24 units to change 24 lives

The Housing First method to combat the chronic homelessness in Iowa City will be implemented in 2018.

Zach Wahls was making his way down the Iowa City ped mall when, for the first time, he saw a homeless person with a sign asking for money.

“I was quite young and I do not remember any of the details,” Wahls said in a speech at the Englert August 28th. “But I do remember the way it made me feel, which was that it tied my stomach up in knots and it didn’t feel very fair.”

That was eighteen years ago. Since then, Wahls has learned about the causes of deep poverty in the United States and factors contributing to both chronic and temporary homelessness in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. He has also become an advocate for Housing First.

“Housing First, simply, is the idea that the only requirement for housing should be homelessness, and that housing, like healthcare, is a right and not a privilege,” Wahls said.

The Johnson County Homeless Coordinating Board proposed the Housing First method as an option to reduce local homelessness and they have been working with Shelter House since 2014.

“In the last two years, Shelter House has really taken ownership of the project,” said Housing First Program Manager Laura Iosbaker.

Shelter House will begin construction in 2018 on a building to follow the Housing First model. Shelter House has provided refuge and services for decades to people struggling with homelessness in Iowa City and the Housing First project is their latest step in combating it.

The 24-unit building will have front desk staff who will provide 24 hour desk coverage, as well as case managers who will assist the residents in meeting their personal goals such as employment, sobriety or purchasing groceries.

Housing First provides permanent supportive housing to the chronically homeless, who make up four to five percent of the homeless population.

“These are individuals who aren’t able to succeed using the standard availability that we have,” Iosbaker said.

The Housing First model was created by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in New York in 1992. The method has since been adopted in cities across the country including Los Angeles, Charlotte and Minneapolis. The Iowa City building will be the first implementation of Housing First in Iowa.

In other communities, Housing First has resulted in a decrease in hospitalization, emergency room visits and shelter use, according to Pathways Housing First.

“It shows on average a 60 percent decrease in cost to the community… also it decreases the population of homelessness in the streets,” Iosbaker said.

What’s unique about Housing First from other approaches is the idea of providing housing so it is easier for people to reach goals, such as employment and sobriety. Other approaches are based on incentivizing people to overcome obstacles on their own and find steady work so they are able to afford housing. However, these incentivized methods are not as effective because it is easier for people to meet their goals in a structured system.

The ability to move someone who lacks housing into a permanent, supportive housing … is life changing.”

— Zach Wahls

“The ability to move someone who lacks housing into a permanent, supportive housing with the assistance to, if needed, get clean, get sober, generate income, build a social network with peers, … is life changing,” said Wahls.

Housing First is expected to benefit both the city economically and the chronically homeless in providing stability and bringing them out of isolation.

“I believe that this is a particularly important piece for our community,” said Wahls. “It’s no secret that those of us who live in Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, University Heights and the rest of Johnston County pride ourselves on our commitment to justice. Ending chronic homelessness here in our community must be a part of that commitment and it is within our grasps.”

Infographics by Mary Vander Weg