HOUSING FIRST—Addressing Homelessness with Homes

Central Arizona Shelter Services, among many other shelters across the country, utilizes a conceptual approach called Housing First in their housing policy. Innovated in the early 1990s by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, Housing First finds its roots in New York City, where it rose as an alternative to the common “stairway” approach to providing shelter. Housing First established with rousing success that many of the barriers an individual has to obtaining permanent housing are a direct result of being without shelter, and by removing that barrier clients are able to address the other issues they are facing. Shelters embracing the Housing First Model would begin popping up throughout the country, removing barriers such as drug testing or background checks to shelter.

Much like its name, Housing First is simply prioritizing housing before any other type of intervention. Housing First models have been found to have an unprecedented 61% success rate for clients with a history of drug use, and had higher rates of long-term sobriety, and program retention. While there is some critique of Housing First being successful for clients with complex mental health issues, it remains a reliably successful approach for shelters with high populations of current or historical substance users. Integrating Housing First into a shelter model relies on successfully implementing theoretical frameworks like harm reduction, trauma informed care and client centered thinking.

Housing First:

Focuses on placing people in homes first, then addressing individual needs & barriers

Stairway Approach:

Sets specific goals (sobriety, employment, addressing warrants) before client is allowed to receive housing support.

Housing First is implemented in CASS through a number of different policy choices that are made at the organizational level. First and foremost, as a low-barrier shelter we offer clients shelter and the opportunity for case management regardless of their history or current status. While many shelters that use the Stairway approach may require the clients be in treatment or recovery, or provide evidence for specific activities, we are open to anyone who needs a bed. Secondly, clients do not need to meet any requirements to get case management, and we even have daily case manager services available.

Housing First is not just about providing housing, but about the accessibility of all services without barriers that may prevent eventual housing. By being low barrier and offering case management to all clients, CASS is organizationally oriented towards being housing first, and can be the first step towards housing for anyone seeking it.

We understand that when facing life without shelter, addressing anything besides making sure you have somewhere to sleep that night can be difficult. Spending time searching for a job, at a doctor’s office, or going to school means losing crucial minutes or hours that could be spent securing your place in shelter. Clients in housing first models are able to find success by stabilizing in housing and then addressing about the various challenges they are facing, whether they be health based, financially based, or any other type of barrier. We state that Ending Homelessness is one of our key goals as a department and housing first is a key strategy to accomplishing that!


Housing First: The Pathways Model to End Homelessness for People with Mental Illness and Addiction by Sam Tsemberis

Housing First and Homelessness: The Rhetoric and the Reality by Stephan Eide

About CASS:

Founded in 1984, CASS is the largest and longest serving homeless emergency shelter provider in Arizona. Our adult and family shelters, as well as our temporary senior shelter operate at full capacity, 365 days of the year. CASS’ provides shelter, case management and housing support to a truly vulnerable community, from around the state and beyond.

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