Skip to main content

Housing first?
Only with accountability.

Step Denver's Executive Director, Paul Scudo:

In September 2020, I was honored to have been asked to submit an op-ed to The Gazette on the homelessness crisis and my views on a solution (“Another solution for Denver’s homeless,” Sept. 17, 2020). For those who did not read that, the premise was that a minimum of 50% of those who are homeless suffer from the disease of addiction, which includes alcohol, and are homeless as a direct result of their substance-use issues. This data came from studies done by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Coalition for the Homeless. The percentages reported were actually higher, but I like to be conservative so as not to appear to be exaggerating.

The solution my organization provides focuses on addressing the addiction first and affecting a behavioral change in the individual through the core principles of sobriety, work, accountability and community. The article highlighted the ideas that an individual must be ready for help; take personal responsibility for their disease, its consequences, and the requisite actions to rebuild their lives; put in effort and make progress in the process; become self-sufficient without the dependency on the government, family, or other outside resources; be accountable for their choices, actions, and behaviors; and help others to do the same.

In today’s world, those are not popular points of view. Most of what I say in this article will be perceived by many as insensitive, uncaring, uncompassionate, and possibly judgmental. I understand. We all want to be kind, compassionate, caring, to help others. Or at least be perceived to be such. The internet and social media have allowed for voices that are loud and strong. And distant. It is easy to use these mediums to say, “We should help!” “You should be kind!,” “The government needs to solve this problem!,” “These are human beings who deserve to be taken care of!” “It’s not their fault — it’s society’s fault!” and so on. And many saying this are often folks who are not actually in the mix, doing the work, helping the homeless, seeing the day-to-day tragedy — but who believe that someone should be doing something to fix the problem of homelessness.

These are all right things to say. I get it. Again, many people want to feel that they are compassionate, kind, caring, and a champion of human rights. To demonstrate that we have evolved away from the type of humans that we were years ago. That feel we should give to those less fortunate, at any cost, with no expectation. But there are also a significant number of people who want to help, and actually do participate in solutions to help those in need. The challenge is that helping those who are homeless provides our community with a conundrum in choosing what the solution(s) to reducing homelessness should be.

My belief is that the first step to a solution for homelessness requires community members to say it is not acceptable to live on the street; create garbage, human waste; impede the right of way on sidewalks; use drugs openly; camp in public, and present dangerous situations to community members and the homeless themselves. Until this happens, nothing will change. If everyone says, “The government should do something,” or “It’s not their fault,” or any other statement other than “This cannot be considered acceptable,” then this problem will persist.

Look to Austin

I was in Austin, Texas, over the Memorial Day weekend for a convention. Over the four days I was there, I walked all over downtown, the Riverwalk outside of downtown, and through the trendy South Congress district south of downtown, which is similar to Denver’s LoDo, with bars, restaurants, shopping, and art galleries. I saw a total of two homeless people in the entire time I was there. Both individuals were walking, and nowhere did I see a tent, an encampment, or anyone “living” on the streets, in alleys, along the river, or in parks. None.

I had heard that Austin had a terrible homeless problem and, curious, I asked a number of Austin residents (in restaurants, the hotel I was staying in, the Uber driver, and other shopkeepers) why there were no homeless camps anywhere to be seen. Using different words, they all shared a similar story of the community residents and businesses becoming fed up with the problem. A ballot initiative was put forward to re-enact a camping ban, but along with that ban the initiative granted the authority to city and county police and state troopers to enforce the ban. This was done by giving initial warnings, then issuing citations with the threat of jail time to follow.

I know, how mean and uncompassionate! And you may be saying, “Well, it’s Texas, of course they would throw people in jail.” I would remind you that Austin is one of the most liberal cities in the United States. So, it seems that this is not a solution that was motivated by political ideology. It is one which was based on an understanding of human behavior and what truly incites change. It is one in which the citizens got tired of living in an environment that was unsuitable for the quality of life they aspired to have. They, in essence, said, “We will not allow the rights of a small subset of people to supersede the rights of the majority of the community’s population.”

I asked those I spoke with where they think the homeless population went. I was told that many moved to the outskirts of town under the Interstate overpasses, some moved into the woods outside of town, some left town altogether, and many others finally sought the help they needed to end their addiction and homelessness issues. Please understand that I was there for only four days. I talked to a small group of people. I did not walk the entirety of the Austin Metro limits. I did not do a deep dive into the problem, the ballot initiative, or the actual outcomes of where the homeless eventually ended up. The research I have done since shows that there is still considered to be a homeless problem in Austin, but it is much less visible and is not impacting the day-to-day lives of the residents in the city itself. And my personal experience was that for four days I walked around a beautiful city, seeing no camps, seeing no drug use, seeing no garbage or human waste, and no panhandling.

So, it begs the questions of whether the community members getting sick of the problem was the real impetus for change, and if the creation of severe enough consequences enacted that change. And again, I get it. Who wants to be heard saying that enforcing the camping ban with jail is the answer to the problem? Then we might not sound compassionate, caring, kind, and evolved. We may be perceived as judgmental, selfish, and intolerant. But the person shooting drugs on the sidewalk, defecating in the alley, and setting up camps that block the right of way and cost the city thousands of dollars a week in services to deal with is not selfish? Oh, “They are sick,” we say. “They cannot help themselves,” we say. “We have to take care of them,” we say. Yes. All of those statements in the moment are true. But the individual also needs to WANT that help, and with that help should come expectations, effort, and accountability on their part.

