Housing First – Mental Health

At Home Chez SoiHousing First was always in a way designed with people experiencing mental health challenges in mind. This is because the model was originally focused on ending chronic homelessness, and both chronic homelessness and homelessness in general occur most often in the context of mental health challenges. Although statistics vary from study to study, on average 2/3 of people experiencing homelessness also have an active mental health challenge. This rate goes as high as 100% in studies of those considered chronically homeless. There is a bit of a chicken/egg debate to be had about mental illness causing homelessness or homelessness causing mental illness, but regardless, the two are intertwined, and it’s likely a case of both/and. As Housing First was designed by those within the sector, it is grounded in research and practice with those with mental health challenges.

So, it comes as no surprise that both historical and recent research is demonstrating that Housing First works with this sub-population. This is also the sub-population for whom we have the most established best practices to draw upon, which is why I wanted to cover it first in this series.

The At Home/Chez Soi project represents one of the largest and most comprehensive reviews of Housing First programs, and it was focused on 2000 homeless Canadians experiencing mental health challenges. Half of the participants continued to receive the usual mental health and housing services available in their community, while the other half received a variety of targeted Housing First interventions through either Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) or Intensive Case Management (ICM).

The Results

It’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the program based on the results. “Those who received Housing First were, after two years, stably housed 80 per cent of the time, compared to 54 per cent of those who had treatment as usual.” (1)

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Additionally, participants showed a rapid decline in shelter use that persisted over time. This coincided with less hospital use, drop-in centre use, and fewer arrests for drug-related offences. (2)  This equated to significant cost savings for the system as a whole, in particular for the 10% of those with highest service needs: “Over the two-year period following study entry, every $10 invested in Housing First services resulted in an average savings of $21.72.” Most importantly, from a perspective of the individual, those in the intervention experienced both better community functioning and improved quality of life, and were overwhelmingly more positive about their life course.

Best Practices for Housing First for Those with Mental Health Challenges

So here is what we can learn about Housing First for this sub-population of people experiencing homelessness:

  1. Housing First is effective across various demographics such as urban/rural, various ethnocultural communities, medium or large cities, and communities with differing existing services.
  2. Services are an essential component of Housing First, particularly for those experiencing a mental health challenge. These services need to be mobile, community-based, not institutional.
  3. Housing provides the foundation for other changes in peoples’ lives, but we can’t be too demanding that those changes happen too quickly if our programs truly have no requirement for being ‘treatment-ready’.
  4. Although there is some room to flex in terms of congregate living or live-in support is communities demand, this is highly discouraged as the best outcomes were seen with those programs that stayed truest to Housing First principles.
  5. The health care system needs to be at the table, if not the lead, in providing Housing First with this population. Because the supports are essential and include either ACT or ICM, health providers are going to be involved.
  6. Services are best de-linked from housing, in that they follow the individual to wherever they choose to reside, not being attached to just one apartment or building.
  7. Self-determination is essential as it goes hand-in-hand with the recovery-oriented approach of mental health care.

I’ll end with a final graph, that tells strongly of the importance of reconfiguring how our system responds to those with housing needs:

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Housing First Series

In my previous post I started to unpack some of the intricacies of housing first. What I hope this highlighted was that although housing first is an overall effective model, there is still some work to do in terms of refining what it means for sub-populations of people experiencing homelessness. So, over the next several weeks I want to start to unpack what we know and what we don’t know about Housing First for the following populations:

  1. Those with mental health challenges;
  2. Youth;
  3. The chronically homeless;
  4. Those with addictions;
  5. Aboriginal peoples;
  6. Older adults;
  7. Those leaving the justice system;
  8. Families;
  9. Women.

I have purposely ordered these in terms of those populations where we have the most work to guide us to date, to those where we have the least. In each post I will explore what we already know in terms of best practices for housing first, and what we need to know more about.

Housing First

Cell Phones for the Homeless?

This very well written, thoughtful, and detailed article on Mashable about homelessness and connectivity is well worth the read. It makes a number of valuable points about homelessness and smart phone connectivity with which I agree:

  1. Experiences of homelessness are often quite complexed, with housing status and where one is sleeping changing from night to night, defying simple definitions of what it means to be homeless.
  2. Phones can be tools by which people access resources to improve their status.
  3. The public can be uncomfortable with a homeless person having a phone, which is still considered a luxury by many.
  4. Having a phone can help one feel ‘normal’.
  5. One can still have a strong sense of self in spite of currently being unhoused.

This article raises the question for those of us who work in the sector of whether providing smart phones is indeed the intervention to help end homelessness? We sought to answer this question in a study of 212 individuals currently experiencing homelessness.

Here’s an interesting graph to start, that helps frame the discussion of why I am actually not holding much hope for this is an intervention:

Internet Use

1) The first thing that we noted is that there is a drastic divide between users and non-users of the internet. The majority either use it daily or not at all, with far fewer being intermittent users.

2) The second thing we heard is that for those who want access, getting it isn’t that difficult. Whether it’s free wifi downtown, in coffee shops, or at agencies, or computer access within agencies, or the most common, computer access in public libraries, people are able to get online when they want to. The only significant barrier to this was those living in social housing with physical limitations.

3) The third thing we heard is that in terms of accessing services, there is always an in-person alternative. So social agencies aren’t setting up programs that are only available online, you can always go and see a worker for assistance.

4) The fourth thing we heard is that internet access can actually make things worse for some individuals. In particular, youth talked about negative social capital, the fact that their social networks often were a detriment to their well-being, rather than helped them do better. All that internet access provided was more frequent and thorough access to this negative social capital. Youth talked about deleting their social media accounts as part of a process of exiting the street.

5) Our overall finding was that there was no statistically significant causal relationship between accessing the internet more and doing better physically, mentally, or socially. This means that although for some individuals, like the man in the story, their cell phone is their lifeline, giving all people experiencing homelessness cell phones and data plans might not be the best use of resources for ending homelessness.