Housing First: The Basics


On any given night in 2021 in Virginia’s Planning District 16, 180 individuals were experiencing homelessness. Of those 180 individuals 18 were living unsheltered – meaning that they were sleeping outside, in a tent, in a car, or some other place not meant for human habitation. Ideal circumstances would dictate that each individual living unsheltered be provided with a permanent housing option to get them off of the streets. This would effectively end homelessness for that person or family. However, not all systems circumstances are ideal and therefore there needs to be a variety of services available to help individuals and families overcome challenges they face and assist with the transition from living unsheltered or in unstable housing to living in permanent supportive housing. The Fredericksburg Regional Continuum of Care (CoC) strives to end homelessness by creating a system that is right sized to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief, and one-time. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the federal organization which establishes local CoCs throughout the nation and is the governing agency which provides authority to each CoC. Part of HUD’s strategic plan to end homelessness is the “Housing First Initiative” which serves to provide households experiencing homelessness with permanent housing, without pre-conditions, and have housing serve as a platform from which they can pursue their goals and improve their quality of life.  

The housing first model was derived from the ideas of two prominent sources: the Constitution and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  

First, the founding fathers of the United States said within our Constitution that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Second, Abraham Maslow, an American Psychologist, developed in 1943 the concept of a hierarchy of needs. The foundation for his hierarchy includes air, water, food, sleep, and shelter. Without these basic needs being met, it is challenging for a person to be able to meet their other needs.  

It then follows that shelter is at the foundation of basic needs for everyone to exercise their unalienable right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  

These are the premises behind the housing first model.  Housing first acknowledges that housing is at the center of an individual’s basic needs and that each individual deserves housing regardless of race, sex, gender, credit history, criminal record, ability or disability or other extenuating circumstances. Housing first is the idea that we place people into housing regardless of any other challenges that they may be facing and then wrap needed services around once stable. It is the idea that everyone is ready for housing and has the right to hold a home of their own.  

By providing individuals with housing first, they are able to meet their basic needs and move up Maslow’s hierarchy to reach other life goals. Housing provides the equity for all people to have the opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, because they are no longer worried about finding a place to lay their head at night and can focus their energy on finding stable employment, becoming healthy, rekindling personal relationships, or honing other talents unique to them. By placing individuals into housing first, service providers and community members are able to supply greater support in helping individuals to grow and excel in all of the areas that allow someone to rise to new levels of personal growth and achievement.  

The Fredericksburg Regional CoC utilizes this approach in their efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Housing First is a part of all strategies used. The belief that every person is entitled to housing is the foundation that the CoC builds their services and programs from. 

Housing affects each person’s ability to meet safety needs, establish meaningful relationships with their neighborhoods and communities, develop esteem, and reach a state of self-actualization. If someone’s housing is unstable and non-existent so are all of the other factors built upon that foundation.  

However, it is not just about all of the “feel-good” reasons for why everyone deserves housing, it is also a cost savings. Those experiencing homelessness are more likely to also interact with other community resource systems, such as health care, mental health, and criminal justice systems. In 2021, local municipal data shows that it costs: 

  • $1471 to spend the night in the medical hospital,  
  • $718 to spend a night in a psychiatric hospital,  
  • $68 to spend the night in jail, and  
  • $30 a night to spend the night in a homeless shelter.  

However, it only costs $20 a night to sleep in permanent housing.  

The act of providing housing alone cuts down on the number of interactions with these other systems and the cost to the community in supporting those experiencing homelessness in these other doors. Therefore, housing someone FIRST is the most cost-effective method to address homelessness within our region.  

In addition, the success rate of those that are in housing in dealing with the other issues that lead to their homelessness in the first place has dramatically increased. When you no longer have to think about where you are going to lay your head at night, you can focus your energies in building skills and resolving the other issues that lead to homelessness in the first place. Those who took part in one of the CoC’s Housing First housing programs are not returning to homelessness once they have completed the program.  

Recent numbers show that 92% of people that are going through one of the CoC’s permanent housing programs are not returning to homelessness within 2 years of financial aid and case management stops.