Housing First has been the foundation of the work of Calgary Homeless Foundation since 2008, when Calgary became the first city in Canada to launch a 10-year Plan to End Homelessness.
Seven years later, the city introduced the philosophy of People First to ensure our collective efforts to provide housing to our most vulnerable citizens also recognized their unique needs.
From the outset, Housing First has focused on serving people experiencing chronic homelessness. Paired with the philosophy of People First, however, it has grown to encompass other vulnerable populations, including youth, families, and women fleeing domestic violence.
Today, Housing First and People First are the guiding philosophies for all agencies (including Calgary Homeless Foundation) that forming the Homeless-Serving System of Care (HSSC), a system that provides housing programs and supports to people experiencing homelessness.
What does Housing First mean?
Housing First aims to move people into housing quickly before providing supports and services as needed. It consists of five principles:
Immediate access to permanent housing with no requirements;
Consumer choice and self-determination;
Individualized and client-driven supports, and
Social and community integration
These principles are important, because they ensure that all efforts to end homelessness are focused on people and their rights, including those encompassed under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that “[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…housing.”
This people-centric focus represents a major shift in the approach to homelessness. Previously, agencies applied a “housing readiness” approach. Under this approach, it was thought that people experiencing homelessness had to be “ready” to comply with certain conditions like sobriety or abstinence before they could move out of shelters into transitional and permanent housing.
In contrast, Housing First begins with the principle that people must have permanent housing first before they can successfully address the issues contributing to their experience of homelessness. Housing First is therefore the belief that everyone deserves housing, no matter what challenges they face.
What does People First mean?
The principle of Housing First is informed by the philosophy of People First, which recognizes there is no “one size fits all” approach to housing or supports.
Under the People First philosophy, people have the power to choose the programs and supports that will serve them best in their journey towards recovery and permanent housing. These services include medical and psychiatric treatment, as well as case management services like skills training and counselling.
This freedom of choice is critical to helping individuals with unique needs such as Indigenous peoples, youth, families with children, people with disabilities, women, immigrants, and seniors.
Housing First is therefore more than just the provision of housing. Paired with the philosophy of People First, it is about ensuring that people, their rights and their unique needs remain at the centre of all efforts to end homelessness in Calgary.
How does Housing First work in practice?
Housing First has taken different forms depending on the city and the agency.
In New York City, where Housing First was popularized in the 90s, a non-profit organization called Pathways to Housing used rent subsidies to place people into market housing. It then deployed a team of clinicians, including psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, to help people address the individual issues that had put them at risk of homelessness.
When Housing First was introduced in Calgary, agencies such as the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS) implemented programs aimed at quickly housing and supporting individuals and families. Over the past decade, Calgary Homeless Foundation and partner agencies have created more than 2,184 housing program spaces based on the philosophy of Housing First.
How effective is Housing First?
Since 2009, 71% of clients in Housing First programs funded by Calgary Homeless Foundation have achieved housing stability, according to Our Living Legacy, a report on Calgary’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness.
In addition to successfully placing clients in stable housing, Housing First is also a cost-effective approach to addressing homelessness.
A study conducted by Calgary Homeless Foundation and The School of Public Policy found that it costs less to provide people with housing than to have them use short-term public services such as hospitals, emergency rooms, police services, prisons and courts.
This study, entitled “Cost Savings of Housing First in a Non-Experimental Setting,” examined data from homeless-serving agencies covering focused on single adults and their use of public services before and after their entry into Housing First programs during a five-year period from April 2012 from March 2017.
According to the study, hospital visits, ER visits and police interactions decreased once an individual entered a Housing First program. High system users cost the public system an average of $87,000 per year. Once a person was housed, though, that cost dropped to $30,500 per year.
Calgary Homeless Foundation’s 2018-19 Grant Accountability Review for the Provincial Government of Alberta arrived at a similar conclusion.The review revealed that Housing First has led to several reductions in the use of public systems by individuals experiencing homelessness. These included:
Days in jail: 75% reduction
Interactions with police: 73.5% reduction
Days in hospital: 45.1% reduction
ER visits: 27% reduction
Court appearances: 33.2% reduction
Housing First is therefore a cost-effective way of providing housing stability for people experiencing homelessness.
Calgary Homeless Foundation
Rocky Mountain Plaza
Suite 1500, 615 Macleod Trail SE
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2G 4T8