Housing First in Orange County

Last week brought news that the national 100,000 Homes campaign has met its ambitious goal of permanently housing 100,000 of our most vulnerable individuals and families. The New York Times noted this milestone’s significance: “It means that many American cities are currently on track to end chronic and veteran homelessness by the end of the decade or earlier.”

The 100,000 Homes campaign takes on chronic homelessness with a strategy called “housing first.” An audacious idea when it first emerged, “housing first” turned conventional thinking upside-down. Rather than requiring treatment or education before declaring a person to be deserving of housing, this model operates on the simple notion that what a homeless person needs first–in order to succeed at anything else–is housing.

“Housing first” success stories have been making the news: from as far away as Utah and as close to home as Charlotte. In 2012, Moore Place opened as Charlotte’s first permanent supportive housing complex. A 2014 study found tremendous savings in health care costs, plus steep reductions in jail time and arrests. For grateful residents, the program promises renewed health and independence. The Charlotte study joins other studies documenting the successes of providing housing first (and the costs of doing nothing).

Quiet as it’s kept, the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness is firmly rooted in the “housing first” model. Seven years on, it’s showing results. In 2012, the Partnership joined the 100,000 Homes campaign, and by December of 2013, 14 people had been housed in apartments across the community. These are real success stories about people in impossible situations. A number of them had virtually made their home on Franklin Street.

And that’s not all. In 2011, the Partnership placed five disabled homeless people in CASA’s supportive housing. Three more received rental vouchers and supportive services through the Shelter Plus Care program. Prior to that, permanent supportive housing had been secured for eleven others.

The decision to focus the efforts of the Partnership on those with severe and chronic needs–as opposed to the transitionally homelessness–came out of months of discussion. These were difficult conversations. But even by 2006, the promise of “housing first” was apparent. Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on “million dollar Murray” grabbed our attention. Martha Are, homeless policy specialist for the state, compellingly argued its benefits. Acknowledging scarce resources, we chose to double down on housing the chronically homelessness, while continuing to honor our commitments to the transitionally homelessness and people at risk.

And so in 2007, Orange County and its three municipalities launched the Partnership to implement a 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Thus we joined the ranks of hundreds of cities and counties inspired by the campaign initiated by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and embraced by the George W. Bush Administration under the dynamic leadership of Philip Mangano.

In 2009, the Obama Administration revised the 10-year strategy, orienting it toward veterans and homeless families and framing the issues more broadly. This new approach was welcomed by practitioners who had found the federal definition of “chronically homeless” too narrow.

Orange County’s Partnership has realigned its mission to match these new
directions, but the emphasis on “housing first” remains. If its successes aren’t as visible as those in Utah or Charlotte, there’s an opportunity for that to change with the Town of Chapel Hill’s expanded commitment to investing in affordable housing.

Peace & Justice Plaza, Franklin Street, November 5. 2013

Peace & Justice Plaza, Franklin Street, November 5. 2013

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