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"Housing First" Approach Benefits Both Consumers and Law Enforcement

Contributor: Benjamin Sumners

When I first met Patrick Sweetman (not his real name), the 42-year-old African American man was homeless and living on the streets of Washington, D.C. Patrick was a regular on my homeless outreach rounds. He could usually be found by looking for his mound of collected clothing and other items piled on the sidewalk—items that brought him into frequent contact with the police. Patrick had a long history of homelessness and mental illness and just as long a history of arrests primarily for minor issues like vagrancy, unlawful entry, public urination, etc. Failure to report to court for these minor issues would sometimes lead to more serious charges and extended stays in the D.C. jail. This inability to navigate the justice system was not surprising since his schizophrenia made it difficult to remember dates, times and places. Police officers in my neighborhood knew him well and spent much of their time just trying to move him along and get him to clear his belongings out of the bus shelter or out of the path of pedestrians. I managed to help Patrick apply for Social Security and some other basic services. By the time I left the homeless outreach program, a new agency, Pathways to Housing D.C., had begun to engage Patrick in services.       

Pathways to Housing began in New York before expanding to Washington, D.C., in 2004. The program is based on the housing first model that places people experiencing chronic homelessness into housing without regard to their sobriety or adherence to taking medications. Once in an apartment of their own, a team of support staff work with people to provide mental health, substance abuse, health and employment services. For people like Patrick, it also means a drastic reduction in arrests and encounters with law enforcement. A study of  Portland, Maine’s housing first program found a dramatic 88 percent decrease in police encounters—an annual drop from 176 to 21 once clients were placed in housing.

I recently sat with Dr. Robert Keisling, medical director for Pathways to Housing D.C., and he told me about Patrick’s progress since I last saw him three years ago. Living in his own apartment in northeast D.C., Patrick no longer keeps his belongings on the street. He has his own bathroom, bed and privacy, all of which mean that his daily living routines that once brought the attention of police are no longer a public issue. He reports early each morning to the Pathways to Housing office just north of Union Station and receives his medication and a little cash from his bank account for daily spending money. Patrick, who was regularly a distraction for officers’ attention and energy, now rarely has any encounters with law enforcement.    

Patrick’s story is not unlike many of those who participate in Pathways to Housing and other housing first programs around the country. Most of these programs reach out to citizens experiencing long-term homelessness and who are also living with mental illness. In an effort to prevent a return to jail, some programs   also take clients with a history of homelessness and mental illness directly upon release from jail. This has a direct and positive effect on law enforcement. A poll of people experiencing long-term homelessness in New York found that 83 percent had some previous contact with law enforcement in the three years prior to polling and 44 percent had been arrested. This means that a large amount of police time and effort is spent dealing with persons experiencing homelessness, and only about half of the time are there even any violations resulting in arrest.

As society deals with behaviors related to homelessness by passing prohibitions, law enforcement becomes the de facto agency dealing with homelessness. In addition, these interactions are often negative experiences for the person living with mental illness, making it less likely that they will respond favorably to the police and mental health assistance in the future. Sadly, law enforcement intervention is not a solution to the problem and diverts police attention from public safety, emergencies and other important issues that they have been trained to handle. A goal of social service and mental health programs is to prevent persons livng with mental illness from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

When housing first or similar mental health housing programs are used, the arrest and police intervention rate for persons who live with mental illness drop significantly. Not only do arrest numbers drop, but the average number of days spent in jail dropped by nearly 40 percent (Culhane, Metraux and Hadley, 2002). According to the Department of Justice (2009), the cost of incarcerating a prisoner in federal prison for one day is $70.94 and community corrections centers $65.43 per day, so a decrease provides a significant savings for the justice system. In addition to less strain on law enforcement and cost reduction, housing first is more successful in keeping people in their homes than the traditional treatment first model. A study of the housing first program in New York City determined that participants reduced their use of publicly funded services by an annual average of $12,145 per person after moving in (Culhane, Metraux and Hadley, 2001).

Participants in housing first programs are not completely free of legal tangles. Dr Keisling. is the first to say that there is no magic bullet. “We usually have people in jail,” he says. “Usually for things like open container, unlawful entry… Those things still happen, but mostly, with our clients, we’ve just begun to engage with and haven’t entered housing yet.” Of course housing alone does not remove many of the issues that landed people on the street to being with. People do not resolve their mental health or substance abuse issues by simply moving into an apartment. Despite some problems though, the evidence is clear that housing people experiencing chronic homelessness and mental illness is not only cost effective, but positively and directly benefits the law enforcement community. Fewer chronically homeless people on the streets means less time occupied by nuisance and quality of life issues and more time to work on community patrolling and responding to emergencies.

Housing first programs are a growing trend. The evidence supporting the success and cost-effectiveness of these programs has been used to lobby for just like them across the country by housing and homeless advocates. What is often missing in these discussions is the voice of law enforcement. Police agencies have a significant stake in the spread and successful adoption of these proven programs. It is important for police to add their voices to the chorus calling for support for housing first programs.

To find out more about existing housing first programs in your area or how to start one in your area, find resources from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Benjamin Sumners is an M.S.W. graduate student at George Mason University. He has seven years of experience working with homeless residents of Washington, D.C.


Culhane, D.P., Metraux, S. & Hadley, T.(May, 2001). “The New York/New York Agreement Cost Study: The Impact of Supportive Housing on Services Use for Homeless Mentally Ill Individuals.” Corporation for Supportive Housing.           

Culhane, D. P., Metraux, S., & Hadley, T. (2002). “Public service reductions associated with placement of homeless persons with severe mental illness in supportive housing.” Housing Policy Debate, 13(1): 107-163.

Department of Justice. (2009). “Federal register: Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration,” 74, 131 (retrieved from: http://edocket.access. January 30, 2010.