Ottawa·Analysis

Let's not kick housing first strategy to the curb over trashed apartment

It's clear the system failed landlord Nitin Mehra, the landlord who agreed to participate in the city's housing first program, whose apartment suffered thousands in damages. And it obviously failed the former tenant, who is once again homeless.

'Housing first' may be a fashionable term these days, but we need to understand it before we criticize it

The case of a landlord's trashed apartment may be an extreme example of the challenges of the housing first principle to end homelessness. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

It's the worst advertisement imaginable for the city's Housing First program.

Nitin Mehra agreed to be part of the program, which matches private landlords with homeless people, only to have his apartment horrifically trashed, his place knee-deep in garbage, rotting food and feces.

That the system utterly failed Mehra — and his former tenant — is abundantly clear.

His rental unit suffered thousands in damage, and the man who briefly lived there is homeless once again.

But there's a third, if more theoretical, victim in all this mess: the principle of housing first itself.

So what is housing first?

A progressive way of combating chronic homelessness, housing first refers to the strategy of taking the most vulnerable people off the streets, or out of shelters, and putting them into homes, even if they are mentally ill, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, or some combination of the above.

Give people a home first, then help them deal with their stuff — that's the idea. No "housing readiness" pre-conditions required.

The program has been successful in the decade since a New Yorker magazine article brought the concept to wide attention.

In fact, some non-profit housing groups had already been operating under a de facto housing-first policy years earlier.

Researchers will tell you virtually every housing first study reports positive outcomes, including the seminal Canadian pilot project called At Home/Chez Soi.

That multi-year study, which followed 2,000 homeless people, found that those placed in housing-first programs were much more likely to stay housed, better able to function in the community, and achieved a better quality of life.

No accountability

So if housing first is such a great idea, what went wrong for Mehra? First, there was a clear failure of accountability.

Consider the arrangement. The Salvation Army recruited Mehra into the city's landlord partnership plan, promising at least one home visit by a case worker. The city paid the rent (with money from the federal and municipal government). A Canadian Mental Health Association caseworker was supposed to provide support.

Nitin Mehra found himself with nowhere to turn when issues with his tenant arose. (Ashley Burke/CBC news)

But at the earliest indication that the tenant was not coping well, all Mehra could do was call the caseworker, who told the landlord that he had never even met with the tenant, let alone conducted a home visit.

Mehra also called the Salvation Army worker who signed him up for the program, who likewise did nothing.

To make matters worse, Mehra had been under the impression both these contacts were actually city employees, since he was enrolled in a city initiative.

Politicians, at least, have acknowledged that the process left him twisting in the wind. Mayor Jim Watson told reporters Wednesday he's asked the city manager to investigate what went wrong in this sorry episode.

The key question: Was this an extremely unfortunate one-time event, or a sign of a deeper, systemic problem?

If there isn't enough support, it isn't housing first

Fixing the communications process to make sure private landlords in the housing first program are not left helpless for weeks when a tenant situation goes south is the easy part.

It's housing first, but not housing only.- At Home/Chez Soi study

Because the second phase of what when wrong here was the lack of support for Mehra's tenant.

Housing first has become a popular catchphrase in public discussions about homelessness. Exactly what lies behind the label, though, is another matter.

For instance, Watson spoke of "different interpretations of what is housing first," remarking that for some, "housing first is, you hand the keys to someone and good luck." The mayor even added: "Housing first doesn't always include supports."

Actually, no.

Some programs may call themselves housing first to sound hip with the times, but just using the moniker doesn't make it so.

"It's housing first, but not housing only," is how the At Home/Chez Soi report pithily sums up this key point.

The report adds the core principles of housing first include "individualized and person-driven supports."

The city's own definition refers to housing first participants as needing "ongoing supports."

Still, Watson is right when he says there are different interpretations of housing first. For instance, housing first can mean a group-home environment, with 24-hour security that requires tenants to sign in and out. Or it can mean the long-term supportive housing programs run by a number of the city's non-profit organizations.

But these variations on housing first usually call for more client support, not less, than in cases where a homeless person is placed in their own apartment.

Question of support

So the real question is whether the city — together with its partner agencies — is providing housing first clients enough supports to be successful.

The answer is not immediately clear. In an emailed statement to the CBC, the city said there's one case manager for every 12 clients with serious issues.

That's not far off from the At Home/Chez Soi project ratio of 1:10 for the same type of clientele.

But, according to a spokesman with CMHA, there's a "huge number" of homeless people in need of housing and just not enough capacity.

"We have half the case managers in this region that we should have," said Tim Simboli. "We need to get serious about dealing with people with mental illness and people who are homeless, and we need to start backing it up."

Housing first debate requires honesty

The housing first model has certainly worked in Ottawa for some. More than 500 chronic shelter users — that's people who have slept in an emergency shelter for six months — have found homes through the program.

Of course, it hasn't worked for everyone. No program could. Drop-out rates vary, but even in the successful At Home/Chez Soi project, housing first didn't result in long-term housing for 13 per cent of participants.

And there were other challenges, too. For example, some people in the study found their new apartments taken over by former acquaintances who did drugs and trashed the place.

As well, there's a sense in the social housing community that, now that housing first has been tried for a number of years, the folks who are easier to house have found homes.

What's left is the tougher task of trying to house people who require more intervention, people with more serious mental illnesses and addictions. These people may require more supports, or even supervised housing, which also costs more.
The Salvation Army's controversial project for Montreal Road in Vanier is igniting a debate about housing first. (Salvation Army)

That these challenges exist shouldn't be used as an argument against a strategy that has been successful when run properly. We need to know what properly funded housing first looks like, but also not candy-coat the very real hurdles that exist.

We'll be hearing more about housing first in the weeks to come in the debate over the Salvation Army's controversial proposal for a new 350-bed facility on Montreal Road. Proponents argue the facility will offer a sorely needed service in the city. Critics counter that the Salvation Army's model is outdated and its services should be moving towards — you guessed it — housing first.

It's a necessary argument. The least we can do is hash out the issues honestly, figuring out what true housing first looks like, and facing the real challenges it entails with open eyes.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.