Housing First policies are on the agenda of this presidential election

Housing First policies are on the agenda of this presidential election

One of the most widely adopted strategies in the United States to combat homelessness — housing people first, then addressing other needs in mental health, substance abuse and employment — faces an existential threat in the upcoming presidential election.

As a Democrat And Republican administrations before the Biden White House employed this housing-first approach to help people get off the streets and stay housed — but a potential Trump presidency could reverse the model that housing experts and public officials have championed for more than two decades.

Created in the 1990s to address high rates of homelessness among veterans, the “housing first” approach adopted by the federal government and many local governments aims to provide individuals with safe, stable living conditions as a foundation for then addressing substance use or employment issues that pose barriers to maintaining independent housing.

But former President Donald Trump’s Agenda 47 policy platform says he would instead adopt a policy of prioritizing homeless people who receive government housing subsidies and services. That approach is favored by many conservatives, including organizations that support the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 manifesto.

Item 22 of Trump’s Agenda 47 addresses the issue of homelessness: “Our once great cities have become unlivable, unsanitary nightmares, given over to the homeless, the drug addicted, the violent and the dangerously deranged,” he says in the accompanying video.

Trump adds that as president, he would open up “large plots of cheap land” and set up government-funded “tent cities” to house the homeless, while doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and drug rehabilitation specialists identify and treat their problems.

“For those who are temporarily unlucky, we will work to help them quickly return to normal life,” Trump said in his Agenda 47 plan. “For those with addictions, substance abuse, and common mental health problems, we will get them into treatment. And for those who are seriously and profoundly mentally ill, we will return them to psychiatric facilities, where they belong, with the goal of reintegrating them into society once they are well enough to recover.”

“We want to take care of them, but we need to get them off our streets,” he adds. Along similar lines, Trump’s plan to address homelessness would ban homeless people from sleeping on public property. “As part of my strategy, working with states, we’re going to ban urban camping wherever we can,” he says.

This follows the US Supreme Court’s decision in June in the case City of Grants Pass v. Johnson case that local governments can impose civil and criminal penalties on people who camp on public land (for example, sleeping with a blanket on a park bench) — even if the municipality cannot provide them with shelter.

Cathryn Vassell, director of Atlanta’s homeless services agency Partners For Home, said the city’s support for housing first policies has not wavered in the wake of the court’s ruling and that Atlanta will not begin incarcerating homeless people simply because they don’t have a roof over their heads.

What about Project 2025?

Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s manifesto for a conservative presidency, also promotes a treatment-focused approach for people in federally funded housing.

Written by Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Trump, Project 2025’s 14-page housing plan seeks to “end Housing First policies so that the department prioritizes mental health and substance abuse issues before moving to permanent interventions for homeless people.”

The 2025 plan would instead require people to prove they are drug-free and looking for work before they can qualify for federal housing assistance. Since HUD funds rental housing vouchers distributed by local housing authorities like Atlanta Housing, the measure would have a significant impact.

Trump has distanced himself from Project 2025, but many of those who crafted it, like Carson, have held positions in his administration.

The conservative blueprint for a possible Trump presidency also calls for a complete “reset” of HUD, saying the agency’s funding of low-income housing has created “intergenerational poverty traps” and led to overreliance on government programs and subsidies.

“HUD programs tend to perpetuate the idea that bureaucratically provided housing is a basic need for life and, intentionally or not, fail to recognize that these public benefits have too often led to intergenerational poverty traps that have implicitly penalized family formation in traditional two-parent marriages and discouraged work and income growth, thereby limiting upward mobility,” Project 2025 states.

While conservatives have attacked housing strategies as a priority, the Biden administration has promoted them. Biden’s fiscal 2025 budget calls for expanding access to HUD rental vouchers to an additional 500,000 American households — and with no requirements for sobriety or employment. (These policies would need to be approved by Congress.)

Local housing experts give their opinion

Deirdre Oakley, a sociology professor at Georgia State University who studies housing, said dismantling Housing First policies “feels horrible” for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. For one thing, she said, Treatment First programs don’t work.

“The Housing First model has been studied extensively, and the majority of the results are positive and supportive of the model,” Oakley said. In many cases, she added, people with substance use disorders or mental illness are more likely to achieve sobriety or improve their symptoms when they are housed in a stable, safe place.

“A lot of people end up wanting treatment,” Oakley says. “The housing first model can be a lot of work. It takes outreach workers, case managers and good relationships with landlords.” But it works better than dangling the carrot of housing security with the stick of treatment mandates.

Project 2025, Oakley said Atlanta Civic Circledivides people who apply for HUD assistance into two groups: those who “deserve” and those who don’t “deserve” public benefits. “Like, if you don’t apply for treatment, you don’t deserve it,” she said of conservative ideology.

If the Trump presidency adopts the HUD “reset” outlined in Project 2025, it could jeopardize federal funding for local homelessness programs, according to Vassell of Partners For Home.

HUD funds Partners For Home in Atlanta and similar rehousing agencies in other cities through Continuum of Care programs, so federal officials determine which policies — for example, homeless intervention efforts that focus on housing or treatment first — get funded.

However, one of the priorities of Project 2025 is to replace career civil servants at federal agencies like HUD with political appointees. This exacerbates Vassell’s concerns about the politicization of housing policy if Trump returns to power.

His administration “tried to politicize housing policy first, trying to show that it wasn’t effective and refuting the existing evidence that suggested it was effective,” she said. Under Trump, she added, the White House unsuccessfully tried to introduce priority treatment policies “that really didn’t work well in our system.”

A local real estate professional also expressed concerns about a HUD “reset.” As an alternative mortgage lender for apartment buildings, Nectar CEO Derrick Barker has worked with HUD for more than a decade in the industry. He thinks hitting the agency’s reset button to encourage new ways to expand the country’s housing supply might not be the worst idea — but he’s not convinced another Trump administration would be the best one to execute it.

“HUD was introduced in a different time than it is today, in a different market than it is today,” he said. “So a complete reset could be positive, it all depends on what that reset is.”

“If you cut the budget by 90 percent and say, ‘Good luck,’ that’s not a reset,” Barker continued. “If the reset is taking a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to increasing the supply of housing for the next generation, I could see that as a positive. But I don’t think that’s what Trump is trying to do, and I don’t think that’s what the Heritage Foundation is trying to do.”

Libby Hobbs and Claire Becknell contributed reporting.