverse the growth of this epidemic. What underscores this effort is moving people into long-term housing even if they have other issues that need to be addressed for them to maintain their housing. This approach is something known as “Housing First.”

In order to truly support someone experiencing homelessness, we must apply the Housing First approach to provide stability and basic needs.

As an important note, the Housing First approach should not be confused with “People First,” an interrelated term we use when referring to someone experiencing homelessness. They are first a person, and their situation of homelessness is secondary, which is why we don’t use the term “homeless person” to describe someone experiencing homelessness.

Why Housing First?

In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his theory of behavioral motivation, including a “hierarchy of needs,” which states that there are key psychological needs — food, shelter, sleep — that humans require to be successful in other areas, such as with their health, employment, social interactions and security. Many people experiencing homelessness are focused on survival, managing the daily challenges of obtaining food and staying safe while trying to find shelter.

A Housing First model realizes that many strategies used to address homelessness put barriers in the way of people being successful. In some cases, to qualify for housing, individuals must first meet specific criteria, such as securing employment or enrolling into a mandated program.

While these approaches are well-meaning in their focus on getting people into services before specifically addressing their long-term housing needs, the Housing First approach prioritizes the most vital and immediate need of housing as a first step.

This approach does not require prerequisites for people to access housing support, which, for example, is why our local shelters do not turn away people because of issues such as substance use.

This doesn’t mean that we overlook or ignore the realities that many residents experiencing homelessness face. Instead, the goal is to take care of the most basic needs of people so that they are in a better position to be successful in programs that support their social, mental and physical well-being, and reduce or eliminate barriers that support their use of available resources.

What it does mean is that at the forefront of all our decisions and interventions lies the goal of getting people into safe and supportive housing.

What Housing First Looks Like in Long Beach

Our current actions support this structure.

The city-run shelters and interim housing sites are open to anyone who has a need for temporary housing, offering meals, transportation and more.

Our Multi-Service Center connects clients with case management, medical care, employment and social services.

People living on the street are linked to important services through our Mobile Access Center, the city’s Restorative Engagement to Achieve Collective Health (REACH) team, and our homeless outreach team.

The city provides resources to assist people with getting back into housing, including rental assistance and security deposits, and supportive housing vouchers. While clients may need to meet criteria to be eligible for certain programs, our approach aims to take care of necessities so that they can better use the supportive services available to address other critical issues.

Not everyone will need to use all of the resources and support offered by the city and our community partners. Everyone, however, should have access to supportive housing, something that is beneficial for those who need it, and to our entire community.

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