The Story of Housing First: A Long and Winding Road

The story of Housing First stretches back further than many realize. While Dr. Sam Tsemberis' work in the 1990s is foundational, earlier initiatives like Los Angeles' Beyond Shelter program (1988) laid the groundwork for the model we know today.

  • 1988: Los Angeles' Beyond Shelter program is a precursor to Housing First

Seeds of the Movement: From the Streets of Italy to New York City

The concept of Housing First can be traced back even further, to the late 19th century and the work of Don Bosco in Italy. Inspired by the teachings of St. Francis de Sales, who believed that basic needs should be met before imposing rules and regulations, Don Bosco pioneered an approach that would later be recognized as Housing First.

Late 19th Century: Don Bosco, a Catholic priest in Italy, lays the groundwork for Housing First with his work helping homeless people.

Dr. Sam Tsemberis' experiences working with homeless individuals with mental illness in New York City during the 1980s and 1990s fueled his passion for Housing First. Witnessing the limitations of traditional approaches that required sobriety or treatment compliance before acting to help them, he envisioned a more holistic solution.

1980s-1990s: Dr. Sam Tsemberis witnesses the limitations of traditional approaches to homelessness while working with homeless individuals in New York City.

Pathways to Housing: A Model for Change

In 1992, Dr. Tsemberis founded Pathways to Housing, a non-profit organization that pioneered the Housing First model we know today. Pathways to Housing provided permanent homes to homeless individuals with minimal preconditions. Supportive services were available but not mandatory, focusing on empowerment and self-determination.

1992: Dr. Sam Tsemberis founds Pathways to Housing, a non-profit that pioneers the Housing First model we know today. Pathways to Housing provided permanent homes to homeless individuals with minimal preconditions. Supportive services were available but not mandatory.

The success of Pathways to Housing programs helped lay the groundwork for it's wider adoption. Research conducted in the late 1990s demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing homelessness compared to traditional models.

Late 1990s: Research demonstrates the effectiveness of Housing First in reducing homelessness compared to traditional models.

Housing First: Sam Tsemberis at TEDxMosesBrownSchool

Amy Varle: Championing Housing First Across the Atlantic

Amy Varle, an inspiring entrepreneur from the UK, emerged as a champion for the mission. Her own experiences with homelessness fueled her dedication to finding solutions. Varle founded People's Property Shop to help match landlords with tenants in need.

Through her work, Varle encountered the model and became a staunch advocate for its adoption in the UK. The success stories emerging from Finland, a nation that had embraced it and achieved significant reductions in homelessness, bolstered her efforts.

Amy Varle, an entrepreneur from the UK, becomes a champion for Housing First.

2016: Amy Varle was awarded a travelling fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, in partnership with the National Housing Federation. This fellowship enabled her to travel to the United States, visiting innovative housing and homelessness projects such as Project Homeless Connect and Lava Mae in San Francisco, and Breaking Ground in New York. In Los Angeles, Varle, along with her pro bono business partner Susan Dolan, planned an online Twitter campaign to promote #HousingFirst and affordable housing for the UK.

Housing First: Homelessness Eradication in the UK?

On return from the US, both Jon Sparks from Crisis and Homeless Link shown keen interest in Varle's work and joined forces to push for Housing First and other resolutions for resolving homelessness.

2017: Through a year of relentless online campaigning, Amy Varle and Susan Dolan achieved a significant breakthrough. They secured inclusion of ending homelessness as a key issue on political manifestos across the UK, from regional and national levels to mayoral campaigns.

In connection with her work for DrugFAM, then-Prime Minister Theresa May's charity, Susan Dolan was invited to Downing Street to discuss arrangements for "A Service of Celebration & Hope - Lives Worth Talking About," held at Westminster Abbey. Also to a celebration party in Downing Street where she spoke with Theresa May about Amy Varle's work ending homelessness.

In the November, UK government announced plans for a Housing First pilot programme in the West Midlands, Liverpool, and Manchester, along with funding of £28m.

Varle's relentless advocacy, coupled with growing evidence of it's effectiveness, ultimately paved the way for its implementation in the UK. This marked a significant milestone, bringing it one step closer to becoming a global standard.

Housing First Today: A Global Movement

Housing First has gained momentum around the world in recent years. It is now recognized as an evidence-based approach to reducing homelessness by major national and international organizations, including the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

While the core principles of Housing First remain consistent, there is flexibility in how the model is implemented to fit local contexts and needs. Effective Housing First programs prioritize rapid housing placement, harm reduction, and client choice. Supportive services are offered but not mandatory, and housing is not conditional on sobriety or treatment compliance.

Housing First has been shown to be effective in reducing homelessness across a wide range of populations, including people with chronic mental illness, substance use disorders, and chronic health conditions. It is also a cost-effective approach, as it can reduce the use of expensive emergency shelter and hospital services.

Despite its successes, Housing First faces challenges. These include a lack of affordable housing, limited funding for supportive services, and public misconceptions about homelessness.

A Beacon of Hope

Today, it stands as a beacon of hope. From its early roots in New York City to its current global reach. As we move forward, it is important to continue to invest in affordable housing for all, Housing First projects and to address the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness. By doing so, we can create a future where everyone has a safe and secure place to call home. Charity begins at home.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


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