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Five Tips for Taking a 'Housing-First' Approach

Two young people stand in front of their new home.

The “housing-first” approach emphasizes stable, permanent housing as a primary strategy for ending homelessness. First used with adults and families that had experienced repeat or chronic homelessness, the model has been less common among organizations that serve homeless young people, but it’s starting to gain traction.

To learn how runaway and homeless youth programs can adopt--and adapt--housing-first, we spoke with Sol Flores, founding executive director of La Casa Norte in Chicago, and Margaret Mitchell, president and CEO of YWCA Greater Cleveland. They say to be successful with this approach, youth-serving organizations should focus on meeting young people "where they are" and working with them to overcome the challenges they may be facing along with homelessness.

Here are Flores and Mitchell’s top five tips for using a housing-first approach:

1. Provide a sense of stability, and everything else follows. Flores and Mitchell say it’s important to work with each youth to determine the best housing plan and provide them the tools for success and permanence.

“We truly believe in never letting go of a person … As long as the clients are lease-compliant they won’t be evicted or discharged from the program,” she says.

Knowing that their housing is stable, young people can focus on getting the education, employment and behavioral healthcare they need for a secure future.

2. Encourage youth to take charge. Mitchell and her staff turn the regular understanding of “youth engagement” on its head.

"We measure engagement not by staff reaching out to clients, but by how much clients reach out to us for supports. ‘I would like,’ ‘I need,’ ‘Can you?’ are all ways a client can engage with us,” she says. “A client asking us to attend a child welfare meeting for instance shows us that our clients have belief in us as a supportive entity and trust our services.” 

3. Let youth advise each other. In extreme instances when a young person refuses to comply with the terms of a lease, the YWCA’s self-regulating tenant advisory group works to mediate the problem and encourage the young person to honor his or her legal agreement with the landlord.

4. Connect with your local continuum of care. These partnerships, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, have authority to determine local priorities. By working with them, you can ensure that the needs of young people are taken into account in your area's systems-based approach to ending homelessness.

5. Be trauma-informed. Flores says trauma-informed behavioral health care services are absolutely critical in developing a housing-first model for youth.

“It’s important that we try not to re-traumatize youth through this process,” she says. “Once they are able to access housing and begin to feel safe, then much of the time we see their past trauma surface. You have to be prepared with a strong behavioral health care response that moves them along at a self-directed pace.”

To learn more about the housing-first model and permanent supportive housing visit the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

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