Toward accountability

In the last op-ed I talked about the percentages of those who are homeless who suffer from the disease of addiction and are otherwise competent, capable human beings who have the ability to take care of themselves. I talked about how, in my experience, only consequences have proven to motivate the vast majority of people suffering from the disease of addiction to make real change. I was one of them. I have the evidence of working with dozens of them on a daily basis in my profession, and in my personal 12 Step recovery groups.

I am not uncompassionate, not unkind, not uncaring. Exactly the opposite. And I have seen after two years of being homeless on the street — and in over the 11 years of being in recovery and an addiction recovery and homeless provider — what actually works. And my experience, and the experience of thousands who have overcome similar struggles is that a person has to be willing, take personal responsibility for the rebuilding of their lives, and to be accountable to taking the steps necessary to do such. And, finally, they have to break the cycle of dependency on any organization, institution, or individual(s). Yes, we all need help. I needed help. There are many organizations who are trying to help with the best of intentions in the most authentic and genuine way they know how. They are doing good work.

Where most fall short is that they have no expectation that the individual to whom they are providing assistance will take responsibility for their own lives. Nor do they insist on an “off ramp” for the help they are providing. And the “housing first” model is an example of that.

Yes, housing is the first step to helping an individual who is homeless. You cannot effect change if a person is still in survival mode, trying to meet base needs on the street. Safety, shelter from the elements, food, sanitary services, and hygiene are the foundation upon which real change can begin to take place. Once you take an individual out of survival mode, you can then get them to focus on the root causes for the reasons that they have become homeless. The first step for anyone who is homeless means abstinence from drug and alcohol use, and thorough engagement in a recovery program. Then, once the brain chemistry reaches its baseline functioning, there can be a diagnosis for mental health issues. The majority of homeless will fall into the category of their addiction having caused their homelessness, not the mental health issues. For that smaller subset of individuals with legitimate, severe mental and physical health issues, that will mean an intensive clinical psychiatric and/or physical health setting.

Ending dependency

But housing is NOT the be-all, end-all answer. Along with housing, programs must require abstinence from all mind-altering substances, accountability for choices and actions, personal responsibility, and a path to self-sufficiency without dependence on any person, organization, or institution.

Most importantly there must be an “off ramp” to the assistance and services so that the individual gains the self-esteem that comes with the success of taking care of themselves and so that space and financial resources may be made available to help the next group of people in need. This will require the clients to WORK. To be employed. To learn to budget their money. To put a set amount in savings each month to build the resources that will allow for the ability to obtain a place to live outside of a program.

Additionally, the program needs to provide life-skills training. How to grocery shop, cook, clean, find proper and cost-effective transportation, learn effective time management skills, etc. You cannot just give someone a house and not have requirements for behavior or expectations for transitioning out of the programmatic housing. We’ve seen that model in the past in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Los Angeles. They are now referred to as “The Projects” and are one of the most dangerous places a person can live. I would rather be homeless than live in one of those housing models. Without accountability, any “housing first” or “housing with no expectations” model has an extremely high likelihood of eventually devolving into an environment similar to “The Projects.”

Should we utilize the “Housing First” model? Sure, with accountability, expectations on the part of the person being housed, the correct self-sufficiency training, and a plan for eventual transition out of the program into their own living environment without dependency on the government or other aid.

I know, there I go again, being uncompassionate. But this is my direct experience along with the experience of thousands of others I know and have helped. It works. Some call it tough love. I call it a human solution. There are no politics here. This is not a partisan issue. We are talking basic human values. Dignity. Respect for oneself. Pride. Effort. Progress. Growth. Improvement. Accountability to oneself and others. Honesty — not blaming anyone or anything for my circumstances. Responsibility. Community. Self-sufficiency. Happiness.

Stop kidding ourselves

Finally, there are going to be those who argue against these ideas and say that these people are victims and can’t help themselves. Again, I get it, and I’m done arguing. I have met thousands of people who willingly admit (now that they are recovered and have rebuilt their lives) that many addicts and homeless people have “learned the lingo” on what to say to have their needs met without then having to take any responsibility for themselves. It’s mental health, trauma, the economy, cost of housing, bad luck, abusive family member, etc.

Yes, these may be true. But in most cases, including my own and the many others who have shared with me, these are untruths. They are told because they either are embarrassed at their situation and can’t stop using substances, or they actually WANT to continue to live lives free of the responsibilities of work, paying taxes, paying rent, paying utilities, paying for transportation, having to be presentable. And they want to be able to continue using drugs and alcohol with impunity while their needs are met by the providers of services and other good Samaritans.

I will say to those who genuinely want to do good, enabling homeless people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol is not helping them. It is perpetuating the negative, dangerous, unhealthy lifestyle and ultimately putting them at risk of dying. We are causing more harm than good. Housing first? Yes. Harm reduction? Yes. Addiction treatment? Yes. But none of those will ultimately work without accountability, effort, and an expectation on the part of the individual to help themselves. Otherwise, it’s just more dependency.

I believe we can help to make a change. I believe that the homeless are capable of taking care of themselves and finding housing with a hand up from us. I believe that we can live in a community that we feel proud of. A community free of camps, human waste, garbage, and public drug use. A community that we feel is safe. Safe for us, safe for our children, safe for those who visit.

Until then, let’s hope that we as a community get fed up with the situation, with the “solutions” that have not been working, and with the exorbitant amount of money we are spending on them. We can make change, together, positively. But then again, I’m not all that compassionate am I?